Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Honduras prison fire kills hundreds

At least 300 prisoners have been killed after a massive fire swept through a jail in Honduras, officials say.

Many victims were burned or suffocated to death in their cells in Comayagua, north of the capital Tegucigalpa.

The officials say at least 300 are confirmed dead, but a further 56 inmates, out of the 853 in the prison, are missing and presumed dead.

Relatives of prisoners clashed with police as they tried to force their way into the prison, desperate for news.

Police responded by firing shots into the air and tear gas.

An inquiry is under way whether the blaze was caused by rioting or an electrical fault.

Honduran President Lobo pledged a "full and transparent" investigation into the "lamentable and unacceptable" tragedy.

He said local and national prison authorities would be suspended while the inquiry was conducted.

Police fired tear gas as relatives tried to break into the prison's main building
'Hellish' scenes
The fire broke out late on Tuesday night and took more than an hour to be brought under control.

Dozens of prisoners died trapped in their cells and were burned beyond recognition.

Fire survivor: 'We had to break on to the roof to be able to get out'
Comayagua firefighters' spokesman Josue Garcia said there were "hellish" scenes at the prison and that desperate inmates had rioted in a bid to escape the flames.

"We couldn't get them out because we didn't have the keys and couldn't find the guards who had them," he said.

One prisoner, who managed to escape, later told reporters that he first had heard "the screams of the ones (inmates) on fire and everyone just started fearing for their lives".

"The only thing that we were able to do was start breaking the roof apart so we could go out from above. We started ripping apart the ceiling above us."

Lucy Marder, who heads the forensic services in Comayagua, said that 356 people on the prison roster were unaccounted for.

It was feared many inmates had fled the prison in Comayagua, about 100km (60 miles) north of the capital Tegucigalpa.

Amid the confusion, relatives gathered outside the prison to try to get information.

"I'm looking for my brother. We don't know what's happened to him and they won't let us in," Arlen Gomez told Honduran radio.

Local hospitals are treating dozens of people for burns and other injuries.

Authorities have yet to establish a cause of the fire
Some of the injured have been taken to Tegucigalpa for treatment, among them 30 people with severe burns.

Firefighters said they had struggled to enter the prison because shots had been fired.

Honduran media reported that there had been a riot in the prison before the fire broke out.

Prison service head Daniel Orellana denied this.

"We have two hypotheses. One is that a prisoner set fire to a mattress and the other one is that there was a short-circuit in the electrical system," he was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Prisons in Honduras, which has the world's highest murder rate, are often seriously overcrowded and hold many gang members.

Recent deadliest prison fires

Dec 2010 - 81 are killed at Santiago's jail in Chile. The fire started during a fight between rival gangs
Nov 10 - 16 die at Ilobasco's juvenile prison, El Salvador, in the blaze blamed on an electrical short-circuit
May 04 - 107 die at San Pedro Sula's jail, Honduras. An electrical fault reportedly caused the fire
Sept 03 - 67 inmates die at Riyadh's prison in Saudi Arabia. The cause is unknown
"The majority could be dead, though others could have suffered burns, escaped or survived," Ms Marder said.

15 February 2012

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Analysis technique could help to identify bodies more reliably

A new corpse-analysis technique could help forensic scientists identify bodies more reliably and cheaply than with current methods.

Researchers from the University of Granada in Spain developed a method of comparing a set of reference points on a skull and those on a picture of the subject while they were alive to see if they match.

Lead researcher on the project Fernando Merino said this craniofacial superimposition technique was faster and more reliable than other forensic identification methods.
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‘As this technique is much less expensive, forensic scientists might use it firstly and, only when necessary, resort then to other techniques.

‘This technique can be complementary to other techniques, as it can serve to discard potential identities before using more expensive or slower identification techniques, such as DNA analysis.’

In particular, the researchers think the new technique could be useful for identifying a corpse from among multiple bodies, for example following a mass disaster, by significantly reducing possible candidates.

To carry out the study, the researchers used a sample of CAT scan images from 500 people and determined the spatial relationship between each point on both the skull and the photo of the face to obtain a vector between them that could be applied to any sample.

The researchers then applied this technique to real cases where only a skull was available in order to verify their results using a 3D virtual model of the skull.


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Missing War Victims Identified in Zagreb

[ZAGREB] Nine exhumed victims of the war in Croatia were identified on Monday by their families in Zagreb, leaving a total of 1,768 missing persons yet to be found in Croatia.

Victims identified yesterday at Zagreb Judiciary medicine institute were exhumed in the Vukovar and Sisak areas of Croatia as well as in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ten families were invited to identification, but one did not come.

Five of the identified men were Croatian soldiers during the war. The status of the other victims wasn't revealed, nor it was explained what happened to those exhumed in Bosnia.

Croatian veterans minister Predrag Matic was at the identification, expressing condolences to the families. "We won't leave off until we have found the last missing person," Matic said.

"All hopes that your relatives could be found alive have vanished, but you have bravely carried that burden. The government and war veterans ministry will support you in all your difficulties. We are here to help you," Matic said.

Of a total of 1,768 missing from the war in Croatia, 984 disappeared in the second half of 1991 and first half of 1992, when Serb forces were expelling Croatians from their homes. Most of those missing are of Croatian nationality.

From the period May to August 1995, when the Croatian army retook Serb-controlled territories, 784 persons, mostly Serbs, remain missing. For years Croatia didn't recognize those people as equal victims, but that has changed in recent years under international pressure.

According to the war veterans ministry, at the climax of war in 1991, about 18,000 people were missing in Croatia. Today, the fates of more than 16,000 have been solved one way or another.

Until today, from 143 mass graves and more than 1,200 individual graves 3,780 victims of the war in 1991/1992 have been exhumed, of whom 3,189 victims were identified.

In addition, 809 victims from Croatian army operations Flash and Storm in 1995 have been exhumed, out of which 489 were identified.

14 February 2012

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PNG ferry death toll likely to rise to at least 200

THE death toll from the sinking of the passenger ferry MV Rabaul Queen off the Papua New Guinea coast two weeks ago is likely to be more than 200 - double the previous official estimate - according to the director of the disaster response effort.

A preliminary list of 183 missing was published in a national newspaper yesterday, together with an appeal to relatives and friends for help in confirming the final tally.

With the search for survivors and bodies likely to be called off tomorrow, 14 days after the overloaded ferry sank in heavy seas on the way from Kimbe, on the island of New Britain, to the mainland port of Lae, officials are still trying to reconcile reports of missing passengers with the ''defective'' passenger manifest provided by the shipping company, said Patilias Gamato, director of the disaster response and deputy administrator of Morobe Province.
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Three life rafts from the MV Rabaul Queen float above the sunken hull of the ferry in the open waters off Papua New Guinea's east coast.

Life rafts from the MV Rabaul Queen float above the sunken hull of the ferry. Photo: AP

Mr Gamato said that according to witness accounts there were more than 560 passengers on the ferry, which was licensed to carry 310 people.

Similar reports have been running hot on PNG's social media sites, where distress and anger over the tragedy is compounded by continuing political chaos, concerns over eroding safety systems and the failure of regulators to enforce rules.

Yesterday, the Morobe Disaster Centre published an unconfirmed list of 183 names of missing passengers in the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier.

''This is a preliminary list because the manifest is not accurate, so we are inviting relatives to contact us,'' Mr Gamato said. He told The Age that he expected that the final list of missing, presumed drowned would total more than 200. Mr Gamato said 234 rescued people had been confirmed as survivors. Despite an extensive search, just four bodies have been recovered so far: that of a two-year-old boy, and those of three young women. ''This week we've found only debris and clothes.''

Kimbe buried the first of its dead in an emotional service last weekend. Belinda Kembu, 28, had been on a visit home to Kimbe to tell her family of her betrothal, according to local reporter Alexander Nara. Having gained her parents' blessing she sent a text message to her fiance when she boarded the ferry back to Lae, saying: ''I will bring you to Kimbe sooner than you expect.'' Six days later, he escorted her body home.

According to survivor accounts, many people travelling on lower decks would have been trapped when the vessel capsized and sank in three to four-metre swells. Mothers, infants and small children dominate the list of the known missing. Many of the survivors were students and teachers on their way to the mainland for the new school year.

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has asked the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to investigate the tragedy. ''We can't engage our own people, mainly because they will be subjected to the investigation too,'' he said. ''Those that are found to be negligent in this disaster will face the law, this is the biggest and worst sea disaster we have had in the country.''

Mr O'Neill has also announced an independent inquiry by retired Australian judge Warwick Andrews.

In the days after the sinking, PNG Transport Minister Francis Awesa said he could have predicted the disaster given the state of the country's vessels and complacent attitudes over safety.

February 15, 2012

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‘Keep records of moles, scars, tattoos’

A leading forensic pathologist has urged families, especially those living in disaster-prone areas, to keep files on each member’s distinguishing marks such as scars, tattoos and moles, and have copies of fingerprints and dental records on hand to make identification easier in case tragedy strikes.

Dr. Raquel del Rosario-Fortun of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine pathology department said the suggestion was prompted by the experience of a group of UP alumni who went to Iligan City last month to help find survivors of Tropical Storm “Sendong.”

Fortun said she was haunted by the photos of missing persons and the numerous corpses in varying states of decomposition awaiting identification that she saw in two funeral parlors.

Had there been more detailed descriptions accompanying the photos, it was possible the authorities would have been able to make faster matches with the corpses, she said.

Fortun, who joined Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III at the Kapihan sa Senado media forum last week, was part of a five-woman forensic team that volunteered their services in Iligan City for three days.

“All details (on one’s body) can potentially help. You cannot anticipate (incidents like this). Once the bodies are fragmented and markedly decomposed, details found in soft tissues, like moles and tattoos, are the first to go,” she said.

Other descriptions such as body piercings, height, weight, build and hair color can help. Even medical histories could provide vital leads.

“Locations of fractures are significant, especially when the soft tissues (are gone). A healed fracture could give us clues, so could postoperative scars,” Fortun explained.

“Once a body is retrieved, a possible match could be made (more quickly). Even a person’s handedness could help. An anthropologist could help us determine even (left- or right-handedness) of a headless body. These details taken altogether (could), at least, give presumptive identification clues,” she said.

Geologist and geohazard expert Mahar Lagmay, another UP alumnus, said Fortun’s suggestions were applicable even to families not living in known disaster-risk areas.

Lagmay said natural calamities had become so unpredictable that even those who believe they are out of harm’s way should take precautions.

Fortun said “definitive” information such as fingerprints, dental records and DNA samples provided the best clues.

Fingers gone

However, as in the case of a family that brought along a missing relative’s NBI clearance that had his fingerprints, it would not be much help if the fingers had decomposed.

Fortun also recalled the case of a family that showed a photo of a missing man with decayed front teeth and a large mole near his lower lip.

“Obviously, since he had dental caries that were visible in photos, it could mean we could do away with dental records. But pictures of smiling people that show obvious facial characteristics are a big help,” she said.

Fortun noted that children comprised a large number of the flood victims.

Newborn DNA

“Children usually do not have fingerprint records. This is where dental records can become crucial. Although now I think that with mandatory newborn screening, they have DNA records on file,” she said.

Fortun said the authorities retrieving cadavers should also record where and how the bodies were found.

“Those areas should be treated as crime scenes since they could provide vital clues. In the case of Iligan, it would have helped if those who retrieved the bodies also noted the flow of the water, where the bodies had come from and, if possible, how many kilometers from the communities the bodies were found,” she said.

Fortun noted that while the National Bureau of Investigation was involved in national disaster efforts, it seemed that it was not coordinating with the Philippine National Police in collecting details about missing persons.

“Antemortem information would be useless if it cannot be compared with an examination of the dead. Here is where coordination comes in,” she said.

Philippine Daily Inquirer
4:14 am | Monday, January 9th, 2012

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