Saturday, 24 November 2012

Nine dead and over 100 injured after fire rips through clothing factory in Bangladesh

A fire swept through a garment factory on the outskirts of Bangladesh's capital on Saturday, killing at least nine people and injuring more than 100, police and witnesses said.

The fire at the nine-story factory in the Ashulia industrial belt started on the ground floor and quickly spread. Firefighters took nearly five hours to extinguish the flames.

Most of the victims died as they jumped from the building to escape the flames, a police official said.

The death toll could rise, witnesses said.

The cause of the blaze was not immediately clear.

Bangladesh has around 4,500 garment factories that make clothes for brands including Tesco, Wal-Mart, JC Penney, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Kohl's and Carrefour.

Readymade garments make up 80 percent of the country's $24 billion annual exports.

Fire Department Control Room Official Mohammad Ali however would not confirm any casualty figures, but said firefighters are trying to douse the flames racing through the factory operated by Tajnin Fashion.

Saturday 24 November 2012

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14 killed in northern China restaurant explosion

An explosion at a restaurant in northern China has killed 14 people and injured 47.

The government of Shouyang county in Shanxi province says on its official website that a gas leak caused the blast and triggered a fire Friday evening at the Xinyangyang hotpot restaurant.

The official Xinhua News Agency says six people were killed at the scene and eight others died at a hospital. Seventeen people were severely injured.

Xinhua says the explosion was so powerful that it shattered the windows of the two-story building that houses the restaurant and shops.

Hotpot dining is popular among Chinese, with diners gathering around a steaming pot in which they cook meats and vegetables.

Restaurant explosions are common in China, though a death toll this high is rare.

Saturday 24 November 2012

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A cruise for cremains

Yet another passenger ship could be about to anchor in Hong Kong's popular waters, but berths aboard this particular vessel will be more permanent.

New sketches from a company in the city on China's southern coast have proposed the creation of a floating cemetery. Designed as a possible solution to Hong Kong's shortage building space -- particularly for graveyards - Bread Studio has come up with "Floating Eternity."

The structure would hold a rotating wall of 370,000 niches which are compartments allotted for people to place their urn containing the remains of their loved ones. Designed like a cruise ship, the floating cemetery would anchor along Hong Kong's coastline, docking at a designated pier for visitors who want to visit their deceased relatives.

"Architects are always made to think about life when designing buildings but not many think about death," said Benny Lee, a designer at Bread Studio. "I was watching TV and saw a group of people encouraged by the government to scatter their loved ones' ashes in the sea and noticed that the boat they were using to transport people out was really small. I thought why not make that boat bigger, better and more enjoyable for families."

"Floating Eternity" would also offer amenities for its visitors. Complimenting Chinese rituals that involve bringing food during cemetery visits, the floating cemetery plans to have a grass deck for people to set up picnics or a restaurant onboard.

This would be particularly popular during the city's Cheung Yeung and Ching Ming Festival, where many Hong Kong residents pay homage to their deceased ancestors by spending their day at cemeteries.

"The design also focuses on plenty of greenery with bamboo gardens; something you don't see in the stony graveyards in Hong Kong despite them being chiseled into hills because there's simply no space," said Lee.

The structure is also eco-conscious -- its columbarium wall, which would sit on a rail track, would be powered by tidal energy. This allows the walls to travel around the track giving all niches an equal chance for the best position on the cruise; an important aspect of feng shui - the art of placement prominent in Chinese culture - where the position of the lot affects the price for it.

The concept is bizarre yet it gives Hong Kong a glimpse into its near future. With its bay of glitzy skyscrapers and a population of over 7.1 million, space to build is increasingly scarce and developers are being pushed out of packed central locations. Recently, a CBRE Global Research and Consulting survey named Hong Kong the world's most expensive retail space at US$3,863 per sf annum, topping New York.

Hong Kong also has an aging population.

According to the Hong Kong Consensus and Statistics Department in late July, the number of deaths is expected to rise from about 42,700 per year currently to about 82,400 at the end of the next 20 years.

A shortage of space coupled with a rise in death rates has caused a shortage of plot space for the deceased and a subsequent rise in costs for it.

"A floating cemetery is the next natural step in Hong Kong's history of graveyards," said Lee.

Cemetery sites have been evolving since the 1940s where the dead were buried in graves on flat land to the 1960s where feng shui dictated that some graves should be positioned on high hillsides near villages. Towards the 1980s, columbarium became the preferred place for the dead. Traditionally housed in temples, they offer locker-style compartments for people to place the ashes of their loved ones. Columbarium also took the form of buildings however, in recent years, people have objected to living in such close proximity to them and their rising prices (private columbaria costs in Hong Kong range between US$645 to US$25,604). As a result, illegal columbaria have mushroomed in various areas around Hong Kong.

A maritime mortuary is yet to set sail along a coastline in any part of the world. However, there have been other unusual options for storing the dead. In Sweden, it is legal to freeze bodies in a posthumous bath of liquid nitrogen before blasting them and reducing them to powder.

In Tokyo, Japan, mechanical tombs are used where families swipe smart cards to lift the urns from an underground vault and access the ashes of their loved ones; a solution Hong Kong was reportedly looking into three years ago.

"We're aware that the wall of columbarium on the floating cemetery will also, at some point, reach its limit so we suggest stacking up additional storeys on top of the wall," said Lee. "But most importantly, it's a short-term alternative. Who knows, we could be seeing a sea of floating cemeteries in a few years from now."

Saturday 24 November 2012

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Survivor tells of boat tragedy near Christmas island

Thirty-three would-be asylum seekers have drowned on their way to Christmas Island in a boat tragedy that would have gone unrecorded if one man had not miraculously survived.

Habib Ullah, 22, has told Fairfax Media how he survived three days in the water while watching his fellow asylum seekers, all men from Afghanistan and Pakistan, drowning one by one.

Mr Habib said the men had seen two or three passing boats, including an oil tanker and a large container vessel, which had not stopped to pick them up. He was not certain if they had been spotted.

On the verge of death, he was finally picked up by a passing Indonesian fishing boat and taken to Jakarta.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and the Indonesian search and rescue agency, Basarnas, have separately confirmed that they have no record of the vessel.

But Mr Habib, who is now in immigration detention in Jakarta, has been overwhelmed by distressed relatives from Australia who have heard nothing from their loved ones and are begging him for details.

He said he had paid $US5500 ($5300) to people smuggler Sikander, on the basis of gossip among refugees in Indonesia that ''he succeeded in taking many boats'' to Australia.

They set off in the early hours of October 26 but after about 13 hours of sailing towards Christmas Island, enough to take them about halfway to their destination, the engine and all the pumps stopped.

The satellite phone Sikander provided would not work, so their attempts to phone in their distress to AMSA failed. About 2am the following day, the boat sank. The asylum seekers, most of whom had personal flotation devices, grabbed ropes to keep together. Mr Habib was with 25 others clinging to one rope.

''On the first day there was hope. Everyone was optimistic,'' he said. ''We were praying, saying there will be an island, there will be a boat.

''On the second day, some people, they lost control, shouting and crying, saying, 'No one will help us.' One guy was in very bad condition. He lost his grip of the rope and went away and he was screaming, crying a few times. After that we didn't hear him any more.

''Then time was passing, night was coming, and the day passing, losing friends. I would see dead bodies coming from the right side, left side. Everyone, one by one, was waiting for their turn because everyone knew that there may not be help, there may not be any chance for a second life.

''Some guys got crazy, they were talking and fighting, they let go of the rope and went away. On the third night there were seven people on the rope, but … in the morning, there were only three people left including me.

''Those guys, their health condition was really bad … one was trying to drown because he was very thirsty and he was very hungry. So he drowned before my eyes.

''On the third day, after they had all died, I was on the ocean from morning to 3pm. I was exhausted, thirsty, tired, hot, pain in my stomach, pain in my kidneys, there was fear of storm, fear of sharks. And I think it was the last moment of my life when the boat came to me.''

Mr Habib was picked up by an Indonesian-based fishing boat, and nursed back to health by the crew before being transferred to a second boat that took him to Jakarta. He is now in the Kuningan immigration detention facility in central Java.

One of the many who have asked Mr Habib for news of their relatives is Australian resident Reza Shafaie, who came to Indonesia to find his cousin, Ali Noori, 17, and uncle, Ali Barati.

Mr Shafaie now believes both died in the sinking, though other families in Australia are not yet convinced.

''They really cry, but they told us to keep searching those areas. They say, 'Maybe there is an island.' Still they have hope.''

Muhammad Rezaie, of Dandenong, also came to search, but he has given up hope for nephew, Enayatullah Hussaini, and friends.

Mr Rezaie, who came to Australia by boat in 2001, said he had begged his nephew not to take the risk. ''I told him, 'The rules have changed, they'll send you to Nauru.' But he didn't listen because his friends push him, 'Let's go together.' The people smuggler was also pushing,'' he said.

Mr Rezaie and Mr Shafaie said they had both spoken to Sikander by phone and he had at first denied their relatives had died, saying the boat was safe on Christmas Island. He later admitted the boat had sunk.

Saturday 24 November 2012

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32 years later, fatal MGM fire remembered

Two distant, black columns of smoke caught John Pappageorge's eye as he drove to work on a crisp, 38-degree morning in November 1980.

Pappageorge, then a deputy chief with the Clark County Fire Department, wondered if the smoke might be coming from a pile of tires on fire. Or was it a building?

Before he could make a call on his two-way radio to find out, a voice from Fire Control crackled over the speakers.

"We have a report of a fire in a building in The Deli of the MGM, entrance No. 2. That's entrance No. 2 to the MGM for The Deli."

Within seconds, Pappageorge heard the first firefighters reporting in over the radio. But he had no idea what that day was about to bring — the second-deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history.

When it was over, the Nov. 21, 1980, fire killed 85 people and injured nearly 700 more. It could have been worse — there were 4,000 to 5,000 people in the building, including 3,400 guests.

The tragedy became a wake-up call that eventually spurred new safety codes and regulations for high-rise buildings that were adopted nationwide.

But on the day of the blaze, the resort resembled a war zone. Helicopters swirled through heavy smoke, plucking victims from the roof. Firefighters swarmed - 550 in all. Body after body was pulled from the building, so many that the refrigerated morgue at the Coroner's Office couldn't hold them.

Despite the passage of 32 years, the sights and sounds of the day remain scorched in the collective memories of the firefighters who were there.

"I absolutely believe what they did way back then was heroic," Pappageorge said. "The fact that they went in and got so many people out was unbelievable ... God knows how many more would have died if they hadn't have done that job. They are absolutely heroes."

First a spark, then a fireball

Sometime in the early morning hours, before The Deli opened, an electrical wire began sparking behind a wall of the restaurant.

How long it went unnoticed is not known, said Lorne Lomprey, who was then a captain and fire investigator.

The monster first revealed itself after 7 a.m., when flames broke out of the wall and into a waitresses' service station at The Deli.

A kitchen worker who had just arrived for work had a chance to put out the fire with a hose. But as he sprayed the flames, he was warned by another Deli worker not to put water on the electrical fire.

The blaze grew quickly, devouring everything in its path inside the ground-floor restaurant — wall coverings, cabinets, chairs and dining booths. As the fire grew out of control, the security staff called the fire department at 7:16 a.m. And a public address operator in the security office downstairs was instructed to make an announcement to evacuate the casino.

The operator made the announcement twice for emphasis, prompting those in the casino to grab their chips, cash and belongings and run to the exits. Casino operators and others working below the gaming floor described the noise above them sounding like a "herd of elephants." The operators were told to leave.

But high above the casino floor, those in the hotel tower had no idea the mayhem that was unfolding. In the confusion, no alarm was manually sounded to warn guests in the tower.

By 7:18 a.m., two minutes after the call came in to Station 11, Bert Sweeney and a few other firefighters from the station arrived at the MGM Grand and entered the hotel.

Sweeney, now 66, remembers getting 40 or 50 feet inside. "That's when we saw the finger of smoke coming out of The Deli," he said.

Sweeney saw people running away from the smoke to the exit, but there were still some people on the casino floor.

Then, Sweeney said, "we saw the fireball come out of The Deli. ... It bounced once off the casino floor at the very end of the casino and went up, and I think it hit the ceiling."

Sweeney looked at his helmet. The heat had melted part of his face visor into a clump of plastic. Looking through the doors, firefighters could see an inferno of swirling flames.

Back into the belly of the fire

Carrying heavy, 2 1/2-inch water lines, the firefighters fought their way back into the burning casino.

As they worked their way inside, Sweeney felt glops of something falling on him from above. The tiles and adhesive on the ceiling were melting.

"It was kind of a weird sensation. It was melting like gum," Sweeney said.

Jerry Bendorf, then a 35-year-old rookie fire captain, was stunned by the scene in front of him as he arrived. The pressure from the casino fireball had gone into the sewer and blown the covers off the manholes on Flamingo Road, causing smoke to pour from the openings. Flames consuming the valet canopy had spread to the line of empty vehicles underneath it.

Then came, perhaps, the most terrifying sight.

As debris rained down from above — shards of window glass — Bendorf looked up. Frightened hotel guests, waving and yelling for help, were on their balconies and leaning out of smashed windows as smoke poured through the tower.

Firefighters shouted back, urging people not to jump.

That's about the time Bill Lowe, then a 37-year-old engineer paramedic, entered from the front entrance to help put out the remaining smaller fires scattered about the casino floor.

There were bodies all around. Eighteen people were found dead in the casino. City firefighters, who also responded, "had pointed out and said they'd found a cocktail waitress who was burned and to just make sure you didn't step on her," Lowe said.

Disaster on the upper floors

According to separate reports by the National Fire Protection Association and the Clark County Fire Department, firefighters confined the blaze to the casino level in a little more than an hour. But while the fire was being contained, the worst part of the tragedy had already been playing out in the hotel's T-shaped tower. The tower had been drawing up the black smoke like a chimney, sending deadly fumes into the hallways of thousands of guests who were just waking up.

Because no alarms were sounded, most guests didn't realize what was happening until they heard or saw fire engines, smelled smoke or heard people yelling and knocking on doors.

Many guests in lower levels managed to get downstairs when they realized the hotel was on fire, coming outside to find firefighters and emergency medical personnel waiting to help them.

John Jersey, then a 33-year-old firefighter paramedic, and his partner, Jim Perkins, methodically combed for survivors through the north tower, carrying only a few bottles of air. Room by room, they pounded on doors, kicking them in if they weren't answered and making sure they got people out.

"You just kick into a mode and do what you were trained to do. There is no thought about what is going on outside the fire," Jersey said.

Jersey hadn't seen so many bodies since he was a Green Beret reconnaissance specialist in Vietnam. He and Perkins found bodies in rooms, in halls, in the elevator lobby. They were on beds, in corners of their rooms and in bathtubs. Some had their faces covered with towels.

"I think we tagged about 42 people altogether," said Perkins, who also says he is still haunted by the memories.

The difference for survival seemed to be whether guests had broken out the windows or opened their hallway doors. If they opened their doors, smoke would come in from the hallways. If they opened windows, smoke might come in from the floors below — or be blown in by the rotors of the large Air Force helicopters landing on the roof.

"The ones that kept doors shut and had stuffed towels under doors (and into room vents), they were OK," Perkins said.

To search, the two would crawl below the layer of smoke on one side of the hallway and knock loudly on each door. If no one opened it, they would kick it in. Once in the room, they would search in the bathrooms, under the beds and in the closets. Then they would go to the other side of the hallway and do the same thing in each room. It took 30 to 45 minutes per floor, Jersey said.

One floor in particular still brings back disturbing memories for Perkins, who was then 31 years old.

"We saw a big pile of people with their arms wrapped around each other in front of the elevator," he said. "There were probably 10 to 12 people who had died in each other's arms. It's something I've had nightmares about ever since."

Perkins remembers going into one room and finding the bodies of two people who had succumbed to the toxic smoke and fumes.

"And the very next room, there were two couples who were sitting at the coffee table drinking tequila and partying," he said, remembering the ironic scene.

Most of the survivors could walk, but Perkins and Jersey had to carry many people to the roof above the 23rd floor.

Once on the roof, the survivors were evacuated by helicopter. The Air Force dispatched a heavy-lift helicopter and other choppers that evacuated 300 people from the roof and another dozen trapped on balconies. The firefighters would then go down to the next floor and get another group.

In some rooms, Bendorf, the rookie fire captain, found that victims had managed to scribble messages to loved ones on the mirror before taking their last breath.

Firefighter Skip Miller remembers carrying out about 10 bodies. He put them on gurneys and took them to the roof, where they were loaded onto helicopters and taken to the county morgue.

"Every now and then, one would slide off the gurney. And it would be total silence because we had to put them back on," Miller said. "And the worst part about it was they looked like they were just sleeping because there was no trauma. That's what made it pretty sad."

The aftermath and recovery

In the end, investigators traced the source of the fire to faulty wiring in the kitchen. And because most of the fatalities were caused by the way the fire and smoke spread so quickly, county and state lawmakers retooled fire safety and building codes from top to bottom.

Hotel operators were required to install sprinklers everywhere in their buildings — there were none in The Deli kitchen at the MGM Grand. New codes made sure barriers would keep smoke from spreading from floor to floor.

Today, county fire and building inspectors say Las Vegas' resorts are among the safest, if not the safest, in the world.

After the fire, MGM restored the hotel, which sustained about $50 million damage. On July 30, 1981, the hotel reopened — this time with a $5 million fire safety system that exceeded the new fire safety codes in place.

Less than two weeks later, the new system would be put to a real-life test, according to the book "The Day the MGM Grand Hotel Burned," by Deirdre Coakley with Hank Greenspun, Gary C. Gerard and the staff of the Las Vegas Sun.

"When sparks from a welder's torch caused insulation material to smolder, automatic alarms went off in rooms on two upper floors and guests were told via the public-address system to remain in their rooms and tune in to a closed-circuit TV channel for instructions," the book said. "The incident was minor, there was no evacuation, and the new fire-safety system worked exactly as it was meant to do."

As for the men who fought the fire, seven of them came together for a reunion recently to talk about their memories from that day. For most, it was the first time they had talked to each other about what they had seen and done that day. The reunion was cathartic for some, but overwhelming for one.

Up to that point, Bert Sweeney, described by his friends as a "Godzilla" for his physical strength as a young man, had no trouble talking about the fire. But after listening to his fellow firefighters tell their stories, he fell silent.

When it was his turn to talk, his voice cracked and he drooped his head, unable to continue.

He apologized. But he had no reason to.

Every man in the room had been there before.

Saturday 24 November 2012

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Sandy debris in New York creates inviting spots to dump bodies

A forester working for New York City’s parks department made a horrifying discovery last week, beside a huge pile of fallen trees destined for the wood chipper.

A dead man.

And with that discovery on Nov. 15, add this to the huge list of troubles Hurricane Sandy has brought to the neighborhoods hit hardest: wreckage from the storm seems to have created inviting spots for killers to dump bodies.

Hours after the discovery, in Forest Park in Queens, a second body was found on storm-ravaged Rockaway Beach. Workers cleaning up around O’Donohue Park heard a shriek from one of their own, standing over a dune near the shoreline. There, a man’s elbow protruded from the cold sand.

There is no evidence the cases are related, but they appear to be the first victims discarded in the changing landscape that followed the storm’s landfall — places where people, especially the police, might not think to look.

On the beach, it was unclear how the man died. The medical examiner’s office said the case was pending further investigation. But the man had been tied up and placed in a garbage bag, and there were signs of blunt trauma and bruises, the police said. The body carried no identification, and facial-recognition testing on the corpse did not produce a match in city records.

Unauthorized vehicles are not allowed on the beach, something that may not have mattered to a killer during a blackout. But if the body was carried there, it was no small feat: from Seagirt Boulevard, the closest road, past a skateboard park and playground, over a boardwalk and several feet of sand to the dune. From the crime scene, one could look across the Rockaway Inlet out at Atlantic Beach on Long Island.

Days later, the man was identified as Shawn Rucker, 32, of Baltimore. Detectives called his relatives on Tuesday, ending three frantic weeks for them.

Mr. Rucker came to New York in early October to pursue a relationship, said Kym Ellison, 46, his sister-in-law.

He called his family in Baltimore in the hours before the storm arrived on Oct. 29, she said. “He said he’d call back the next day, and he never did,” she said. “Everybody was calling him, everybody was texting him, everybody was going on Facebook trying to get to him.”

There has been no arrest in the case.

The body found in Forest Park that morning was in a parking lot between the Seuffert Bandshell, where people go to enjoy free concerts on summer nights, and the old-fashioned Forest Park carousel, recently brought back to life after years of dormancy. After the hurricane, workers dumped fallen limbs and trees from the surrounding neighborhoods into a pile in the lot.

Woodhaven Boulevard is nearby, but the lot is accessible only by a park road. Someone saw the pile, and an opportunity for a hiding place. The body found by the forester was identified as that of Thomas Dudley, 21, and he had stab wounds in his neck and a footprint mark on his back.

Mr. Dudley lived miles from the park, in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, apartment on Bedford Avenue where he was raised. The block had changed as much as the neighborhood, with a hip coffee shop on one side of his building’s door and a bar with an “absinthe drip” on the other.

But a rougher side of Brooklyn arrived at the door on Nov. 14, the police said. A man with a gun entered the apartment and demanded money, and when Mr. Dudley gave it to him, the man led him outside anyway, the police said. Detectives were investigating the possibility that the crime was drug related.

Mr. Dudley had a police record with marijuana and trespassing arrests, but his father, also Thomas Dudley, said he was a good young man.

“Marijuana, criminal trespass — things an average teenager would get,” the elder Mr. Dudley said. “Nothing violent. He wasn’t a really bad dude. Obviously, this was a really bad choice that he made, whatever had happened.”

Did whoever placed his body behind a new pile of wood know the Forest Park area? Or just happen upon this new pile of debris? And again, as in the case of Mr. Rucker, no arrest had been made as of Friday morning.

The parks department declined to comment while the police were investigating the two homicides.

On Tuesday, five days after the discovery in the dunes, parks workers were busy with rakes and garbage bags and lifting heavy rocks from the sand. I asked a supervisor if anyone was worried about finding another body, and he shrugged.

“You never know,” he said.

Saturday 24 November 2012

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