Thursday, 27 June 2013

Venezuela: Italy fashion CEO Missoni’s missing plane found; disappeared in January

The underwater wreckage of a plane that disappeared off Venezuela with the CEO of Italy’s iconic Missoni fashion house and five other people on board has been found, government officials and family members said Thursday.

Jorge Galindo, press chief for Venezuela’s Interior and Justice Ministry, said via Twitter that the aircraft has the tail number YV2615 and went missing Jan. 4.

The ID and date correspond to the plane that disappeared over open water near the Los Roques archipelago while carrying 58-year-old Vittorio Missoni; his longtime companion, Maurizia Castiglioni; two of their Italian friends, and two Venezuelan crew members.

A month later, two pieces of luggage from the plane washed up on the tiny island of Bonaire.

Italy’s Foreign Ministry said that the plane was found at a depth of 230 feet (70 meters) and had broken into pieces, but that there was certainty it was the Missoni plane because the tail number was legible.

Missoni’s family in Italy issued a statement thanking both governments for their support and expressing confidence that an investigation will determine what caused the crash.

“The possible recovery of the aircraft is being evaluated at this moment in Venezuela, “ the statement said.

It added that the plane was identified on the fifth day of a search thanks to the oceanographic technology of a U.S. ship.

Last week, Venezuelan authorities announced that they had found the undersea wreckage of another small plane missing since 2008 near Los Roques.

That discovery was made with the help of a U.S. boat that was also going to search for Missoni’s plane in the same area.

The Missoni fashion line has continued to show new collections, including menswear summer 2014 over the weekend in Milan as it marks its 60th anniversary, but it has been far from a celebratory year.

Since Missoni’s disappearance, his father, Ottavio Missoni, the family-run company’s patriarch, died.

Thursday 27 June 2013

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Historic Schooner Nina and crew of seven missing off New Zealand

A text message asking for advice about sailing on in bad weather was the last communication from missing schooner, Nina.

The message was sent to a meteorologist on June 4, six days into its voyage from Opua in the Bay of Islands for Newcastle, Australia, and about 370 nautical miles west-northwest of Cape Reinga.

The 21-metre Nina, built in 1928 and described as a beautiful, race-winning vessel, set out on May 29.

Maritime New Zealand has grave concerns for the seven crew members, saying the journey was expected to take 12 days.

Six Americans - three men aged 17, 28, and 58, three women aged 18, 60, and 73 - and one 35-year-old British man were on board.

Their experience ranged from a professional sailor and the captain, to another man on the boat who had no boating experience, said Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand's (RCCNZ) Kevin Banaghan.

RCCNZ was contacted by concerned family and friends and started a "communications search" on June 14.

No sign of the vessel was reported by any other vessel in the area.

Nina was equipped with a satellite phone, a spot beacon which allowed regular tracking signals to be sent manually, and an emergency beacon. The beacon had not been activated.

Banaghan said a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion had also been sent out and completed two extensive searches.

On June 25 a search area of 160,000 square nautical miles was covered, to the immediate north-north east of New Zealand, based on estimates of where Nina would be if it was disabled and drifting.

Yesterday a search was completed of 324,000 square nautical miles between northern New Zealand and the Australian coast, based on the vessel suffering damage but continuing to make progress towards Australia. No sign of the vessel was found.

"If it did come to grief, it would have been catastrophic and quite quick I imagine," he said.

"The sea conditions at the time were 8 meters and winds gushing to 65 knots so it wouldn't have been pleasant."

The emergency beacon, located in the cabin, was likely to be a hydrostatic release beacon, he said. This meant it would either need to be manually released, or it would go off when it got wet.

"In the event it sinks very quickly, it may have been trapped in the vessel, and we won't get a signal if it goes under water any depth at all," Banaghan said.

He said the estimate of a 12-day trip was "very ambitious" given the weather conditions, especially given they had been asked to wait out the storm. The Australian Maritime Authority did not expect them to arrive before June 25.

But the crew could still be on their journey with no problems, or the vessel could have suffered damage and the crew then taken to a life raft, Banaghan said.

The New Zealand rescue centre is liaising with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and will continue to review search options.

Two search and rescue missions by an aircraft covering almost half-a-million square miles of the Tasman Sea, which the 75-year-old vessel was trying to cross en route to Newcastle, New South Wales, have failed to find any sign of the ship or her crew.

Local conditions in the 1,400-mile-wide sea separating Australia and New Zealand were poor at the time Nina was last heard from on June 4, according to Kevin Banaghan, spokesman for the Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ).

"Unfortunately, no sign of the vessel has been found," he said. "Our records show that conditions at the last known position for the vessel, on 4 June, were very rough, with winds of 80kph (50mph), gusting to 110kph (68mph), and swells of up to 8 metres (26 feet).

The New Zealand authorities started attempting to make communications contact with the boat on June 14, after being alerted by the families of those on board, also alerting other ships in the area to look out for her.

On June 25 and 26 a New Zealand Air Force Orion P3 search aircraft scoured the area but without success.

Thursday 27 June 2013

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Body of storm victim found dead months after Hurricane Sandy

In the chaotic days after Superstorm Sandy, an army of aid workers streamed onto the flood-ravaged Rockaway Peninsula looking for anyone who needed help. Health workers and National Guard troops went door to door. City inspectors checked thousands of dwellings for damage. Seaside neighborhoods teemed with utility crews, Red Cross trucks and crews clearing debris.

Yet, even as the months dragged by, nobody thought to look inside the tiny construction trailer rusting away in a junk-filled lot at the corner of Beach 40th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard.

If they had, they would have found the body of Keith Lancaster, a quiet handyman who appeared to have been using the trailer as a home the night Sandy sent 5 feet of water churning through the neighborhood.

It took until April 5 before an acquaintance finally went to check on the 62-year-old's whereabouts and found his partially skeletonized remains. His body lay near a calendar that hadn't been turned since October and prescription pill bottles last refilled in the fall.

New York City's medical examiner announced this week that Lancaster had drowned, making him the 44th person ruled to have died in New York City because of the storm.

Neighborhood residents described Lancaster as a loner and something of a drifter, and police said he had never been reported missing. No one stepped forward to claim his body from the city morgue, either, after he was finally discovered this spring. He was buried in a potter's field on an island in Long Island Sound, the medical examiner's office said. A police missing-person squad is still trying to identify any relatives.

But in life, he was well liked by some of the people who saw him sweeping sidewalks around the vacant lot where he sometimes slept.

"When we first moved here, he weeded our entire backyard," said Gerald Sylvester, 55, a retired transit worker who lives in a small bungalow just feet from the trailer where Lancaster died.

Sylvester and his wife, Carrie Vaughan, 60, said Lancaster also mended their fence and once fixed an outdoor light at their house – but he always refused any money for his help. He wouldn't take any food, either, when they offered, and politely declined their invitations to come inside, explaining he didn't like to go into people's houses.

"He didn't talk a lot, but if he knew you, you could have a decent conversation," said Vaughan. "He was very nice. A gentleman at all times."

She said it wasn't entirely clear where he was living. Lancaster, who the family said looked slightly frail, told her he didn't want to settle in one place.

As the storm approached and the neighborhood evacuated, Sylvester said he went looking for Lancaster to see if he wanted to leave with the family, but never found him.

After the Oct. 29 storm, many neighborhood residents were unable to return to their homes. Even today, some buildings remain empty or under repair. Vaughan and Sylvester were away for two months, living in a FEMA-funded apartment, before they came back.

The lot where Lancaster's trailer sat has been vacant for many years and, at just 15 feet wide, is easy to miss. Someone passing by would probably assume, wrongly, that it is the side yard of one of the bungalows that sit next door.

The company that owns the plot, the Master Sheet Co., hasn't paid any property taxes on the parcel for years, according to city records, and it wasn't clear whether anyone associated with the business was aware someone was living on the property. A lawyer for the owners, Robert Rosenblatt, said Wednesday that he wasn't immediately able to reach his clients.

New York City's Office of Emergency Management didn't respond Wednesday to inquiries about the efforts the city had made to locate and identify storm victims, and why they failed to reveal Lancaster's death for so long. The mayor's office also didn't respond to an inquiry.

The lot where Lancaster died remained filled with junk this week, including an old office chair, plastic crates and bottles and stuffed animals. The trailer – barely big enough to stand in – is itself filled with trash.

Vaughan said that when her family returned home, she wondered what had become of Lancaster, but never suspected that he had been killed or that his body was in the trailer, which sits on cinder blocks just a few feet from her home.

"He was like a fixture of the community. We were wondering what happened to him," said Vaughan. "We would've taken him with us."

Thursday 27 June 2013

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Understanding the role of local culture in disaster victim identification

Culture can be defined as the predominating attitudes and behaviour that characterize the functioning of a particular group or society. This may include belief systems, religion, (ancestral) traditions and values, modes of expression and community structures and functioning. Cultural attitudes can differ from person to person, region to region and country to country. Death is not only a biological phenomenon but also a sociocultural event with resultant behaviours, ceremonies, rituals and beliefs (Bahar et al., 2012). Attitudes surrounding death are more deeply rooted in some cultures and a disaster may therefore have long-term implications if inappropriately handled without due care for cultural sensitivities. Appropriate actions by the Government to identify and inter the victims according to locally accepted traditions can further stimulate economic recovery and community reconstruction. Invaluable lessons for both disaster management and victim identification have been learned in the aftermath of the 2004 South East Asia tsunami.

Due to the variation in cultural attitudes, best practice guidelines to incorporate cultural behaviours in disaster victim identification (DVI) are not widely described. The Interpol DVI guide states that “(…) the specific religious and cultural needs and national idiosyncrasies or laws and directives of the Member States must be taken into consideration during an operation, but will not be discussed any further in the explanations of the Guide. It is also not possible to deal with all conceivable operational scenarios”. As stated in the Interpol guidance, national laws and directives need to be followed although the guidance acknowledges that application of international standards should apply in multinational DVI operations. Many of those member countries are faced with a complexity of group structures involving tribal, indigenous, ethnic and remote communities. While it is recommended to compliment the Interpol best practice guidelines with Standard operating Procedures (SOP’s) and Memorandums of Understanding (MoU’s) between collaborating parties, not many reports have been published on specific cultural problems encountered during international DVI operations.

Religion is a key force behind the way the community or society interacts with notions of disasters (Reale, 2010). Religious organisations and leaders are frequently involved in important community dynamics and power structures, providing health services, education and emergency relief and those bodies understand the local culture and speak the local language. Disasters may be interpreted as an ‘act of god’ or revenge from evil forces with bloated unrecognisable bodies (often referred to as ‘monsters’) used as ‘proof’ of supernatural intervention and punishment for sins committed by affected communities or sinful behaviour of foreign tourists. Following the 2004 Tsunami in South-East Asia for example, locals, unfamiliar with post-mortem processes, interpreted the facial changes as a sign of superhuman intervention and ‘dehumanisation’ of the victims (Merli, 2009). Indeed, much of those responses find its origins in the lack of awareness of post-mortem processes or the causation of natural events.

In remote (particularly poverty-stricken) areas, forensic awareness may be limited and the need for proper identification procedures poorly understood. If a disaster occurs in small communities, locals may retrieve the bodies and bury them according to local burial customs. State-ordered burials of disaster victims in mass graves out of misguided fears of health implications caused by decomposing bodies have led to much public resistance. Bodies and body parts may be removed as quickly as possible and/or identified visually by relatives and handed over on-site without appropriate identification and documentation procedures. Indeed, secondary and tertiary identifiers according to the Interpol standards are still seen and accepted as primary identifiers in many global regions. Additionally, the Interpol standards may be endorsed at the ‘top-level’ (e.g. Governments or central police authorities), the disaster response may not be recognised at ‘low-level’ remote communities who still rely on traditional ancestral practices in dealing with disasters. This has been increasingly recognised by NGO’s and local organisations and this has led to initiatives to raise awareness of disaster management in remote tribal communities mainly in Africa and Australia. Forensic and coronial practices may cause considerable distress to indigenous peoples who may have no societal or religious mechanisms for dealing with the consequences of such investigations (Byard and Chivell, 2005). Most religions and cultures find autopsies acceptable under special circumstances such as for the purposes of identification or to investigate the causes of an accident. Religious leaders may issue a decree (fatwa) to approve specific autopsy procedures, rituals and burial arrangements to deal with the special circumstances of a disaster. It is also not uncommon in certain countries that bodies remain unclaimed by relatives, placing an additional burden on mortuary capacity and local authorities to arrange the disposition of those remains. Remote communities are more than often dependent on local resources to sustain their livelihood, e.g. fishing or livestock. Following (natural) disasters and resultant loss of income and livelihood, stories of looting, theft of bodies from local hospitals for ransom, and grave robbing have been reported.

The importance of rituals and proper burial is embedded in many religions and form part of the healing process following a sudden loss. Spirituality and religiosity give individual guidance on how to behave and assess a situation, what action should be taken, as well as what and how coping strategies to be selected to address the situation. Superstitious and spiritual phenomena are commonly encountered after disasters such as the 2004 Tsunami and 2010 Great Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan. The presence of ‘spirits’ of those who died, has had profound social and economic effects in terms of the mourning and healing process, ante-mortem data collection, rebuilding communities, and tourism. Performance of proper burial and body rituals are therefore of pivotal importance to overcome those fears, even in the absence of a missing person’s body which may never be recovered.

Disasters in areas of conflicts may pose additional problems for the recovery, identification and repatriation of local and foreign nationals. In this respect, similar issues may arise in collapsed and failed States where no or hardly infrastructure is in place to handle large-scale disasters. NGO’s, religious organisations and leaders may be able to mediate between parties. Periods of truce between fighting factions may be initiated to manage a disaster, for example the agreement between Philippine Government forces and Maoist rebels following Typhoon Bopha. Additional problems in conflict areas may arise if bodies of the victims are used as a negotiation tool or for ransom demands. Regions of (post-)conflict are characterised by deep distrust in the Government or local authorities and this may lead to difficulties in ante-mortem data collection. The Interpol guidance does not address those issues, particularly when dealing with disasters in conflict areas. Additional recommendations are needed to deal with the presented issues above. Guidance from religious organisations and NGO’s with extensive experience in working with remote communities may prove beneficial to address cultural sensitivities.

Abstract of oral presentation: presented by Dr Jan Bikker at the 2nd Annual Forum for Disaster Victim Identification, Royal College of Pathologists, London


Byard, R.W., Chivell, W.C. (2005) The interaction of death, sorcery and coronial/forensic practices within traditional indigenous communities. Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine 12 (5); pp. 242-244.

Merli, C. (2009) Religious interpretations of Tsunami in Satun province, Southern Thailand: reflections on ethnographic and visual materials. Svensk Religionshistorisk Rsskrift. 14; pp. 154-181

Reale, A. (2010) Acts of God(s): the role of religion in disaster risk reduction. Humanitarian Exchange Magazine 48, October 2010.

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7 yr norm to declare missing person 'dead' must be relaxed

The Kedarnath tragedy has killed thousands of devotees and death toll is likely to go up as thousands of people are still missing. The relatives of the missing persons are praying day and night for their near and dear ones to return but it is not clear for how many days would this operation will continue.

After the military operation ends, the state government needs to work hard to undertake restoration work in the valley. It is also true that hundreds of dead bodies are also lying there and needs to be identified. If possible, they needed to be handed over to the relatives of the deceased.

The major challenge before the Government is to identify the deceased person, but the recent news tells that Government is going ahead with mass funeral next week. Looking at the present conditions, in many cases either it will not be possible to identify the person or still there will be hundreds of dead bodies which will not be traceable.

In the eyes of law, a person will not be declared dead until his/her body is recovered. What will happen to their finances in the absence of valid death certificate is also a major concern for the remaining family members.

They will neither be allowed to claim the money lying in the bank account nor will insurance company or mutual fund house will pay them unless they provide copy of death certificate.

The life of legal heirs is also likely to be majorly affected financially if the problem is not addressed immediately. Legal heirs might have to also struggle for day- to-day expenses even though they have sufficient money and investment in the name of missing person.

If the dead body is not found then what to do to claim the money and investment of missing person requires immediate attention and people should know the provisions of the law in this regard. Those who are dead are unlikely to come back but we should also seriously think about the problems which living family members have to face for their survival.

As per section 108 of the Indian Evidence Act 1872 "Person is presumed to be dead who is unheard of for more than seven years by those who would naturally have heard of him/her if he/she had been alive".

It means in the absence of valid death certificate family members will not be able to even touch the money and investment for another minimum seven years. The procedure is also long.

First family members have to file a missing complaint with local police and after completion of seven years they have to approach appropriate court for the necessary order stating the missing person is presumed to be dead.

What time court will take is also not clear, means delay of another six months to one year time to claim the money. The Government has to seriously think about this real life problem and have to review the provisions and reduce the time required for declaring missing person dead particularly in case of natural calamities like what happened in Kedarnath valley recently.

There is also another one possibility if the State Government takes this seriously and acts immediately. Section 10 of Registration of Births and Deaths Act' 1969 gives power to State Government to appoint any person on their behalf to notify birth or death or both which occurred in such areas as may be prescribed.

A positive step by Uttarakhand Government can solve many problems and give hope to many families who have lost their bread earner. If the death of missing person is notified by the State Government, then on the basis of that it is possible to apply for and get the death certificate.

Whether this will happen or not; nobody knows. But it has highlighted the basic thing that we have to plan for our finances so that in case of unfortunate event; our loved ones do have to struggle financially in their life. It is important to open a bank account in joint name with either and survivor basis and also advisable to invest jointly with either and survivor basis.

We have also to nominate one or two of the family members in all investments wherever such facility available. It is also important to execute a will in favour of loved ones so that there is no confusion thereafter.

Till you get the death certificate, pay the life insurance premium to continue the policy as non payment of premium in time will lapse the policy. It is also possible to claim the money, if the amount is small, on the basis of indemnity bond filed with the concerned authority, if they agree do so.

I also request all the three regulators, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), Insurance Regulatory Development Authority (IRDA) and Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) to do the needful in this regard so that legal heirs can easily get the money back and move forward in their life.

Thursday 27 June 2013

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Kinect-guided cockroaches could map disaster zones

Connecting Microsoft's Kinect system to an electronic cockroach interface could create insects capable of mapping out collapsed buildings and other dangerous areas.

Remote controlled cockroaches can be created relatively simply by attaching circuitry to the creatures' antennae. Microstimulation of the antennae trick the roach into thinking it has bumped into a surface and can be used to change its direction.

Combining a Kinect motion-sensing system with a version of this control technology created by North Carolina State University, researchers were able to program a path for the roaches to follow. As the cockroach moves the system tracks it and makes adjustments using the electrical interface.

"Our goal is to be able to guide these roaches as efficiently as possible, and our work with Kinect is helping us do that," said Alper Bozkurt, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State.

"We want to build on this program, incorporating mapping and radio frequency techniques that will allow us to use a small group of cockroaches to explore and map disaster sites," said Bozkurt. "The autopilot program would control the roaches, sending them on the most efficient routes to provide rescuers with a comprehensive view of the situation."

The program also uses Kinect to collect data on how the roaches respond to the electrical impulses from the remote-control interface. This data will help the researchers fine-tune the steering parameters needed to control the roaches more precisely.

"We want to build on this program, incorporating mapping and radio frequency techniques that will allow us to use a small group of cockroaches to explore and map disaster sites," Bozkurt says. "The autopilot program would control the roaches, sending them on the most efficient routes to provide rescuers with a comprehensive view of the situation."

If the system works the researchers eventually hope to be able to equip the roaches with communication devices which would also allow rescue services to communicate with trapped or injured people.

Thursday 27 June 2013

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Remembering the victims of 1950s Stalinist regime

A ceremony was held on Wednesday at Prague's Ďáblice Cemetery to remember those killed or incarcerated by Czechoslovakia's communist regime. Organised by the Confederation of Former Political Prisoners, it was attended by a number of political and religious leaders.

A military brass band played Chopin’s funeral march as dignitaries filed up to a small monument – flanked by Czech soldiers bearing arms – to the hundreds of Czechoslovaks shot, tortured or starved to death by the regime during the Stalinist excesses of the 1950s.

This leafy cemetery on the northern outskirts of Prague is where the regime buried its victims, their bodies thrown into unmarked, mass graves, usually without notifying their families. Ďáblice Cemetery is the final resting place for a number of prominent victims of communist-era oppression, including Zdena Mašínová, mother of the Mašín brothers who shot their way out of Czechoslovakia in 1953; she died in 1956 after several years of incarceration during which she was tortured and denied medical treatment by the secret police.

Standing over her mother’s grave, Zdena Mašínová junior told me it was during the frantic search to find her burial place that the then 19-year-old stumbled across a horrific secret.

“They refused to tell me where she’d been buried - it wasn’t until I got a secret tip-off that they’d buried her here at Ďáblice. I rushed here as fast as I could. The person in charge brought me to this spot and told me I must never tell anyone this but she was buried in a pit containing the bodies of 32 dead children. They were babies born to female political prisoners incarcerated at Pankrác Prison. Their corpses were loaded onto trucks and brought here to Ďáblice – just loaded onto a truck, no coffins. When there weren’t enough bodies in the pit they would throw in the body of an adult prisoner. And in June 1956, that’s where my mum was buried.”

Today the burial pits are marked with gravestones, some bearing names, others blank – the bodies have never been exhumed and in most cases identification is impossible; some of the babies were just a few days’ old. Zdena Mašínová believes there could be as many as a hundred children buried here.

Thursday 27 June 2013

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Online database of all the recovered bodies on cards

A team of forensic officers was deployed by the Uttarakhand Government on Wednesday to collect DNA samples of unidentified bodies, after flash floods and landslides ravaged the hill State earlier this month. A senior state official said they are preparing a database of all bodies and it will be posted on the government website.

“Majority of bodies are disfigured. We will soon post the entire list with photographs. We are also taking the help of the district police as far as missing persons are concerned and a request was also sent to the National Crime Records Bureau to publish it on the website,” an official said.

National Disaster Management Authority vice-chairman M Shashidhar Reddy said about 340 pilgrims were missing. “There is 10-foot high debris in Kedarnath and we fear that several bodies are trapped,” Reddy said.

Thursday 27 June 2013

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Uttarakhand floods: Identifying the dead proving to be a daunting task

After saving most of those who survived the Uttarakhand floods, authorities are facing a daunting task in establishing identities of hundreds of bodies by way of photographs and DNA samples before consigning them to mass cremations.

The few photographs of the dead that have been put online by the Uttarakhand government are hardly even a fraction of the victims and in many cases features have been disfigured beyond recognition.

There is every possibility that the kin of the dead will have to deal with a statistic as they may not be able to make an identification. DNA tests may not prove fully reliable as genetic material is also subject to decomposition.

Having concentrated in rescuing the living, authorities have not been able to pay much attention to bodies, many of which lay in the open or floated down the Ganga to be fished out in Haridwar or further downstream.

June 28 will mark the thirteenth day since the disaster, usually a significant date in terms of Hindu rituals performed after death. As many bodies will remain unidentified at the time of cremation, the government is likely to wait for a month before declaring a missing person as deceased.

The authorities are also banking on the pictures uploaded by relatives of missing persons on the websites of the state government, but matching these photographs with the ones in their possession seems equally difficult.

Though the state authorities have already started uploading certain basic details of the victims, officials believe that it is only a scientific-forensic test that will identify bodies.

In an interview to the TOI on Monday, Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna had said that 'tehsildars' will issue death certificates after a month. "If a person doesn't return in 30 days, the government will immediately release the compensation and not go by rules which state that you have to wait for seven years," he had told TOI.

An official said, "Team of medical staff has already collected DNA samples of most of the bodies. These samples will be preserved till the time their identities are established through matching it with the relatives. The local police have also finished the process of chronicling the details from legal point of view".

The Uttarakhand government has, meanwhile, put up a message board on the websites, asking relatives of the missing persons to provide them whatever information they can provide to trace them. The latest report put the figure of missing persons at 344.

The relatives of the victims had initially reported the missing complaints in thousands with Kedarnath - epicenter of devastation -- topping the list with 1,021 missing persons. Since the majority of them have already been traced, the total number now rests at 344.

"344 people are still missing. There are indications that the death toll may go up," said the NDMA vice chairman M Shashidhar Reddy, adding the rescue operation will, hopefully, be completed within a couple of days.

Reddy said efforts were being made to evacuate bodies under the debris - which are eight to ten feet high - in Kedarnath.

Thursday 27 June 2013

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