Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Concordia cruise ship righted; search for bodies to begin

The recovery of the two remaining bodies on Costa Concordia will start “in the next few days,” Italy's civil protection commissioner Franco Gabrielli confirmed at a press conference following the successful "parbuckling" operation to right the cruise ship.

Once the half-submerged, but upright wreck has been deemed safe to enter, divers will start the search for the last two bodies of the 32 passengers and crew who perished when the ship struck a rock and foundered off the coast of the Italian island of Giglio.

Gabrielli has already spoken to the Italian Admiral in charge, Stafano Tortora, to approve the search for the bodies of an Italian passenger and a Filipino crewmember.

“We are going to look for these people as soon as possible; I hope this will start in the next few days,” Gabrielli told a packed press conference this morning on Giglio.

“Teams of divers are working on what inspections can be done on the ship. The corridors can now be inspected, and everything inspectable will be carried out by the divers.”

He added: “There will still be areas that that will not be easily accessible. This activity will start as soon as we are comfortable that the ship is safe.”

Divers will also attempt to recover the safe deposit boxes from each of the 1,500 cabins and return anything found to their rightful owners. A spokesman for Costa confirmed that the line would also attempt to return any other belongings found in individual cabins to passengers.

Costa Concordia was successfully righted in a 19-hour operation which concluded in today's early morning hours, before dawn. The ship is now sitting on an artificial seabed in about 100 feet (30 meters) of water.

The extent of the damage on the starboard side is now plainly visible, as is the discoloration of the hull from being immersed for more than 18 months in the sea. The funnel has been removed and only seven of the 13 decks are above water.

However, the ship has remained intact and the next phase of the recovery can now begin.

To prepare it for the region's typically rough winter seas, divers will strengthen the damaged area on the starboard side, add more steel cables to anchor the ship and then attach the ‘sponsons' -– or flotation devices –- to the port side.

Gabrielli emphasized that although the ship was in a much safer position than 12 hours ago, the project was far from over. Costa Concordia is expected to be floated and removed at some point in the spring of 2014.

Tuesday 17 September 2013


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Death toll in Cebu ferry collision reaches 116

Divers over the weekend recovered another body from the sunken wreck of the MV St. Thomas Aquinas, bringing to 116 the death toll in the Aug. 16 collision between the passenger ship and the cargo vessel Sulpicio Express Siete off Talisay City in Cebu.

This was disclosed to the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Tuesday by Commander Armand Balilo, spokesperson of the Philippine Coast Guard, who said “divers are on stand-by to retrieve more bodies” from the ill-fated ship.

“As of (Tuesday), 21 passengers and crew members of the ferry are still unaccounted for,” he noted.

Search and rescue teams, composed of Coast Guard, Navy and Philippine National Police personnel, as well as private volunteers, earlier rescued a total of 733 passengers and crew members of the St. Thomas Aquinas.

Balilo, also chief of the PCG’s public affairs office, clarified the command had not terminated its search and retrieval operations.

“The diving operations were suspended last Friday to give way to preparations for the fuel oil siphoning operations to be conducted by a team hired by 2Go Travel,” which operated the ferry, he said. The team includes an undisclosed number of “technical experts from Japan.”

He explained “our divers cannot operate while the oil siphoning is being conducted because it might put their lives in danger.” The oil siphoning operations “will take more than a week,” according to Balilo.

Tuesday 17 September 2013


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Mass burial set for unidentified ship collision victims

A mass burial has been set for 47 unidentified bodies recovered after the collision last month of a passenger ferry and a cargo vessel here.

Neil Sanchez, Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (PDRRMC) officer, said they have decided to bury the remaining bodies due to health concerns.

The mass burial is set for Sept. 25 at the public cemetery in Barangay Carreta and 2Go Group, Inc., owner and operator of M/V St. Thomas Aquinas, will shoulder the burial expenses.

“We really have to go through with the burial because of health concerns. The advanced state of decomposition of some of the bodies have made embalming impossible,” Mr. Sanchez told reporters.

The unidentified bodies have been assigned case numbers pending the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) test results.

This would facilitate the release of the bodies to the relatives after the results are released, Mr. Sanchez said.

The 47 unidentified victims were among the 116 fatalities in the sinking of M/V St. Thomas Aquinas last Aug. 16.

The passenger vessel, which carried 870 people, sank shortly after colliding with cargo vessel M/V Sulpicio Express Siete in a narrow channel off Talisay, Cebu.

The ferry came from Nasipit in Agusan del Sur on a day-long journey.

A Special Board of Marine Inquiry was opened on Aug. 23 in Cebu City, led by Commodore Gilbert Rueras of the Philippine Coast Guard.

As of Sept. 17, the total number of fatalities from the collision was at 116, with 21 people still missing.

Of the bodies recovered, 69 have been identified while 47 remained unidentified. A total of 733 survived the accident.

Mr. Sanchez said the families still have the option to bury their loved ones in Cebu or have them cremated after the DNA test results are released.

“For as long as families are legitimate claimants, they can claim the bodies even after the burial,” he added.

Accidents at sea are common in the Philippines because of frequent storms, badly maintained boats and weak enforcement of safety regulations.

In 1987, the ferry M/V Doña Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker in the Philippines, killing more than 4,341 people in the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.

In 2008, the ferry M/V Princess of the Stars capsized during a typhoon in the central Philippines, killing nearly 800 people.

Tuesday 17 September 2013


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International structures needed for equitable access to DNA identification after disaster

When the remains of victims of political conflict or natural disasters are so badly damaged that they cannot be identified visually, DNA can often help. With modern genetics technologies, a small bit of tissue may be all that’s needed to determine who’s who. Unfortunately, in many areas of the world facing violent times, such as the current war zone that is Syria, the government and its citizens may not be able to afford such forensic technologies.

According to medical ethicist Alex John London of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Ethics and Policy, Lisa Parker of the Center for Bioethics and Health Law at the University of Pittsburgh, and Jay Aronson of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Human Rights Science, this inequality in access to DNA science should stop. “In the context of poverty and deprivation, forensic identification might appear to be a luxury,” the trio wrote in a policy forum in Science last week (September 13). “But access to scientific identification of the missing and the dead after mass casualty events can be a starting point for healing, reconstruction, and the ability to access financial resources or to regain or maintain social status.”

"After a conflict or a disaster, if remains are burned, mangled, decayed or comingled, the only way to identify them may be by using DNA, said lead author Alex John London. "In low- and middle-income settings, such technology may not be available, or not available in sufficient capacity to handle the surge in demand associated with a mass casualty event. Not being able to identify a missing loved one can have emotional, social, and economic implications that can be most dire for those who are already the most vulnerable."

Such large-scale efforts are becoming more and more common; one such project continues in Libya, for example, wherein researchers are attempting to identify the bodies that once filled mass graves following the violent reign of Muammar Gaddafi. But funding is not always easy to come by, and equalizing access to such expensive and complicated technology is no simple task. Indeed, DNA identification takes more than just a tissue sample. It also requires a database of familial samples and sizable computer hardware to process all the data—not to mention the DNA sequencing equipment itself.

The April 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza Factory Building in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,130 people were killed, is only the latest in a long line of events that has made plain the plight of the families whose loved ones go missing after conflict and disaster.

According to media reports, hundreds of Rana Plaza victims' families still have not received the bodies of their loved ones or the death benefits that accrue for survivors because the government has not been able to formally identify all of the victims. This situation, which has led to demonstrations against the government by families and allegations of corruption and malfeasance, has arisen, in part, because the main forensic laboratory in the country does not have enough capacity to handle so many cases at once.

“Our concern was that there should be a mechanism in place that would allow access to DNA identification beyond just ability to pay,” London told NPR’s All Things Considered. “Too often if there isn’t a funder out there, then people who are missing relatives won’t get access to the technology.”

"Humanitarian organizations and governments increasingly recognize the importance of timely identification of remains and, ideally, their return to families for proper burial. Unfortunately, though, access to the resources and technologies to perform these acts is significantly restricted by the willingness and ability of governmental and non-governmental organizations to pay for them," said co-author Jay Aronson, associate professor of science, technology, and society at CMU and director of the university's Center for Human Rights Science. "This means that some victims of conflict and disaster have been identified (e.g., in Bosnia or in the aftermath of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks), while others have not (e.g., in Rwanda or Haiti). The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami illustrates the inequities: international efforts to identify the remains of victims were undertaken in Thailand, where there was a high density of Western tourists, but not in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, or other affected areas."

The authors advocate creating international structures, which could take many forms ranging from a single international institution to a decentralized network of agencies, to promote more equitable access to forensic identification. They outline four main reasons that international structures are needed. First, such structures would address humanitarian and human rights goals by granting access to forensic identification technology on terms other than the ability to pay. Second, the structures would quickly and efficiently implement standardized procedures and have capacity to cope with a sharp increase in demand.

Third, international structures are needed to prevent material and information gathered from being used for any purpose not directly related to identifying the missing. Expanding access to forensic identification will not advance humanitarian and social goals unless the participants are confident that those carrying out the identification process have the mandate and the authority to protect their rights and welfare.

And finally, to ensure that forensic identification advances human rights goals, international structures must have explicit mechanisms to facilitate using identification information as evidence in legal proceedings against those who are responsible for the death or disappearance of the missing - while ensuring that the privacy of donors is not compromised.

The recommendation to formalize international structures in order to improve DNA identification following conflicts and disasters is one result of the $1.2 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant awarded to Aronson to analyze ethical and policy problems associated with the identification process.

Tuesday 17 September 2013



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Canadian family hopes to have found long-lost relative who fought in Second World War buried in German cemetery

One by one, the French forensic team pulled bits of bone from six fibreglass boxes that had been locked away since the end of the Second World War. Photos were snapped and measurements taken. Medicine Hat, Alta., lawyer Lawrence R. Gordon looked on from six feet away.

It wasn’t until halfway through Friday’s exhumation of unknown United States Army soldier ‘X-3,’ buried in a German grave in France, when the forensic team scrutinized a jawbone that Mr. Gordon went from nervous to elated: His uncle and namesake — a man he had never met but who might be there, in bits in those boxes — was missing the back two teeth on his lower right jaw when he signed up with the U.S. military a month after Pearl Harbor.

“There was a very big lump in my throat until you could visibly see that that tooth was missing,” Mr. Gordon said, the detail confirming, to him at least, that his uncle, who died in a blast in Normandy as part of a car crew on Aug. 13, 1944, was now found. “It was incredible.”

For almost 60 years, PFC Lawrence S. Gordon’s death was an “open wound” for the southern Saskatchewan family that “never healed,” his nephew said. In the years before his death in 1989, the young Mr. Gordon’s father would wonder aloud about his second youngest brother, whose flame-licked wallet packed with pictures of the old farmhouse was the only item returned to the family from their lost son. Letters written to the U.S. Army offered no clues, and so Mr. Gordon made a vow that he would track down the remains of his long-lost uncle.

“It had started as a promise to merely visit his grave,” the father of two said by phone from Rennes, France, where he travelled last week to be there for the exhumation.

Initial information from the U.S. Army led him, in 2000, to the Brittany American Cemetery in Saint-James, France, where 4,410 of Second World War American soldiers, many of whom fought in the Normandy and Brittany campaigns of 1944, are laid to rest. His name was posted on a wall dedicated to unknown soldiers, but the remains were nowhere to be found.

Twelve years later, in March 2012, Mr. Gordon received a call from Jed Henry, a man in Middleton, Wisconsin who had been researching the Reconnaissance Company of the 32nd Armored Regiment of 3rd Armored Division, in which his grandfather served.

“Jed, at that time, pointed out to me that there were 44 that had been killed in action from the reconnaissance unit from the Second World War — they had recovered 43 bodies and only one of them was missing,” Mr. Gordon said. “Jed’s goal was to find my uncle, so needless to say I was quick to endorse that.”

The two men worked together and learned that all but one of the men in the armoured car were killed by that blast on August 13, 1944, and the unknown remains from that attack were buried in a temporary U.S. cemetery in Gorron, France.

A 1945 review, however, found his uncle had been buried with German clothing. The remains were transferred to German WWII ossuary Mont de Huisnes in France.

Mr. Gordon thinks his uncle, burdened by the heavy wool uniform in the hot and damp French summer weather, might have scavenged some clothes left behind by the retreating German army. To this day, however, he has no idea how his uncle’s wallet made it home to his family.

Their search eventually led the two men to the Volksbund, Germany’s War Graves Commission, where they sought permission last spring to do DNA testing on the ‘X-3′ remains in the Mont de Huisnes ossuary. After going through the necessary procedures with the French government, their wish was granted.

It turned out, Mr. Gordon’s uncle was buried about 15 kilometres away from the Saint-James site he had originally visited.

The forensic team — the very same that works on crime scenes across France — took tooth and bone samples for DNA study in Marseille. On Friday, they found a large piece of metal driven into the socket of one of the femurs — a strong hint that the death was ugly and painful.

The results, to be analyzed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, won’t likely be ready for three or so months, Mr. Gordon said. Even so, they will just be a “confirmation” that the remains belong to his uncle.

“When I started this in 2000, I thought there was a body at Saint-James, then I thought we didn’t have anything and now we’ve moved to the point where I think we’re 99% sure,” he said. “But I want to see the final results — I want to see the DNA, I want it confirmed, and then we have to talk about moving the body home.”

Tuesday 17 September 2013


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Dhaka factory collapse: No compensation without DNA identification

Earlier this year a Bangladesh clothes factory collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people. Five months later, many of the dead have yet to be identified - prolonging the anguish for relatives, and denying them the right to compensation.

A summer has passed since the Rana Plaza complex crashed to the earth. Plants are creeping over the tangled debris. Steel cables have rusted. Rolls of blue and cream fabric have gone mouldy. A fading pair of jeans hangs from a jagged piece of wire.

A stone memorial remembers the 1,133 garment workers who died.

But hundreds of families who lost a mother or a daughter never have never been able to prove it to the authorities' satisfaction.

The US offered relatives DNA testing kits, and samples have been collected - but Bangladesh doesn't have the computer software to match those samples with the dead.

Every day Babul Soiaal walks to the Rana Plaza site, with a roll of papers and documents in his hand - and a small passport photo of a woman in a blue headscarf.

It is his wife Shahida. She's still missing, and she's probably among the nearly 300 people buried without being identified. Only when, or if, she is identified will the authorities provide financial help.

Soiaal has Shahida's payslip to prove she worked in the Rana Plaza - but that's not been enough to persuade officials to pay up.

"I have made a copy of these papers and given them to the government and other concerned bodies and I said if you have any doubt you can send an inspection team to our home town and they will find that she is still missing," he says.

"I have five children. I have lost my partner. If the government would help us then we will find some way, but I don't know what will happen to me."

Friends have been lending Soiaal money to pay the rent, which his small income from odd jobs will not cover.

But what he really needs is for his wife's body to be identified by a DNA test. Then he might receive from the government the equivalent of £13,000 ($20,000).

Because of the software problem, few DNA identifications have been made.

Among the high street brands which once bought garments from factories inside the Rana Plaza are Primark, Matalan and Bonmarche.

Primark has pioneered its own emergency payments scheme, giving each of the victims' families 15,000 or 16,000 Taka - about £130 ($200).

In Samsun Nahar's case, this ran out months ago.

Like Babul Soiaal, she comes to the Rana Plaza ruins every day, hoping someone will tell her what happened to her daughter, Eeni Begum. All she has left of the beautiful, earnest 18-year-old is a passport photograph.

"Every day I feel I'll find my daughter, but it doesn't happen," she says.

"We are very poor - it was difficult to keep her at school and we put her in the garment factory. She loved fashion. She was my beloved one. Without her I feel lonely. Everything seems empty."

Even some of those in hospital - whose missing or broken limbs provide physical evidence that they were in the collapsed factories - complain they've been forgotten by the authorities and the Western brands.

Fourteen-year-old Yanoor who, under the terms of an industry agreement, should not have been working at the factory at all, has needed several operations after her legs were crushed by falling beams.

She too has had no compensation. She is eager to get well so she can earn for her six brothers and sisters, and her father. Her mother died in the rubble.

Among those children working illegally in garment factories today are some who have been forced to seek work because their parents were hurt or killed in the Rana Plaza tragedy.

One 13-year-old, who we will call Ruma, says she gave up school and got a job in a factory as a seamstress, because her mother was hurt in the building collapse, and is now unable to walk. Map

There are about 20 teenagers working in the same factory, she says, all of whom have been instructed to tell any visitors they are 18.

"My mother is very sick so I had no option," she says. The family relies on the 4,400 Taka (£36, $57) she earns each month.

The Bangladeshi government says it is giving Rana Plaza victims and their families compensation and donations from an emergency relief fund, but the country can't afford to provide a long-term safety net.

Commerce Minister Ghulam Muhammed Quader admits that for some life is getting worse, not better, since the tragedy struck.

"I don't blame them for their worries. The problems are overwhelming for the government and society," he says.

"We are a resource-constrained country. Even if the government gives full compensation it is just a stopgap. What we're trying to do is rehabilitate someone in the family so they stand on their own feet."

The government is giving limited money to hospitals where injured people are learning new skills, such as IT.

The garment industry, meanwhile, says it's offering people alternatives to factory work, but many of the injured aren't well enough to leave hospital yet.

Mohammad Shahidullah Azim, vice-President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, says they carefully monitor factories and fine any owners caught employing children.

The Rana Plaza collapse was the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh's history. But for hundreds in Dhaka, the tragedy is only just beginning.

Tuesday 17 September 2013


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Boat mishap claims nine lives in Taraba

The Chairman of Bali Local Government Area in Taraba, Mr Andy Yerima, said that nine persons lost their lives in a boat mishap on Sunday at Mayo-kam village.

Yerima told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in Jalingo on Monday that the victims included five children and four women.

An eyewitness, Alhaji Musa Isa, told NAN that no fewer than 50 commuters from Zude village were on board when the incident occurred.

Isa said the boat, aside the passengers, had cows, sugarcane and more than 150 bags of grains on board.

He said the boat berthed safely at its harbour, but lost control after the boat driver anchored the rope, which suddenly cut off.

Musa said the boat on the process hit a bridge shattering into pieces while its passengers and goods were drowned.

He said that some of the men in the boat swim to safety while women and children on board were drowned.

He said emergency personnel and rescue workers were not on ground to aid in search and rescue operations.

Musa said eight bodies were recovered from the river at Mayo-kam, while another body was recovered at Tella in Gassol Local Government Area, bringing the death toll to nine.

He described the incident as a colossal, and appealed to the government and National Emergency Management Agency to come to the aid of the victims.

Tuesday 17 September 2013


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