Monday, 21 October 2013

Frogmen join body hunt as Japan typhoon tolls hit 24

Frogmen were Friday scouring waters off the coast of a Japanese island where landslides buried houses when a huge typhoon rolled through, as the death toll reached 24.

Coastguards joined the grim search for the 26 people still unaccounted for after a mountainside collapsed on the island of Oshima, 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of the Japanese capital.

About 1,000 troops, firefighters and police were continuing their search on land, using shovels to move the huge volumes of earth that had swamped homes, as those affected by the disaster looked on.

“Even if I wanted to rebuild my home now, is it worth it at my age?” said Masako Yanasu, 67, whose guest-house was badly damaged by the landslide.

“I would be dead before it was done,” she told AFP. “I don’t know what to do. Everyone is dead in the neighborhood, everyone I used to know.” A total of 22 people are now known to have died on the island. A woman was also killed in western Tokyo and the body of one of two elementary schoolchildren believed to have been near a beach in Kanagawa when the storm hit had been found, a local official said. The other child and a man in Chiba were still listed as missing.

Typhoon Wipha, the most powerful in ten years, veered up the coast of the Japanese archipelago overnight Tuesday into Wednesday.

The eye of the storm remained offshore but the strong winds and heavy rain that it brought wreaked devastation on Oshima, one of a number of far-flung islands that are administratively part of metropolitan Tokyo.

The island was bracing for bad weather with another typhoon developing off Japan’s far south, threatening weekend rain in the region that could hamper rescue operations.

Monday 21 October 2013

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Death toll in Philippine quake nearing 200

The death toll from a killer quake in the central Philippines is likely to approach 200 as rescue teams focused on finding dead bodies buried under landslides and fallen structures, an official said Sunday.

A total of 185 deaths have been confirmed so far from the 7.1 quake that shook the tourist island of Bohol on Tuesday, toppling bridges, shattering roads, causing landslides and reducing historic churches to rubble.

Bohol suffered 172 dead alone with over 120 dead from falling structures, said Augusto Escopia, the island’s information officer.

“Our conservative estimate is that there are roughly 180 to 185 dead in Bohol alone,” he told AFP, a day after authorities halted the search for survivors and focused on recovering dead bodies.

The quake also left 13 others dead in the central islands of Cebu and Siquijor, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said.

The recovery of bodies in Bohol will likely last one more week, said Escopia, adding that reports from some hospitals indicated that there were further fatalities to be counted.

There are also nine more missing in Bohol, he added amid fading hopes they would be found alive. The biggest problem facing the more than 1.2 million residents of Bohol island is the need for shelter after the quake destroyed or damaged many homes, he added.

“They (the residents) are afraid to go home because there are still aftershocks. Some have cracks on their walls. They are still afraid to go inside,” Escopia said.

About 600 kilometres from capital Manila, Bohol is known for its beaches, its rolling “Chocolate Hills”, tiny tarsier primates, and centuries-old Catholic churches, many of which collapsed or sustained heavy damage.

Thousands of people in Bohol have taken to camping out in the open in front of damaged houses and buildings to avoid being crushed in case their buildings collapse further, Escopia said.

Both the government and foreign aid groups have been sending in tents to help residents, he added. More than 370,000 people were displaced while more than 36,000 houses have been damaged in Bohol due to the quake, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management council said in a statement. The Philippines lies on the so-called Ring of Fire, a vast Pacific Ocean region where many of Earth’s earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur.

Monday 21 October 2013

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Bid to retrieve Pike mine workers starts

The first step towards re-entering the entrance tunnel of Pike River mine tunnel is underway.

Work to clear equipment from the top of the ventilation shaft above the Solid Energy-owned mine's entrance tunnel, known as the drift, began Sunday, marking the start of a three-phase project to re-enter the mine drift.

It involves the first operational use of a Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90 helicopter, which is transporting the estimated 20 tonnes of equipment from the top of the shaft to a secure compound 7 kilometres away.

The helicopter can carry up to three tonnes a load.

The shaft will then be filled with a concrete-like plug, which will allow the methane-filled drift to be re-ventilated with air.

It could take two to three weeks before investigators will be able to enter the just over 2 kilometre mine drift.

A wall will be built at the end of the drift, with a permanent air lock so people could pass through if they needed to in future.

"We have no plans to re-enter the mine's workings proper. We consider the risks associated with doing so are too great," Solid Energy's project manager Mark Pizey said.

"We've undertaken to go as far as we can up the drift, stabilise the environment and put up a wall. What happens beyond there is yet to be determined."

"We're three years since the explosion . . . the type of information we'll be looking for in there is more related to the electrical equipment that was installed in there at the time, rather than bodies."

He hoped to have the entire project wrapped up within six months, depending on weather.

"We hope to find nothing, really. We're not looking for anything other any than forensic evidence that may support the department of labour or police with their inquiries," Pizey said.

"The people who will enter the mine will be ones required to for investigation purposes only."

The project has been nine months in the planning. "It's extremely satisfying to see this underway at last."

What was done in the mine main was yet to be determined, he said.

Royal New Zealand Air Force acting commanding officer of the helicopter transition unit Anna Shaw said the complex task had gone without a hitch so far.

The Defence Force team consisted of 21 air force personnel, as well as 11 army personnel based above the shaft to rig the equipment. It is the first operational deployment of the NH90 and the project was "invaluable" training.

The Air Force team hoped to remove all the debris - about 20 tonnes worth - from above the shaft by Thursday, but would "stay here until we get the job done".She said the Defence Force was proud to be involved.

The aircraft is usually based at Ohakea base, in the Manawatu. The cost was covered by the Defence Force's annual budget.

'All we want is for somebody to have a go'

At least one attempt. That's all the families of the 29 miners entombed in the Pike River Mine ever wanted to try to recover the bodies of their loved ones.

Nearly three years since the explosion on November 19, 2010, work began on the first stage of re-entering the West Coast mine's tunnel on Saturday.

Solid Energy spokesman Bryn Somerville said the preparatory work on re-entering the tunnel was "making good progress".

Yesterday, a New Zealand Defence Force helicopter began lifting material from the top of the ventilation shaft.

The first-stage of the project was expected to be complete midweek, weather permitting, Somerville said.

The plan to re-enter the tunnel was approved by Solid Energy and the Government, which pledged $10 million towards recovering the workers' bodies.

While most of the bodies are believed to be in the mine's main workings, it is thought some of the men could have been inside the mine's main entry tunnel, known as the drift, when the explosion occurred.

The project, which could take up to six months to complete, will seal off the drift and pump in nitrogen to force out any methane gas, allowing experts to walk down a 2.3km shaft to search the area.

Bernie Monk, who lost his son Michael in the explosion, said he was "confident" bodies would be found in the drift.

"What we want is to get down there to have a look and reappraise where we go to next."

Carol Rose, mother of miner Stuart ‘Stu' Mudge, said it was the "most excellent thing" that work was beginning and that was all she, her husband Steve, and the other families had ever wanted.

"All we want is for somebody to have a go."

"If one family can get one man home, and that's all that ever happens, all the other families will be over the moon for that one family."

Neville Rockhouse, father of Ben Rockhouse, said he was really "buoyed" that it was starting to take shape after three years. "We're finally getting at least one attempt to get the boys home."

Dean Dunbar, the father of the youngest miner Joseph Ray Dunbar, who was 17 at the time, said he did not have much hope that he would get his son back.

"Every hard working miner deserves to come home.

Monday 21 October 2013

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Bodies of two Thai crash victims found

Two Thais among those who perished in the Lao Airlines crash have now been identified, Laos authorities said yesterday.

Attempts to find other missing bodies including the other three Thais and the plane fuselage are still underway.

The two Thais whose bodies have been retrieved from the Mekong River in Laos' Pakse district where the plane crashed were identified as Phakkawat Atiratanachai and Kanueng Chartkasamchai.

The three Thais whose bodies have yet to be recovered are Yangyong Apaanan, Nipol Mengsee and Veekij Busarawuthanu.

Suchai Jirayunont, 58, a friend of Phakkawat, who is now in Pakse with Phakkawat's family, told the Bangkok Post yesterday he was informed by Lao authorities that one of the five bodies recovered yesterday was his friend Phakkawat.

Mr Suchai said the authorities told him that Thailand's Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) team did a computer match of Phakkawat's fingerprints and found they matched with those of the body.

Mr Suchai said the other body belonged to Kanueng. He said he was informed by the authorities that Kanueng's body had been found since the first day of the search but they weren't able to identify him.

However, the DVI team had brought back the corpse for re-identification yesterday and found the teeth of the body matched the dental patterns provided earlier by Kanueng's relatives.

"We are contacting Lao Airlines to help bring the two corpses back to Thailand for funeral rites," Mr Suchai said.

The five Thais were among 44 passengers and five crew on board Lao Airlines flight QV301 that crashed into Don Khor islet in the Mekong River last Wednesday in Champassak's Pakse district, after failing to land at Pakse International Airport. The airline later blamed the crash on bad weather caused by tropical storm Nari.

Lao National Television director Boonjom Wongpetch said 41 bodies and 13 body parts have now been recovered from the crash site, including the five retrieved yesterday. It is assumed there were no survivors.

Mr Boonjom said 14 corpses have been identified and 12 of them picked up by relatives. Of the 12 bodies picked up, 10 were Lao nationals, while one was a Chinese national and one was the Cambodian pilot of the plane, he said.

"Rescuers are continuing to search for the missing bodies in the river," Mr Boonjom said. "Two more boats and one helicopter are also being deployed to help the search."

He added Vientiane will pay an initial 20 million kip (about 76,000 baht) to help the family of each Lao victim pay for funeral rites.

Pol Gen Charumporn Suramanee, an adviser to the National Police Office and chief of Thailand's DVI team, who is in Pakse to help Lao authorities identify the corpses retrieved from the river, said the team wants relatives of the victims whose bodies are still missing to provide personal information and biological samples such as dental records and fingerprints to complete the identification process.

Laos will hold a nationwide ceremony around 2.15pm today to commemorate the 49 victims of the crash. Laos' Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Duangchay Pichit will chair the event in Pakse.

Monday 21 October 2013

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Grim task of identifying Laos bodies

Disaster victim identification experts from Australia arrived in the southern Laos city of Pakse yesterday to begin the grim task of matching the remains of six Australians killed in the country's worst air disaster with ante-mortem evidence collected from grieving families.

Thirty-nine bodies have been recovered from the fast-flowing Mekong River, and French aviation investigators were working with Thai divers yesterday to recover the black box from the new ATR-72 aircraft after locating its signal a day earlier.

All 49 passengers and crew on board the Lao Airlines flight from the capital Vientiane to Pakse died in the crash on Wednesday.

Among those pulled from the turbid, brown water at the weekend was the body of a second small child, raising hopes among the anxious Lao relatives of an Australian family of four that the remains of three-year-old Jadesuda Rhodes had been found.

On Saturday Lao Airlines released a statement identifying 14 of the bodies, including those of Sydney tax consultant Gavin Rhodes, 39, and his 17-month-old son Manfred.

Relatives say they also identified the remains of Lao-born Phoumalaysy (Lea) Rhodes after seeing her body brought into Pakse's Chinese temple, which has served as a makeshift morgue since the tragedy.

According to the flight manifest, the two Rhodes children were the only minors on the flight.

But Thai investigators said yesterday the second child was also a boy, suggesting either an omission in the airline's records or the possibility that he was a local casualty of the treacherous Mekong, which gives life but frequently takes it away.

"We know the (Rhodes) couple had two children, a boy and a girl, but in here we have two boys," said Jarumporn Suramanee, the Thai four-star general overseeing the morgue operations.

The Mekong River is the lifeblood of this small, impoverished country and the weekend marked an important annual Buddhist festival in which locals celebrate the end of the Buddhist lent with firecrackers and dragon boat races.

This year the races have been cancelled in Pakse in deference to those who died, and to the family and friends left behind.

Instead young monks in bright, saffron robes lined the river on Saturday night and prayed for the dead, lighting candles and sending wax-paper lanterns into the air as they did so.

Villagers downstream of the crash have also been touched by the disaster, with bodies reportedly found in water as far as 100km south of Pakse.

General Suramanee said autopsies so far had been conducted on 11 bodies. Though Australian officials had worked quickly to collect and deliver ante-mortem identifying evidence -- from toothbrushes to dental records -- for all six Australian victims, there was a hint of frustration yesterday in his appeal to French and South Korean officials who, he said, had so far provided nothing.

Monday 21 October 2013

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