Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Highland Towers: Lessons learnt from the disaster

Rescue agencies are today better prepared for any worst case scenarios as a result of lessons learnt from the Highland Towers collapse.

Fire and Rescue Department director-general Datuk Wan Mohd Nor Ibrahim said there were disaster management contingencies put in place to ensure coordination among all agencies.

Wan Mohd Nor, who was commandant in charge of training, was at the scene during the 1993 tragedy and witnessed this lack of coordination.

“The lesson I learnt is that management and coordination are vital to the success of any rescue work.”

All disasters relief measures are now managed by the National Security Council (NSC).

NSC would issue an order called “Directive 20” to coordinate all agencies, which would include the civil defence and welfare departments.

“Each agency knows its role,” he added.

Wan Mohd Nor said the tragedy two decades ago was a catalyst that transformed the fire department into a multi-skilled rescue organisation.

“We realised that we needed to move beyond our traditional role of fire-fighting to prepare ourselves for any disaster,” he said.

“There is now greater emphasis on urban search-and-rescue and there is a specially trained elite team.”

The Special Tactical Operation Rescue Malaysia (STORM) team comprises 140 personnel who are based in the department’s headquarters located in each state.

“They can be mobilised to respond to an emergency as a single unit anywhere in the country within 24 hours,” said Wan Mohd Nor.

He added that these units could also complement the 100-strong Special Malaysia Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (SMART), which was set up in 1994. SMART is a separate entity under the NSC.

The STORM team, for instance, was there during the country’s worse accident, which claimed the lives of 37 passengers when a bus carrying 53 plunged into a 60m ravine near Genting Highlands in August.

“They managed to rescue all of the 16 survivors within an hour, which is remarkable,” said Wan Mohd Nor.

“All the bodies were recovered that same evening.”

Besides specialised training, STORM units are equipped with the latest technological rescue advances. These include ground-penetrating radars and other devices which can detect survivors beneath the rubble and specially trained rescue dogs.

Datuk Dr Soh Chai Hock, who served as a fireman for 36 years before he retired as the director-general in 1999, recalled rescue efforts were tedious as tonnes of concrete rubble stood in their way.

He said when he first heard about a building collapse two decades ago, he thought it was an unoccupied place.

“When we arrived at the scene I realised we were not prepared or equipped for the work ahead of us,” he recalled.

“Still, we had a job to do. We had an operations meeting with the police as well as other agencies and it was decided that the Fire and Rescue Department would head the rescue efforts,” he said in an interview recently.

One thought ran through his mind when he arrived at disaster site at around 1.35pm.

“This is not going to be easy but the trapped people needed to be saved. We hoisted ladders and climbed to the top of the toppled building and pulled out a Japanese woman,” he said.

Two other survivors were found on the same day, Dr Soh said, adding that this spurred the rescuers on.

Residents from the area also volunteered to help, he recounted.

“Search and rescue teams from Singapore, France, Japan, Britain and the United States arrived in Malaysia.”

Dr Soh said the stench of the dead remained in his mind to this day.

He recalled spending days at the site and only went home to catch short naps before dashing out for the rescue mission again.

“I did not want to waste any time as speed was the key to getting as many survivors out as possible.

“There were lessons learnt on those days and these resulted in the department being better equipped today,” Dr Soh Said.

Dr Soh also stressed on the need for the community’s involvement. “When a tragedy occurs, the first responders should be the witnesses at the scene,” he said. “If the public is trained to not panic in such situations, more lives can be saved.”

Wednesday 11 December 2013

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Reclaiming Peru's dead

Valentin Casa can’t shake the recurring nightmares. And this day certainly isn’t helping.

The 36-year-old farmer looks on as forensic investigators unearth a pair of finger bones and two copper rings from a mass grave in the village of Huallhua on the eastern steppes of Peru’s Andes.

The grave contains the long-buried remains of two women and 13 children, and Casa believes the bones and rings belonged to his mother.

As a boy 27 years ago, Casa watched from behind trees as soldiers and their paramilitary allies dismembered and killed his mother and other women and children left behind by fleeing Shining Path rebels.

Civilians suspected of backing the rebels were hunted down and killed. Two weeks later, troops and their civilian confederates caught and killed men from Casa’s village, including his father, whose throat they slit.

Three decades later, this isolated corner of Peru is witnessing the biggest exhumation to date of victims of the nation’s 1980-2000 internal conflict. The worst of its carnage occurred on these hills between the Andes ridge and Amazon jungle.

“Everybody here is traumatised,” Casa says as he watches the work underway. “Whoever says he isn’t is lying.”

Authorities in Lima have been painfully slow to dispatch teams to dig up the dead from a conflict that, according to a 2003 truth commission report, claimed an estimated 70,000 lives. Just over half were slain by Maoist-inspired rebels, over a third by security forces. Fifty criminal investigations were only launched into the killings in 2011, said the prosecutor in charge, Gloria Pareja.

In November, forensic anthropologists began their work in the Chungui district and expect to remove 202 bodies in all — mostly women and children.

At least 1,384 people were killed in Chungui, which is slightly larger than Hong Kong geographically but has only 6,000 inhabitants. People there are constantly uncovering bones but very few graves have been exhumed by professionals.

The killing fields are an 18-hour walk from the nearest road in a region known as Oreja de Perro, or Dog’s Ear. It is a place where health care, schools, police and other institutions barely exist. There are no roads, electricity or phones. The hills are still patrolled by Shining Path rebels, and drug traffickers flaunt the state’s absence.

Casa provides security for the forensic team while armed with a worn Mossberg 500 shotgun. The exhumers gather the diminutive bones of children, 26 found so far in the district, in boxes made to hold sweet bread. “I drank my own urine to survive,” Casa remembers, after his mother was killed and he fled into the forest.

Teresa Vilchez, 52, says she still suffers occasional vaginal bleeding from a gangrape by soldiers in 1984 at the nearby Mollebamba barracks. Rebels killed her husband, she says, and soldiers killed her mother, who she says was disfigured in the customary way after being raped: Her breasts were cut off.

No one has been arrested or prosecuted to date for the crimes in Chungui — not a single soldier, rebel or civilian. Villagers say no one has received any mental health counselling. Vilchez has never seen a gynaecologist.

It was exactly such conditions that prompted the poor farmers of Chungui to initially welcome the Shining Path. In 1965, other Cuban-inspired guerrillas had freed farmers there from grinding servitude, assassinating the two powerful ranchers responsible.

The Shining Path persuaded farmers to abandon their homes and live in forest camps to avoid encounters with soldiers. But the rebels were merciless, said Edilberto Jimenez, an anthropologist who interviewed survivors in the 1990s.

Wary of being discovered, the rebels prohibited people from lighting cooking fires, forced women to give birth in caves and killed children who did not keep quiet when soldiers neared, Jimenez said. Today’s Shining Path only numbers in the hundreds, taxes the cocaine trade and still has a reputation for cultivating local farmers.

Priska Palacios, a worker from the German government development agency GIZ, said little has changed for poor farmers in Chungui. “The basic conditions that generated the conflict — poverty, exclusion, discrimination — are exactly the same as they were in 1980,’’ Palacios said.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

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Digs start at grave site in Rudnica near Raska

The Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office and the Commission for Missing Persons launched the digs at the site in Rudnica, municipality of Raska, which is believed to hold the remains of 250 people.

On instructions issued by the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office, digs at the Rudnica site will be carried out according to the method of forensic archaeology so as to establish the credibility of information about a mass grave.

The preliminary examination was attended by members of the Serbian government Commission for Missing Persons, Working group for missing persons of the Kosovo interim government, members of the Serbian Ministry of Interior, EULEX and representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

President of the Serbian government Commission for Missing Persons Veljko Odalovic said in an interview for the Novi Pazar-based Regionalna Radio-Televizija Novi Pazar that the Commission wishes the dig to remove all dilemmas about the site.

“We examined the site on several occasions. We acted on the information received from EULEX. This is a serious and difficult matter, which is why we allocated substantial funds for the investigation of the site,” he said.

The Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office discovered a potential mass grave at the Rudnica site in Raska, southern Serbia, which according to witnesses contains the bodies of 250 Kosovo Albanians. The Prosecutor’s Office believes that the remains were transported there during the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo in June 1999 and that the action was conducted by the members of the then Special police unit.

The issue of the mass grave at Rudnica was launched by the Pristina working group and UNMIK back in 2004 and unsuccessful examinations were performed in May and June 2007.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

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Bodies of Hull trawler Gaul's missing crew 'found in Russia' 40 years after Cold War mystery sinking

Human remains thought to be missing members of the crew of Hull trawler Gaul - which went missing in February, 1974 - have been discovered on the Russian coast. DNA tests are currently being carried out by the Russian authorities to identify them.

The Mail understands the remains of up to ten bodies are being examined. The discovery comes nearly 40 years after the trawler disappeared during a fierce storm in the Barents Sea 80 miles off Norway with the loss of her entire 36-man crew.

The factory stern trawler issued no distress call and a subsequent search failed to locate the wreck. The Gaul was eventually found in 1997 during a privately-funded seabed survey.

Only three crew members have ever been positively identified after bone fragments were recovered from the vessel in another survey in 2002 – factory charge-hand Stan Collier, 40, James Wales, 29, the Gaul's third engineer, and acting first mate Maurice Spurgeon, 38.

Now, fresh hopes have been raised that more missing men could be identified after Humberside Police confirmed it was working with the Foreign Office to liaise with the Russian authorities over the discovery.

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Leaver from Humberside Police said: “We have met all the families of the crew members lost on the Gaul and will continue to provide them with information as it becomes available. At the moment, the information we have is very limited and we have to wait for the Russian authorities to advise us of the tests they are doing on the remains. We will continue to work with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to seek to support families and to provide more details about the remains.”

In their statement, police said the remains had initially been found on the Rybachy peninsula in the Murmansk region of Russia in the mid-1970s by people living nearby. The Mail understands a Russian custom at the time the Gaul disappeared was to use rocks to cover the bodies of unknown dead seafarers because freezing ground conditions meant it was impossible to dig proper graves. It is not clear why the discovery was not reported at the time, although the loss of the Gaul happened at the height of the Cold War.

The police statement states: “At this stage, there is no confirmation as to the nationality of the remains. However, this area of Russia is consistent with the area where the lost crew of the Gaul could have washed ashore. The information passed to the UK authorities is that the remains were found in 1974 or 1975 by the local population.”

Families of the dead crew have been given information about the discovery of the remains and details of the forensic tests during the visit from the police.

The statement adds: “During these visits, the officers have been asking family members for descriptive and comparative information that may assist in identifying the missing from the Gaul at this time or if other bodies are discovered at a later date. The Russian authorities have confirmed they are conducting forensic and genetic testing on the remains and they are committed to assisting the UK in the identification of the remains found.”

All 36 crew members died when what was then regarded as one of Hull’s most advanced trawlers disappeared during a heavy storm 70 miles off the Norwegian coast in February 1974. A subsequent search for the Gaul in the Arctic waters of Barents Sea found no wreckage.

Two months later, a lifebelt from the vessel was washed ashore in Norway. The lifebelt was the only physical evidence from the factory freezer trawler to be displayed at a public inquiry into her loss held in Hull later that year. The inquiry concluded the Gaul must have been overwhelmed by heavy seas.

However, the findings did not satisfy many relatives of the crew. Some suspected the vessel’s disappearance was linked to Cold War hostilities. Rumours persisted about submarine collisions, Russian kidnapping and cover-ups aimed at hiding details of a secret intelligence gathering mission.

Eventually, in 1997, the wreck was discovered on the seabed some 70 miles north of the North Cape of Norway. The Gaul was found by an expedition led by journalist Norman Fenton and financed by two TV companies.

That led to the then Deputy Prime Minister and Hull East MP John Prescott to ask the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to commission its own survey of the wreck. A follow-up survey found human remains onboard.

A re-opened inquiry into her loss by the MAIB concluded the vessel had been flooded as a result of two open waste chutes on the main deck.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

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