Friday, 14 March 2014

The mystery of Mont Blanc's hidden treasure

It's a plotline that wouldn't be out of place in a Tintin comic - a French Mayor, an alpine climber, a historian, a wealthy Jewish stone merchant from London, and their tenuous connections to a bag of lost jewels discovered on the peak of Mont Blanc.

The trail begins early on 24 January 1966, as Air India Flight 101 starts its descent towards Geneva Airport. The pilot had miscalculated the aircraft's altitude and the Boeing 707 was heading directly for the summit of Mont Blanc, France's highest mountain.

All 117 people on board were killed as the plane crashed. "It made a huge crater in the mountain," a mountain guide who was first to reach the scene was quoted as saying. "Everything was completely pulverised. Nothing was identifiable except for a few letters and packets."

Various rescue attempts to recover bodies and debris were called off because of bad weather on the summit. Many remnants from the aircraft - including a bag of diplomatic mail and a wheel hub - have been gathered in the years since the tragedy, but pieces of twisted metal still lie in the peak's nooks and crannies.

It took half a century, however, for the crash site to reveal its biggest secret.

Among the burning wreckage that was scattered across a glacier, a small case packed full of 100 precious emeralds, sapphires and rubies was flung through the air and swallowed into the ice.

The box, which two families are claiming had their name embossed into the side, sank into the glacier, only reappearing 47 years later clutched in the hands of a local climber as he strolled into the local gendarmerie.

The gendarmes heralded the climber's decision not to keep his find, with an estimated value of 246,000 euros (£205,000).

"You can see, he is very honest," said chief gendarme Sylvain Merly. "He was a mountaineer… and he didn't want to keep something that belonged to someone who'd died."

Merly took the jewels straight to the mayor of Chamonix, who stored them in a vault below the town hall until the media were told.

When the story came to light, journalists began to scramble for more details - at one point printing a photo of a mountain guide, Stephane Dan, with what appeared to be the jewels in front of him. In fact they were stones he snapped from gullies and sold for 20 euros each.

"It could have been me who found the real thing," he laments. "I climb all summer, collecting the best pieces of mineral to sell. I found many pieces of the aeroplane. I once found wheels. I found a special bottle used for coffee with Air India written on it. I even found the altimeter used for the plane."

Bizarrely, this was the second Air India crash in the same area. Sixteen years earlier another plane, a Constellation known as the Malabar Princess, had gone down on the mountain, also on its approach to Geneva. So the wreckage of two aircraft is scattered over the area.

Dan said the local rumour was that the climber who discovered the bag of jewels was from Bourg-Saint Maurice, a village three hours' drive from Chamonix. "We all heard it was happening, but it was a mystery. Now we know it was a real - but even I don't know who it was."

At this point, I started making attempts to film the jewels. But Sylvain Merly said he was no longer allowed to discuss the story with journalists, directing me to the prefect of the department of Savoie, in Annecy.

The prefect's office said they had nothing to do with the investigation and shunted me on to Francois Bouquin, head of the mayor's office in Chamonix. Bouquin said the Mayor's office was no longer responsible for leading the enquiry, pointing me to the court of Bonneville.

The court of Bonneville directed me to the court of Albertville, which, confused, sent me back to Bouquin - who said, in hindsight, he wasn't sure which courthouse was in charge.

After repeated calls and many hours spent on hold listening to Mozart's violin concertos, I pointed out to Bouquin that I had spoken to everyone he suggested. Then he finally gave an answer: "I don't want to have to tell you 'No'. But you cannot see the stones. At this time, it is a question of security. We are handling our own investigation into the case. We do not feel the media are useful or necessary at this time."

I was, however, able to persuade him to send me two pictures of what he called the "treasure", in the hands of the mayor, albeit wrapped in thick, white police tape.

"It's so French, this story," says Francoise Rey, a local historian and author of Crash au Mont Blanc, a book about the two Air India accidents. "You ask to see the stones and they send you a photo of them in a bag."

An acquaintance of the mayor, Rey went to lunch with him and sat discussing a viewing of the treasure. But she, like so many others, drew a blank.

Rey is convinced that the mayor and the climber struck a 50-50 deal long before they told journalists about the jewels' existence. Under French law, there is a window of two years, she says.

"If no owner is found by then, one half will go to the Mayor of Chamonix and the other half goes to the climber.

"I am quite sure they are interested in keeping the stones and that they will do nothing whatsoever to help the families or the owner to prove they are theirs."

Fournier downplayed the allure of the jewels, she says, to dampen her interest. "He told me the stones are not so beautiful, and voila. They played the game that they were more embarrassed with them than happy, that's the impression they wanted to give."

Fournier, who is currently campaigning for local elections, was not available to answer questions, so Bouquin spoke on his behalf. "The suggestion we struck a deal a deal is completely mad. There is no deal. We don't even know who found the stones. There is a law and a procedure that must be followed, and that is all."

Back in 1990, while Rey was researching her book, she was given access to a criminal dossier compiled by the local court of Bonneville, which contained many of the documents collated after the accident.

Looking through her notes, Mrs Rey made an amazing discovery. Annotated within the pages are the details of an insurance document making a claim for lost jewels destined for one man, who lived in London.

She had taken down the name of the family: Issacharoff.

Unfortunately, though, she failed to write down the claimant's initial. "I saw the letter. I don't have it, but I saw it. I have written in my notes the name of the person who was waiting for the stones in London. I am sure there are many more details in this letter. The main thing to do is to go back to find this letter. But this is proving very difficult."

Since the dossier will not be opened to the public for 75 years, gaining access to the archive means a lengthy application process - one that Rey has only just began. How long it will take, she says, she doesn't know.

A quick internet search reveals the Issacharoff family to be one of the largest, oldest stone merchants in the UK. A family business started by the Russian-Jewish family in 1930, the Issacharoffs have become the largest

I call them on the telephone. "The parcel is ours," Avi Issacharoff, head of Henig Diamonds, says instantly. "Please come to our offices and I will talk you through the details."

A diminutive, black-suited businessman, Avi is found behind various armoured doors, in the depths of the diamond district of London's Hatton Garden. He says he can recall his father talking about the accident, and the family's collective relief that no relatives were on the plane when it hit the mountain. Normally when the family made a purchase of this size, one of them would go to pick it up in person, he says.

Grandson of Ruben and son of David, Avi is third in a line of directors of the business. His father, while still alive, suffers from dementia and can no longer recall the exact details. "We consulted our lawyers, but they told us we had no chance. We don't have records dating back 50 years. The only way we can prove the parcel was ours is that we know our name would have been written on the package."

The London-based Issacharoff family are not the only claimants to the jewels. Another set of Issacharoffs from Spain - no relation, but apparently also stone merchants - are reportedly approaching the French authorities in an attempt to gain access to the letter that Francoise Rey speaks about.

Bouquin, of the Mayor's office, says he has seen the packaging in which the stones were found, but it is not necessarily possible to make out a name from it.

"Maybe we might be able to identify the name on the parcel, but it is very hard to see. It has been 50 years beneath the ice."

Meanwhile, the days and months are ticking by.

Friday 14 March 2014;postID=2827642974417361845

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1994 American Eagle Flight 4184 crash in Roselawn

At 3:56 p.m. on Halloween in 1994, a small commuter plane took off from Indianapolis on a 168-mile trip to Chicago carrying 64 passengers. The plane was a French-made ATR 72 twin-engine turboprop with a four-person crew.

At 4:13 p.m. the pilot radioed he was ready to begin descent at O'Hare, but controllers put him in a holding pattern because too many planes were trying to land and heavy rain was slowing everything down. American Eagle Flight 4184 would have to wait its turn.

At 5 pm. the tower instructed the pilot to descend to 8,000 to begin another holding pattern. But as he did so the plane suddenly lurched to the right. Both pilots fought for control of the plane and briefly righted it, but it lurched again, this time rolling over and diving at full speed directly at the ground. Flight 4184 was gone from the sky in seconds.

The crash site was a soybean field near Roselawn in Newton County, Indiana. Emergency crews rushed to the scene, but quickly realized there was nothing to be done. "There were no lives to save, no fires to put out," one of the first responders later said. And it was silent.

The crash had torn the plane into so many small pieces it was hard to tell where all of it was. From the air they could see only a few large pieces of wreckage, a small impact crater and tiny pieces of debris spread out behind it in a trail stretching about two city blocks.

The farmer who tended the soybeans heard about the crash on the radio and went out looking. When he saw how little was left of the plane he thought: "There's got to be bodies out there."

It was a gruesome night as rescuers slogged through the mud in a driving rain, and they knew their mission had changed from rescuing survivors to gathering body parts. The next morning they brought in gravel to make a 200-yard road out into the muddy field in order to get vehicles out there.

It would take several days to reclaim the remains of the dead and weeks longer to identify them. The FBI sent in a special team to painstakingly identify as many body parts as possible so that proper burials and consecrations could be made.

The FBI's Disaster Squad was created after a similar crash in 1940 to bring the agency's expertise to bear in just this type of situation. In an age before DNA matching, FBI scientists used fingerprints, blood types, dental records and forensic anthropology to make identifications.

Two and a half weeks later, after all methods had been exhausted, the remains still unidentified were quietly buried in a Merrillville cemetery without notifying relatives. This was one of several missteps officials made in dealing with the families of the dead.

As for the cause of the crash, it was believed from the start to have been ice buildup on the wings, and this was confirmed by a Federal Aviation Administration investigation. The report blamed the plane's manufacturer, Avions de Transport Regional for not studying the effects of ice on its planes after others had similar problems. It also said the French Directorate General for Civil Aviation exercised inadequate oversight of the plane's performance in icy conditions. And it faulted the FAA for not disseminating timely information about flight hazards during icy conditions.

The FAA ordered new instructions for flying in icy conditions, and American Eagle improved equipment that breaks ice off wings.

Families of the crash victims had been frustrated and angered by the lack of timely information provided to them during the ordeal and their activism led to passage of the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996. That law requires the federal government and airlines to get information to families of crash victims faster and respond more fully and promptly to their questions and requests.

People who lived near the crash site were affected by it also. On the one-year anniversary of the crash members of the Lincoln Township Volunteer Fire Department in Newton County -- they had been among the first on the scene that awful night -- held a memorial service attended by grateful crash families. After the ceremony at the fire station everyone drove to the crash site where area residents had erected 68 white crosses, each bearing the name of a victim.

Friday 14 March 2014

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New York building collapse death toll rises as search for victims continues

The search was continuing on Thursday for victims of a gas explosion in the East Harlem neighbourhood of New York that killed at least eight people and left more than 70 injured. Minutes before the explosion, utility company Con Edison received a call from a nearby building warning about a gas smell. As Con Edison employees headed to the scene, the explosion caused the collapse of two buildings and resulted in a fierce fire. The explosion has raised questions about the age and condition of infrastructure in New York City and around the United States. A report published this week showed many gas pipes in the city are more than 50 years old. Search and rescue teams combed through the smouldering rubble overnight in search of people who were reported missing. Just after midnight, the body of an adult male was found in the rubble. The bodies of a man and woman were found in the debris on early Thursday morning, and another body was discovered in the afternoon. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said that search and rescue operations would continue “for an open-ended period of time,” at a press conference on Thursday. He said below-freezing temperatures and heavy winds that whipped up smouldering fires at the site were affecting recovery efforts. “This has been a very painful episode for the people of East Harlem,” de Blasio said. “There are still a lot of unknowns here.” The mayor said officials were not certain how many people were still missing. “There are still questions about the whereabouts of some individuals so I don’t want to put forward a number until we are certain,” de Blasio said. De Blasio said the city’s fire department, police department and the National Transportation Safety Board are conducting a joint investigation to determine the exact cause of the explosion. Officials said that the city’s emergency telephone lines had not received a report of a gas leak in the destroyed buildings or those that surrounded them in the past 30 days. John McAvoy, the CEO of Con Edison, the utility company, said that in addition to the call received just before the explosion, the company had received two calls about gas leaks on the block in the past three years. The city has evacuated 89 residential buildings and three stores in the vicinity of the blast site because of damage and because gas and water have been cut off from the area. De Blasio said these buildings were not vacated because of structural concerns. The accident has raised questions about the city’s infrastructure, buttressed by a report issued a day earlier in the week, highlighting the city’s ageing utilities networks. De Blasio said infrastructure problems are “a fundamental challenge for New York City and any older city”. “Areas with old and vulnerable infrastructure describes a lot of New York City, honestly,” de Blasio said. City officials also emphasised that people affected by the explosion would receive help, regardless of their immigration status. More than 250 firefighters responded to the incident on Wednesday and National Transportation Safety Board representatives arrived later in the day to help investigate the cause of the explosion. The explosion destroyed two five-story apartment buildings, 1644 and 1646 Park Avenue. The two buildings had a total of 15 apartments The street-level floor of one building housed a piano store and the other a Spanish Christian church. The buildings were parallel to train tracks and debris from the accident caused Metro-North commuter railroad service to be suspended on Wednesday. Service was restored late in the afternoon. On Tuesday, a day before the incident, the Center for an Urban Future released a report criticizing New York City’s infrastructure. The report (pdf) said that the city’s gas mains are, on average, 56 years old and “more than half of its gas mains were installed before 1960”. Friday 14 March 2014

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