Monday, 26 May 2014

Opportunities to identify war dead abound as DOD overhauls troubled recovery efforts

On Tarawa, bodies of fallen Marines, still wrapped in ponchos or wearing helmets, were just below the island’s trash-ridden top soil.

About 10,000 bones, hundreds of pounds of gear and dozens of dog tags were recovered over the past two years on the densely developed Pacific island, generations after a bloody World War II battle there, said Mark Noah, whose private group, History Flight, initiated the search effort.

The remains were so numerous and buried in such shallow ground that in one servicemember’s grave site “a local trash pit had been dug right into his chest,” Noah said.

Tarawa is not an isolated instance. Opportunities to finally identify America’s war dead — including some who have been missing for more than 70 years — and return them to family members abound as the Department of Defense prepares to overhaul its troubled national recovery efforts, according to advocates for missing servicemembers who gathered for a conference in Washington, D.C. Friday.

More than 83,000 servicemembers are still listed as missing from War World II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq and other conflicts, according to the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office.

Advances in DNA analysis, the use of global positioning software and aerial drones, and clues gleaned over decades from historical records are already pointing the way toward closure for scores of those servicemembers, speakers at the POW-MIA Awareness Conference said.

“Many hundreds or thousands of cases remain unknown and could easily be solved with today’s technology,” Noah said.

Noah used a drone to snap photos of Tarawa and GPS programs to match up archive photos and maps to find remains. He and colleagues pored over the history of the battle and documents connected to the burial area.

Meanwhile, nuclear DNA tests, pioneered 20 years ago during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, now allow researchers to identify U.S. servicemembers from bone fragments, increasing the ease and likelihood that those who perished decades ago will be found, said Ed Huffine, vice president of humanitarian projects for Bode Technology, a leading forensic testing company.

Huffine said a “quantum leap” is underway in DNA testing, providing “a very powerful tool that will be able to assist in the identification of loved ones.”

So, it should be a good time to find the missing. Instead, government efforts to close those cases have sputtered and drawn intense criticism over the past year.

Stars and Stripes found that the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, a DOD agency that conducts global operations to recover tens of thousands of missing remains, and DPMO officials ignored those leads, prematurely declared missing servicemembers deceased, and argued against examining remains in government custody that appeared to be identifiable.

JPAC was so incompetent and mismanaged that it risked descending from “dysfunction to total failure,” according to an Associated Press report last summer.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered the Pentagon to restructure the effort to recover missing servicemembers and consolidate JPAC and DPMO into a single agency that handles all accounting, research and field operations.

On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee backed the changes and approved an amendment sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to create a new accounting command with one federal official in charge. McCaskill’s office called it a “first step” in overcoming the deep problems uncovered in JPAC and DPMO over the past year.

The overhaul may mean more attention for the cases that have been delayed or overlooked.

JPAC has said it is trying to press ahead and meet a congressionally mandated 200 identifications per year. The agency is now focusing on the exhumation of 400 World War II sailors buried in Hawaii as unknowns after dying aboard the USS Oklahoma, though the Navy has opposed disturbing the graves.

Hundreds might still be unidentified on Tarawa — Noah said his group’s examination of National Archive records puts the death toll at 1,260 instead of the official count of 1,009.

The remains of hundreds more Korean War missing in action might be even closer to home, said John Zimmerlee, historic researcher with the Korea and Cold War POW-MIA Network.

After working several weeks per year for about 20 years, Zimmerlee said his amateur research discovered that remains of 355 unidentified servicemembers buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, which is known as the Punchbowl, had included enough evidence to make tentative identifications when they were recovered. But the clues were never followed up and family members were never notified, he said.

Furthermore, seven had been fully identified and were mistakenly buried without names or notifications, Zimmerlee said.

The recovery and identification should be easy to correct, he said. “But here’s the obstacle — and this is a big one — the bodies are in the National Cemetery 8.6 miles from JPAC, and somebody has to go get them.”

Monday 26 May 2014

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Train accident in northern India kills at least 40, injures dozens

An express train slammed into a parked freight train in northern India on Monday, killing at least 40 people, officials said.

The Gorakhpur Express passenger train was travelling at high speed and slammed on its brakes in an attempt to stop, but plowed into the train sitting on the tracks near a railway station in Uttar Pradesh state, district magistrate Bharat Lal said.

Six of the cars on the express train derailed. At least 40 people were killed and about 100 others were injured, senior police officer Amrendra Sainger said.

Authorities were searching for the station master, who disappeared after the accident in Sant Kabir Nagar, about 220 kilometres (140 miles) southeast of the state capital, Lucknow.

Rescuers worked to free people trapped under toppled cars and debris. The express train's driver and assistant driver were in critical condition, railway official Alok Kumar said.

Trains were diverted to other tracks to avoid the wreckage.

Narendra Modi, who was to be sworn in later Monday as India's new prime minister, expressed condolences to the families of the dead in a message on Twitter. "Prayers with the injured," he said.

Accidents are common on India's railroad network, one of the world's largest with 20 million people riding daily on about 11,000 passenger trains. Most accidents are blamed on poor maintenance and human error.

Earlier this month, a train crashed into a jeep at an unmanned railroad crossing in Uttar Pradesh, killing 13 members of a wedding party. Four days earlier, a passenger train derailed, killing at least 19 people just south of Mumbai.

Another train derailment last month left dozens injured in the northeast state of Assam.

Monday 26 May 2014

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China's rainstorms leave at least 26 dead

Local flood control officials said on Monday at least 26 people had been confirmed dead and 10 others were missing after rainstorms in several provinces in south and central China.

"In central China's Hunan Province, the death toll from floods had risen to seven as of 10 a.m. Monday, while three others were missing," the state news agency reported.

Continuous downpours have caused floods in mountainous areas and raised rivers in counties like Chenxi, Mayang and Shaodong, where a large number of houses collapsed and farms are submerged.

About 400,000 people in six cities were affected and 16,000 displaced with the collapse of 520 houses.

The rain also hit Guangdong, Guizhou and Jiangxi provinces.

Since Wednesday, storms in Guangdong have left 15 dead, five missing and affected 800,000 people, with accumulative precipitation of 628 mm in Shanwei City. Sixteen national or provincial highways were closed because of the downpours.

Guangdong provincial authorities have activated an emergency response and sent working teams and relief materials to affected areas.

Downpours also swept southwestern Guizhou Province, where three people died on Saturday night and early Sunday, as well as Jiangxi Province in East China, where a rescuer died after his boat capsized in a river while searching for a missing middle school student.

Monday 26 May 2014

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At least seven killed, 27 injured in Seoul bus terminal fire

At least seven people were killed and 27 others were injured in a fire at a local bus terminal near Seoul on Monday, fire and hospital officials said.

The blaze occurred about 9:10 a.m. at an underground construction site of the Goyang Bus Terminal in Goyang, just northwest of Seoul, firefighters said. The fire was brought under control in about 20 minutes.

The injured were taken to nearby hospitals for smoke inhalation, officials said, adding that up to eight people were in critical condition.

The bodies of the victims were found at the construction site of a food court located on the first basement level of the building, the firefighters said, adding that their identities have not yet been confirmed.

The fire, which sent black smoke billowing into the sky, caused a rush-hour traffic jam around the area.

Firefighting authorities said they suspect the fire was started by sparks from welding work.

The five-story terminal building has several bus bays that can station 250 buses, and a multiplex composed of a shopping center, a supermarket and a movie theater. It opened in June 2012.

Baekseok Station on subway Line No. 3, which runs through Seoul and the surrounding areas in Gyeonggi Province, is near the scene. Subway trains, which had earlier passed by the station without stopping, resumed stopping at the station as of 10:24 a.m.

The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters set up an emergency team in central Seoul to promptly deal with the accident amid growing fears that the number of casualties may rise.

The fire came as the country is grappling with the aftermath of last month's ferry sinking that has left more than 300 people dead or missing, and revealed the nation's lax safety standards and poor disaster response system.

Monday 26 May 2014

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Five dead, four missing in SW China mine accident

Five people died and another four are missing after a colliery gas burst on Sunday in southwest China's Guizhou Province, local authorities said.

The accident happened at about 3:51 p.m. at the state-owned Yushe Coal Mine in Shuicheng County.

A total of 240 miners were working underground and 231 managed to escape when the gas burst happened.

Five bodies were found and search for the four missing is under way as of 6:50 p.m.

The cause of the accident is being investigated.

Monday 26 May 2014

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Day 40: Bad weather hampers search for missing bodies, police make arrest

Off of Korea's southwestern island of Jindo efforts to find the bodies of those still missing from the sunken Sewol-ho ferry have been halted for now and could be stalled until Monday.

Bad weather conditions, including fast tidal currents and foggy conditions, have prevented divers from searching for the last 16 bodies still under water.

No bodies have been recovered since Wednesday.

The death toll stands at 288.

Divers have been focusing their search efforts on the third and fourth decks of the ship, but are struggling because parts of the ship are now falling apart.

Monday 26 May 2014

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