Sunday, 14 December 2014

Death toll continues to rise in Indonesian landslide

Rescue workers in Indonesia on Sunday continued their search for more than 70 people left missing after a mudslide two days previously buried 105 houses in the village of Jemblung in central Java.

"The rescue team has found 32 bodies ... and is still searching for 76 people buried in the landslide," National Disaster Management Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said in a text message.

Sutopo said 25 of the victims had been identified, adding that more than 2,000 people were taking part in the search. Some 600 people had been forced from their homes and were being accommodated in temporary shelters at several locations, he said.

The ground around the disaster site is reportedly still unstable, forcing rescuers to be careful while digging for fear of causing more mudslides. Sutopo said that rescue teams had also been hampered by the fact that many roads and bridges were destroyed.

President Joko Widodo (seen above in white) visited the area on Sunday, and promised to relocate the people made homeless by the disaster. He also warned Indonesians to be "vigilant," saying that there were many other areas in the country where landslides were a likely event.

Friday's mudslide in the Barnjarnegara district, some 460 kilometers (285 miles) east of the capital, Jakarta, was triggered by three days of torrential rains.

About 2,000 rescuers, including soldiers, police and volunteers, were digging through the mud and the wreckage of crumpled homes, getting some relief from clear weather following days of heavy rain. Excavators, meanwhile, shoved aside earth and the remains of decimated wooden homes.

Residents of Jemblung village in Central Java province’s Banjarnegara district said they heard a roaring sound followed by the raining down of red soil that buried more than 100 houses late Friday.

“The landslide looked like it was spinning down,” said one resident, Subroto, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. “I managed to rescue a pregnant woman, but could not save the other man.” He said one side of the hill collapsed, then another. “In five minutes, there were three (major landslides) and they swept away everything,” Subroto said.

By late afternoon Sunday, 32 bodies had been pulled from the debris, while hopes faded that the 76 people still missing would be found alive, said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the spokesman for Indonesia’s Disaster Mitigation Agency.

Many roads and bridges were destroyed, hampering rescue efforts, Nugroho said.

Many people in Jemblung village said they were aware that the earth on the 150-meter (yard) hill that flanked their remote farming village may not hold. After hearing a deep rumbling sound just after dusk Friday, some fled to safer ground.

But others were either at home or at the local mosque when the mud, rocks and trees tumbled onto their village.

Wawan Wahyuni, a 20-year-old farmer, said he watched helplessly as his grandfather and dozens of his neighbours disappeared beneath mud more than 6 metres (20 feet) deep in some spots.

“I saw them buried alive,” Wahyuni said. “They were yelling ‘Allah Akbar! (God is great!) before being slowly buried.” Wahyuni himself was buried up to his chest until survivors rescued him seven hours later.

Banjarnegara is located on Indonesia’s most densely populated island of Java, about 460 kilometres (285 miles) east of Jakarta.

Seasonal rains and high tides in recent days have caused dozens of landslides and widespread flooding across much of Indonesia, a chain of 17,000 islands where millions of people live in mountainous areas or near fertile, flood-prone plains close to rivers.

Landslides caused by heavy rains and floods are common in Indonesia during the rainy season, which runs from November to March. The national disaster agency estimates that about half of the countriy's 250 million population lives in areas that are prone to landslides.

Sunday 14 December 2014

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The forensics expert who offered to help ID tsunami victims - a decision which almost cost him his life

He was at home with his family on Boxing Day 2004 when he saw TV coverage of the disaster and flew out five weeks later when bosses at the National Police Improvement Agency asked for volunteers.

His role was body recovery and identification and he set up a mortuary, exhumed bodies and helped to identify westerners from their DNA or fingerprints.

In sweltering heat, he worked 16 hour days and what was supposed to be a two-week trip lasted two months during which he worked on identifying as many as 300 bodies.

With colleagues, he worked his way through containers full of bodies, becoming obsessed with the task of bringing closure to grieving relatives desperate for news about missing loved-ones.

The work involved travelling around the devastated country, recovering bodies which may have been buried to preserve them, then bringing them back to the capital and sending them on to the right embassy when their identity was discovered.

The smell of death, which he experienced passing through stricken villages, has remained with him to this day. Without a proper debrief on his return, his life spiralled out of control to the point where he attempted suicide.

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and his employers - now replaced by the College of Policing - settled out of court, paying him more than £400,000 after he was deemed unfit to work.

The married 46-year-old father-of-two from Consett, County Durham, was not prepared for the mayhem he faced when he flew out from Heathrow.

"I didn't think it was going to be as bad as it was when I turned up there, with all the devastation, the heat and the smell," he said.

"It was very hot at that time of year, we were in white Jeeps going from one area to another and you could smell the decaying bodies as we went through the villages and I think that smell sticks with you for ever.

"We would come across villages and people were living in blue UN tents and they would come and greet you, almost as if we were there to save them but my role was not to do that.

"They thought we were there to help them but we were recording the deceased, so it was quite heart-wrenching to drive away from them."

Mr Collins, who had 12 years experience investigating crime scenes with Durham Police before becoming a trainer, said the role was to identify foreigners, not locals, as the Sri Lankan government decided unidentified nationals should be buried in mass graves.

"There was not the infrastructure to identify Sri Lankans from their DNA or fingerprints. It sounds quite coarse, it was a production line of bodies we were working in," he said.

Clothing would be recorded, teeth photographed and DNA would be retrieved and sent away for analysis which could be compared to a missing person's samples, perhaps left on a toothbrush, a comb or linked to a surviving relative.

There was great satisfaction in successfully identifying a tsunami victim so their loved-ones could hold a proper funeral, he said.

"When you are working in that kind of role, it becomes obsessive if you have three containers full of bodies and there are people grieving.

"You will do everything within your means professionally to identify those people."

That was the driver for the 16-hour shifts and for only taking three days off in six weeks.

But the workload was to take its toll, and his return to the UK and life as a trainer went badly.

Mr Collins developed PTSD without realising, disengaged from his family and became depressed, suffering from guilt and flashbacks.

He has since sought help from a therapist and has begun rebuilding his life.

Previously, he used to wish he had never got involved with the disaster relief effort, but that has now changed.

"I am obviously very proud of what I did, it did cost me a lot," he said. "There are people worse off than me, they have lost loved ones and I appreciate that.

"If someone said 'would you go and do it again', I used to say no.

"I would probably say yes, but I wouldn't be as naive about what it was like to work on a disaster and how you must take care of yourself, or people must take care of you when you come back, so you don't end up with a mental illness."

Sunday 14 December 2014

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DR Congo: At least 129 feared dead after 'overloaded' boat capsizes

Officials revealed the new death toll today which marks a dramatic rise on their previous announcement when they said 26 people died in the disaster.

Women and children were among those left dead during the incident which happened in Lake Tanganyika in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rescue workers have been scouring the area for survivors and bodies since the disaster on Thursday.

Some 232 people, mainly men, survived the boat capsizing with a number of people found 48 hours afterwards clinging onto floating objects in weakened conditions.

Transport minister Laurent Kahozi Sumba said: "The search for other survivors and bodies is continuing."

Deadly shipwrecks are frequent on the lakes and rivers of in the Congo.

Boats are often overloaded, life jackets frequently missing and many people cannot swim.

Officials said strong winds and overloading caused the M/V Mutambala, which was bound for Uvira further north in South Kivu province, to capsize.

The boat was carrying cargo as well as passengers.

The Great Lakes of Central Africa, the best-known of which are Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi, can be as treacherous in bad weather as many seas.

Shipwrecks involving overloaded vessels are frequent and the numbers of fatalities often very high due to a shortage of life jackets and the fact that many people in the region cannot swim.

In March, at least 210 Congolese refugees returning home from Uganda drowned when an overcrowded boat sank on Lake Albert, on the border between the two countries.

That shipwreck, which came days after Kinshasa launched a campaign to enforce the wearing of life jackets on the nation's waterways, was the deadliest in Congolese history, the government said.

Lake Tanganyika, which is one of the world's biggest freshwater lakes as well as being the longest, also borders Tanzania, as well as Burundi and Zambia.

The first Europeans to discover the lake were Richard Burton and John Speke, who stumbled across the inland sea on an 1857 expedition to explore inland from the east African coast.

By the time they arrived at the body of water Speke's sight was failing and Burton could barely walk.

Speke later continued his travels alone and discovered Lake Victoria.

The disaster comes as aid agencies have warned of a growing humanitarian crisis in Congo which they are struggling to contain.

They said there are 600,000 displaced people in Katanga, a dramatic rise from 55,000 three years ago.

Sunday 14 December 2014

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Suez Gulf crash, kills 13 Egyptian fishermen with 13 missing

An early morning crash between two vessels in the Gulf of Suez on Sunday has left at least 13 Egyptian fishermen dead and a further 13 missing, officials said.

The vessel that struck the fishing boat carrying 40 men failed to stop following the accident, said Bakri Abul Hassan, the head of Egypt's main fishermen's trade union.

The accident occurred in the Gulf of Suez between Ras Ghareb on the Egyptian mainland and El-Tor on the Sinai Peninsula, he told AFP.

The bodies of 13 fishermen were retrieved from the Gulf, which links the Red Sea to the Suez Canal and Mediterranean.

Another 14 fishermen were pulled from the water. A search and rescue operation for the missing, comprising of ten local boats, was underway, a port official told official daily al-Ahram.

"We received an SOS signal early Sunday from fishermen working in the Red Sea saying that a fishing boat has sunk with 40 fishermen on board," Abu Hassan told Anadolu Agency.

"The boat sank after a cargo ship coming from the Suez Canal crashed into it," Abu Hassan said.

A Panamanian-flagged vessel suspected of involvement in the collision was later stopped near the port of Safaga, south of the Gulf, said Abdel Rahim Mustafa, spokesman for Public Authority of Red Sea Ports.

A man who survived the accident, al-Sayyed Mohamed Arafat, told reporters that he had jumped from the fishing boat before the collision with the other vessel.

He said he had drifted in the water for four hours clinging to a wooden crate before being rescued.

Egypt is no stranger to maritime disaster and in February 2006, around 1,000 people – most of them Egyptians, were killed when a ferry caught fire and sank in the Red Sea.

Sunday 14 December 2014

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