Saturday, 28 March 2015

The sinking of the Sultana: A disaster lost in the lingering fog of the Civil War

The men on the boat had seen all manner of death and despair.

They had witnessed friends and fellow soldiers shot dead on muddy battlefields. They had endured dirty, disease-ridden Confederate prison camps in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. They were tired and injured, sick and underfed.

But, in late April 1865, they also were happy and relieved.

Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. The Civil War had drawn to a close and, however improbably, they had survived it.

Months earlier, on Christmas Day, a Union soldier from Ohio named John Clark Ely had sat in a prison camp in Mississippi, wondering whether he would see home again. “Such a day for us prisoners. Hungry, dirty, sleepy and lousy,” he wrote in his journal. “Will another Christmas find us again among friends and loved ones?”

Now he seemed to have his answer.

Ely was among the more than 2,000 paroled Union prisoners of war, many of them still teenagers, crowded aboard the steamboat Sultana as it pulled away from the docks at Vicksburg, Miss., on April 24. They were headed up the Mississippi River, bound for their farms and families in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and other places they hadn’t set eyes on in far too long.

“Oh, this is the brightest day of my life long to be remembered,” Ely wrote before the trip commenced.

The brightness would not last.

“All of these guys were on their way home after going through so many ordeals,” said historian and author Alan Huffman. “People were just dying around them constantly for four years. You set foot on this boat and you think you’re on your way home. You’re home free. And really, the worst was ahead.”

For two days, the woefully overcrowded boat lurched northward. Melting snow in the north had contributed to one of the worst spring floods in memory. The Sultana stopped in Memphis on April 26 and continued north later that night. About 2 a.m., seven miles upriver from Memphis, a boiler exploded. Two more exploded in rapid succession, visiting yet another hell on men who had already endured so much.

“Some were killed instantly by the explosion. Others awoke to find themselves flying through the air, and did not know what had happened,” Huffman wrote in his book, “Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History.” “One minute they were sleeping and the next they found themselves struggling to swim in the very cold Mississippi River. Some passengers burned on the boat. The fortunate ones clung to debris in the river, or to horses and mules that had escaped the boat, hoping to make it to shore, which they could not see because it was dark and the flooded river was at that point almost five miles wide.”

Still others faced a horrible choice: remain aboard the floating inferno, or jump into the river and risk being drowned by the panicked masses in the waters below. Making matters worse, many of the men didn’t know how to swim.

“When I came to my senses I found myself . . . surrounded by wreckage, and in the midst of smoke and fire,” an Ohio soldier recalled in a collection of survivor essays, “Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors,” published in 1892. “The agonizing shrieks and groans of the injured and dying were heart rending, and the stench of burning flesh was intolerable and beyond my power of description.”

“It was all confusion,” remembered one Michigan soldier. “Brave men rushed to and fro in the agony of fear, some uttering the most profane language and others commending their spirits to the Great Ruler of the Universe.”

“There were some killed in the explosion, lying in the bottom of the boat, being trampled upon, while some were crying and praying, many were cursing while others were singing,” recalled another Ohio soldier. “That sight I shall never forget; I often see it in my sleep, and wake with a start.”

The Sultana disaster killed an estimated 1,700 or more of the passengers — a death toll higher than caused by the sinking of the Titanic half a century later. While it remains the worst maritime catastrophe in U.S. history, the Sultana was relegated to brief mentions in the country’s newspapers, overshadowed by the end of the war and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln less than two weeks earlier. Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been tracked down by authorities and killed the day before the Sultana explosion. The Sultana story could not compete with headlines such as “Lee Surrenders!” “President Murdered!” and “Booth Killed!”

“It didn’t really get a lot of press coverage because of where and when it occurred and who the victims were. These were mainly enlisted men; they hadn’t made any mark on history,” said Jerry Potter, author of “The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster.” “The nation had just finished four long, bloody years of civil war. Over 600,000 men had died. People were accustomed, unfortunately, to reading about Gettysburg and Antietam and Chickamauga and Shiloh. They were used to reading about death, and I think the country was just somewhat calloused toward it.”

Greed, incompetence, recklessness and bad luck all played a role.

The trouble started the moment the steamboat docked in Vicksburg. One of its boilers had sprung a leak on the way from New Orleans and needed repair. The boat’s captain, J. Cass Mason, brought in a mechanic who wanted to replace a ruptured seam. That job could take days and cost Mason time and money, so he insisted that the mechanic hastily patch the leaky boiler.

The government’s offer to pay $5 or more per man to transport Union POWs back north after the war meant big money for steamboat captains such as Mason. It also sowed the seeds of corruption, as boat captains commonly offered kickbacks or other bribes to Army officers willing to load their vessels with as many men as possible.

That was part of the reason the Sultana, built to hold about 375 passengers, was crammed with 2,400 — about six times its recommended capacity — as it began the journey to Cairo, Ill. Every corner of the boat was occupied by weary soldiers, so tightly sandwiched together that many could find no place to sleep and barely any place to stand. The decks of the 260-foot-long boat sagged and creaked under the load.

“It was corruption and gross negligence,” Potter said. “It was a horrible comedy of errors.”

Hours after the explosions, the Sultana sank to the bottom of the Mississippi. Bodies continued to surface downriver for months; many were never recovered. Mason, the boat’s captain, was among the casualties.

Despite claims of Confederate sabotage, a government inquiry determined that too little water in the boilers, coupled with the shoddy repairs and the strain of the heavy load, probably contributed to the disaster. There were investigations and military tribunals, but ultimately no one was held fully accountable for America’s worst maritime calamity.

For those who survived the Sultana explosion, through luck or resourcefulness or some combination of the two, the event shaped the rest of their lives.

“The war trumped all their previous travails,” Huffman wrote. “For those who were also former prisoners, captivity trumped the war. And for those who survived the Sultana, the disaster trumped everything.”

Some survivors slipped into alcoholism and depression. Others wrote about their experiences in newspaper and magazine articles, sometimes omitting parts of the narrative or embellishing their own heroism, but always desperately trying to make sure the tragedy was not forgotten. Many carried with them burns and other lasting physical injuries to accompany their psychological wounds.

Huffman said the story of two Indiana farm boys, Romulus Tolbert and John Maddox, illustrates how different men wrestled with the demons of war and of the Sultana.

They had fought side by side in the war, ended up in the same prison camp and wound up together on the doomed steamboat. After the disaster, back in the same home town, Tolbert embraced a quiet life of stability. He married, built a house with a picket fence, farmed the land and rarely spoke of the Sultana. Maddox remained restless. He suffered failed marriages and health problems, couldn’t hold down a job and seemed haunted by the past.

“How they dealt with it was very different,” Huffman said. “That wasn’t uncommon. Some people were just beaten down by these things; other people just became sort of stoic and endured it. There wasn’t any template.”

More than two decades after the disaster, survivors of the Sultana in different parts of the country began holding annual reunions around the anniversary of the catastrophe. Eventually, their numbers dwindled, until the last survivor died in 1936. By then, their children and grandchildren had grown up hearing the extraordinary tales of hardship, loss and survival.

“This is, and always has been, something that defines our family,” said Mary Beth Mason of Silver Spring. Her grandfather, William Carter Warner, joined the Union Army’s 9th Indiana Cavalry as a teenager, became a prisoner of war and survived the Sultana, managing to swim ashore after he was blown into the river.

Mason’s grandfather died before she was born, but she and her siblings grew up hearing his life story from her father. She still has a copy of the official survivor’s certificate her grandfather received in September 1888 from the Sultana Survivors Association.

“My grandfather could have died in Cahaba prison when he was 16,” Mason said. “He could have died on the Sultana, but he didn’t. . . . Of course, it’s important in my family. My father would have never been born. I would have never been born.”

Descendants of Sultana survivors have continued to meet in recent decades to remember a tragedy that the nation barely acknowledged at the time and that has been relegated to a footnote ever since.

This April, to mark the 150th anniversary of the disaster, they will gather in Marion, Ark., just across the Mississippi River from Memphis. They will board a boat and travel upstream to where the Sultana sank and lay a wreath on the river to honor those lost. They will visit the spot where the wreckage of the steamboat now lies under a field on the Arkansas side of the river.

“We’ve done a lot to keep the story and to spread the story,” said Norman Shaw of Knoxville, Tenn., who as founder of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends has been organizing gatherings since 1987. He expects 100 people or more to attend this year. “These fellows felt history forgot about them. . . . We’re following the wishes of the original survivors to keep the story alive.”

In the spring of 1865, the boys on the boat had wanted nothing more than to go home. Most never made it past Memphis. Today, many of them lie in the Memphis National Cemetery under simple white headstones engraved with the words “Unknown U.S. Soldier.”

But not all of the graves are anonymous.

One marker is etched with the name of John Clark Ely, the Ohio soldier who never saw his next Christmas.

Saturday 28 March 2015

continue reading

At least 9 die in Chile flood, 19 missing

Communities in Chile's northern desert region dug houses and cars out of the mud and worked to reopen roads Friday after floods pummeled several cities and left nine people dead. Nineteen people were also missing after the torrential rains in the Atacama Desert, the world's driest, said Interior Sub-secretary Mahmud Aleuy. "As we clear the roads and flooded zones, we may have a higher number of dead and missing," he Aleuy said. Communities in the desert region were struggling on Thursday to cope with a disaster that knocked out power and cut off roadways. Thunderstorms with torrential rains moved into the Atacama on Tuesday, causing the Copiapo river to overflow its banks. Fears of mudslides prompted authorities to evacuate thousands from their homes in “the worst rain disaster to fall on the north in 80 years”, said the deputy interior minister, Mahmud Aleuy. TV images showed brown muddy waters flooding the streets and reaching a hospital in Copiapo city. Some people living along the river had to be rescued by helicopter because roads were blocked by water and mud. TV footage showed several families waiting on the roofs of their homes, including a man who had punched a hole through his roof to save his toddler. Desperate family members of the victims took to Twitter pleading for help in finding their loved ones. The government declared a state of emergency, putting the region under military control, and President Michelle Bachelet flew to the area. “We’re living an extremely difficult situation,” she said. “The previous forecast was that there was a huge drought here, so the rains were not necessarily seen as a catastrophe. Foreseeing was really difficult because no one knew.” The heavy rains came after several days of high temperatures and a drought that stoked raging wildfires in Chile’s south-central regions. The fires have burned nearly 93,000 hectares in the 2014-2015 season, far above the annual average of 59,300 hectares over the previous five years. Earthquake-prone Chile is no stranger to the forces of nature. The national geological service Sernageomin said residents should be on alert due to increased activity at the Villarica volcano in the country’s south, which erupted on 3 March, forcing evacuations and disrupting air traffic. The storms prompted Chile’s state-run copper giant Codelco to suspend work due to blocked roads. The company said on Thursday it was reopening sites in the north, including some of the world’s largest copper mines. Saturday 28 March 2015

continue reading

French police recover remains of Germanwings 9525 crash victims

French police working to recover remains from the Germanwings crash site say so far they have recovered between 400 and 600 pieces of remains from the 150 people who died in Tuesday’s plane crash.

Speaking from the French Alps town of Seyne-les-Alpes, Col. Patrick Touron of the gendarme service said “we haven’t found a single body intact.”

He also said DNA samples have been taken from objects provided by the victims’ families — such as toothbrushes — that could help identify the victims.

Touron also said jewelry and other objects could help in the identification process.

Rescue workers examining the Germanwings air disaster crash site have found no intact bodies and up to 600 pieces of human remains, investigators have confirmed.

Families at the site are even having to go through the ordeal of providing DNA samples to experts based in a make-shift laboratory set up across two hotels in Barcelona, where the loved ones of the crash victims are staying.

Police have also confirmed that no intact bodies have been found at the French Alps crash zone as they seek to identify the 150 victims of the disaster who died.

In a bid to identify the victims, families are being asked by officials if they can recall what clothing their loved ones may have been wearing while on board the doomed flight.

They have been asked if their late family members may have had any distinctive features such as tattoos.

Experts have also been recovering DNA samples from household items of the victims for further examination.

'Daunting scene'

A team of 50 forensic workers face a daunting scene: a vast stretch of debris scattered over treacherous mountain ridges that can only be accessed with the help of climbing gear and a cadre of mountaineers.

The Germanwings A320, which French prosecutors suspect was deliberately sent into a crash by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, hit the mountain at 400 miles an hour and exploded on impact.

Four days into the search, “we have not found a single body intact,” chief forensic police investigator Col. Patrick Touron said in Seyne, about 5 miles away from the crash site.

The process of identifying remains from catastrophic events can take years. In New York City, investigators are still sorting through bone fragments and other human remains from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Nonetheless, French officials have vowed to do their best to help the families of the 150 people who died in Tuesday’s crash of the Barcelona-Düsseldorf flight.

“I assure you here that everything will be done to find the victims, identify them and return their bodies to their families,” French President François Hollande said Wednesday, speaking with his German and Spanish counterparts in Seyne during a ceremony.

In addition to Christian Driessens, the Belgian passenger, victims included 71 German citizens, 51 Spaniards and three Americans.

As of Friday, about 500 pieces of remains had been collected and ferried by helicopter to a base camp in Seyne, Col. Touron said. The search-and-recovery effort could take at least another 10 days, he said, adding that poor weather might slow down progress.

While the forensic squad meticulously combed the steep and slippery mountainside, French authorities started gathering DNA samples from relatives of the 144 passengers and six Germanwings crew members. As much as possible, French police are asking families to provide dental files from the victims, as well as toothbrushes or hairbrushes from which DNA samples can be extracted. Germany has supplied a special device to help French investigators read any biometric German passports that could be collected among the debris.

The signature Germanwings suit worn by cockpit crew may help investigators home in on the remains of Mr. Lubitz, the co-pilot, Mr. Touron said.

The police investigator said he expected French prosecutors would request extensive analysis of his remains—to determine whether he was on medication, for instance—but couldn't guarantee that it would be possible.

Plane crash recovery workers face treacherous terrain, high winds

The rescue workers battling to gather the pulverized pieces of Germanwings Flight 9525 and the remains of the 150 people on board must contend with high winds as well as treacherous terrain.

Winched down from helicopters on to the steep, icy slopes, where debris lies scattered across hundreds of meters, workers have had to be tied together in two-person teams.

One is there to carry out the investigation and recovery. The second is charged with ensuring their safety as they're buffeted by the weather.

Complicating matters, very few of the bodies have been found whole, Yves Naffrechoux, captain of rescue operations, told CNN on Friday.

And winds have picked up, making it difficult for helicopters to ferry the workers to the site in the French Alps in the first place, he said.

Authorities have deployed 45 Alpine policemen to help forensics officers -- not accustomed to working in mountain ravines -- recover the bodies safely, Naffrechoux said.

His team is based out of Seyne-les-Alpes, a normally sleepy Alpine village that since Tuesday's crash has been transformed into a hub for the recovery operation.

The leaders of Germany, France and Spain have visited. The families of the victims have laid flowers and prayed at a nearby memorial. Journalists have flocked to the spot as they report the latest developments.

Meanwhile, the rescue workers have continued their hazardous mission.

Workers hope to build access road

The recovery process has been difficult as there are many pieces and the weather has been unhelpful, Naffrechoux said.

Before anything could be recovered, the position of the bodies and debris had to be mapped. Human remains must be treated with due respect despite the tricky conditions.

The workers are now removing more bodies from the site, Naffrechoux said. The priority remains to find all the bodies and the elusive second "black box," the plane's flight data recorder, he said.

Investigators hope, once found, it could yield more clues into what happened on the flight deck of the Germanwings plane before it slammed into the mountainside at about 430 miles per hour. Already, the Marseille prosecutor, Brice Robin, has revealed that cockpit audio indicated that German co-pilot Andreas Lubitz "wanted to destroy the aircraft."

The recovery teams are trying to construct a road to access the site more quickly and aid the transportation of bodies to a DNA testing center where they are kept in refrigerated units, said Naffrechoux.

It's hoped the process will take 10 to 15 days, depending on weather, he said.

'Complicated process'

Testimonials posted by France's Interior Ministry from rescue and recovery workers at the scene also give an insight into the tough conditions at the remote crash site.

One, named as Commander Emmanuel G., of the Criminal Research Institute from the National Gendarmerie, said it was a "really complicated" process.

"We are working in two-person teams, whether it's alongside (police) mountain guides, the local gendarmes or the alpine firemen and emergency teams," he said. "We do not know how to continue in this situation otherwise, we really need them to ensure our security at all times."

"It's the first time police technicians and gendarmes are working together," an unnamed technician in one of those two-person teams is quoted as saying.

"We have total trust in each other. He's holding my life in his hands."

Saturday 29 March 2015

continue reading

10 die in stampede during Hindu religious gathering in Narayanganj

At least 10 people were killed and dozens more injured on Friday in a stampede during a Hindu religious gathering in Bangladesh, police said. The accident took place in Langalbandh, a Hindu pilgrimage spot on the banks of the Brahmaputra river, 12 miles southeast of capital Dhaka, according to police. The cause of the stampede was not immediately clear.

The annual religious bathing ritual in Bangladesh’s Narayanganj district draws thousands of Hindu devotees from Bangladesh and also neighboring India and Nepal.

At least 20 others were injured in the incident on Old Brahmaputra River bank at Langalbandh on Friday.

Witnesses say a rumour that a bailey bridge was collapsing triggered the stampede while many blamed mismanagement.

Police have denied the allegations.

Police say the bodies will be handed to families without post-mortem examinations.

The district administration announced Tk 25,000 to families of each victim for funeral.

President Md Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have mourned the casualties.

Langalbandh, 20 km southeast of Dhaka, is a Hindu holy site that hosts an annual ritual bath where pilgrims from home and abroad take part. The ritual’s origin is unclear.

An estimated 1.5 million devotees thronged Langalbandh on Friday.

Although the local administration prepared 16 quays, most devotees raced to the ancient Rajghat.

Local Union Parishad member Abdul Quadir said devotees had mostly thronged the Rajghat, Annapurna and Gandhi quays.

“The street is narrow but the bridge is narrower. People suddenly started running in a frenzy leading to the deaths”

What triggered the rumour is unclear.

Many blamed police inaction for the incident while others say lack of ambulances led to a rise in the toll.

Narayanganj Deputy Commissioner Anisur Rahman Mian blamed overcrowding for the stampede.

A senior police official in the district said that more police had been sent to the festival site after the accident and the bathing ritual had resumed after the stampede had been controlled.

Saturday 28 March 2015

continue reading

Germanwings crash: DNA experts work to identify victims

Jewelry and pieces of clothing were being removed from Germanwings crash victims on Friday and helicoptered out, police said Friday, as forensics teams ramped up DNA testing.

The grim task of recovering and identifying the 150 bodies intensified after relatives provided DNA samples in emergency tents set up near the crash site in a remote corner of the French Alps. The Germanwings flight smashed into the ground at 430 mph on Tuesday, pulverizing the wreckage.

"Intense efforts continue today to recover bodies and evidence for identification of victims," French police spokesman Lt. Col. Xavier Vielenc told reporters at a staging site near the town of Seyne-Sur-Alpes. "Investigators are bringing back anything that can help to identify victims such as jewelry, pieces of clothing."

He said four helicopters were flying 15 investigators to the mountainside where the Airbus A320 crashed, with each investigator was accompanied by police officer.

"Each team of two is dropped down into the crash site— like a buddy system in diving," Vielenc explained. "It is an 80 meter [260 feet] drop to the crash site by winch from the helicopter."

Ten of the 15 investigators are dedicated to DNA analysis, he said. Six more workers are responsible for transferring bodies and evidence back to the Post Command Operations site where tents have been erected for recovery teams and counselors.

Victims' relatives — who on Thursday attended a memorial service and visited the area of the crash — "gave DNA in these tents last night," he said.

Thirty forensic experts from the national French police service, IRCGN, are working in the tents, Vielenc added. Interpol has said its experts are assisting.

In the town of Le Vernet, a shrine set up by residents in memory of the victims was visited by a young Spanish couple who laid single flowers and a bouquet offered by officials from the Spanish embassy.

The mayor, Francois Baliquette, said the town "belonged" to the victims' families and that 19 of them had decided to stay on in the area after Thursday's visit.

"They can come when they like," he said. "We will accept them when they want. They are friends, sisters, mothers. They need to come here. They ask to come here. No problem."

Saturday 28 March 2015

continue reading