Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Valenzuela fire: Relatives identify victims' belongings

The burnt necklaces, watches, and fragments of clothes: these were all that were left behind by the 72 workers killed in the fire that hit Kentex Manufacturing Corporation in Valenzuela City on May 13.

A week since the tragedy, forensics officials are still working to identify 69 of the bodies retrieved from the gutted factory, which left most of the victims burnt beyond recognition.

Aside from DNA testing, the Philippine National Police (PNP) is also asking families to help identify the personal belongings of their loved ones.

During a public assistance event set up by the Valenzuela city government on Wednesday, May 20, investigators also showed photos of the victims' personal belongings found at the accident site.

One by one, tearful relatives stood up to say the burnt watches, rings, and necklaces in the photos belonged to their friends and family members.

Some of the items were difficult to identify, mostly burnt pieces of cloth and shoes that belonged to the victims.

Others were easier to identify: a portion of a courier delivery ticket; an ID with the name still partly legible; one charred photograph of a smiling child.

Looking for a loved one

Irenea Pohanes, 44, was one of the first to stand up when the photos were shown. She had seen, and quickly recognized, the necklace and watch that belonged to her niece, Jerylyn Calago.

Pohanes started to sob when she saw the photos, prompting city social welfare workers to calm her down.

"Nasaktan ako pagkakita ko ng mga alahas niya. Nakita ko na talaga ngang nasunog ang pamangkin ko," she told reporters. "Hindi ko matanggap."

(I was hurt when I saw the photos of her jewelry. I realized that my niece really did burn to death. I can't accept it.)

The 22-year-old Calago had been working in the footwear factory for two years. Her parents both live in Mindanao, leaving Pohanes as her guardian in Manila.

Pohanes said it was the first time that her niece's death had sunk in. She was not able to identify Calago when her body bag was brought in last week.

Together with other families, Pohanes received P83,300 in monetary aid from the Valenzuela city government and other private groups during the public assistance caravan held at the city hall.

But she said the money does little to ease her family's suffering.

"Kahit may pera, wala nang buhay ang pamangkin namin (Even with the money, nothing brings back the life of my niece)," she said.

Helping the families

On Wednesday, the Valenzuela city government set up a one-stop public assistance event to make it easier for families to process the documents they need to claim compensation from the accident.

"We have decided to set up these help desks so that the families would have an easier time in accessing the concerned government offices, because we understand that many of them do not know when and where to start, especially since they are still mourning the loss of their loved ones," Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian said.

Among the participants in the event are the Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Labor and Employment, Department of Education, Social Security System, PAGIBIG Fund, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, Public Attorney's Office, and the offices of Valenzuela Representative Sherwin Gatchalian and Alay Buhay party-list Representative Wes Gatchalian.

The city government said it would also provide livelihood and employment assistance to the workers who lost their jobs at the factory.

20 May 2015

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One-stop aid center for Kentex fire victims’ kin

The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) has set up a “one-stop-assistance-center that will facilitate interagency government assistance” to the relatives of the victims of a fire that killed 72 people in Valenzuela City last May 13.

The center, which will be staffed by representatives from the Valenzuela city local government, congressional offices, nongovernment organizations, and government offices, will be “operational within the week,” DILG Secretary Manuel A. Roxas II said in a statement.

The government agencies involved are the “Department of Labor and Employment, Social Security System, Pag-IBIG Fund, Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Education, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Inter-Agency Anti-Arson Task Force of the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP).

On May 13, 72 workers were killed when fire gutted footwear factory Kentex Manufacturing Corp. in Barangay Ugong, Valenzuela City. Reports said that welding sparks caused flammable chemicals to explode.

According to the release, a representative from the PNP Special Investigation Task Group (SITG) “Kentex” will be “available to entertain inquiries regarding the ongoing investigation, including progress of the tedious process of identification of the remains recovered at the razed factory.”

In a case conference on Monday, Senior Supt. Edgar C. Danao, the commander of SITG Kentex, said that the PNP Crime Laboratory “has already made initial identification of some personal belongings and personal effects” recovered at the scene of the fire. Representatives from the BFP, Valenzuela City government, PNP Crime Laboratory, Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) and other PNP units are involved in the investigation, the release said.

Mr. Danao said that “the PNP Crime Laboratory will also attempt to identify some of the recovered human remains through forensic odontology by comparing the victims’ remains with available dental records.”

DNA specimens from the victims’ living family members have been collected “for possible matching with DNA extracted from the bodies,” Mr. Danao said.

Temporarily, the recovered remains of the fire victims are “kept in individual coffins inside niches at the public cemetery and properly labeled for organized recording.”

Mr. Danao was said to have tasked the CIDG to collect “the sworn statements of the first responders to assist probers in establishing the events before, during and after the incident.”

Kentex already has a copy of the After Fire Operation Report of the fire, dated May 15 and submitted by the fire district marshal of Valenzuela.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

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Italy to recover bodies from shipwrecked boat as EU falters on migrant plan

Italy will recover hundreds of bodies from a boat which capsized in April in a bid to prevent the collapse of an EU plan to tackle the migrant crisis, the prime minister said yesterday.

“We will go to the bottom of the sea and recover that boat,” Matteo Renzi said in a television interview, as opposition mushroomed to controversial plans for quotas to spread Mediterranean refugees around Europe.

“There are 500 to 600 bodies down there. The world has to see what happened. I want those who are being cunning and pretending not to see, to stop,” he said in a reference to EU partners refusing to help Italy deal with the waves of migrants washing up on its shores.

“Europe cannot just say ‘out of sight, out of mind’”.

Renzi said it would cost “between €15 to €20 million” (RM60.4 million and RM80.6 million) to bring up the boat, which sank off Libya last month in the Mediterranean’s worst disaster since World War II.

“I hope the European Union will pay, otherwise we will,” he added.

There were over 700 people on board at the time, many of whom—including children—were packed in below deck, according to images filmed by a navy submersible.

The tragedy sparked calls for more to be done to tackle human trafficking by sea and to ease the pressure on frontline states like Italy, Greece and Malta by having other countries take in asylum seekers.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

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Germanwings plane crash: All victims identified

All the human remains found at the scene of the Germanwings air crash have been identified and will be returned to their families, a French prosecutor says. The plane crashed in the French Alps on March 24 with 150 people on board.

Investigators say co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed the plane after locking the pilot out of the cockpit.

Recovery workers tasked with gathering the human remains and fragments of plane debris scattered across a steep mountainside faced a challenging task in treacherous conditions. Forensics workers used DNA testing to aid the identification process.

Experts have spent six weeks conducting DNA tests on the remains.

"The 150 death certificates can now be signed, as well as the 150 burial permits," said Brice Robin, Marseille's city prosecutor.

Mr Robin had previously said it was Mr Lubitz's "intention to destroy [the] plane", which was flying from Barcelona to Duesseldorf.

Among the victims was a group of 16 students, 14 girls and two boys, and two of their teachers, from Joseph-Koenig school in Haltern, western Germany. They were travelling back from a Spanish exchange programme on the Germanwings flight.

The victims were from 18 countries, including Australia, Argentina and Japan, but most of those on board were either Spanish or German.

The plane took off from Barcelona just after 09:00 GMT on 24 March. It made its last contact with air traffic control half an hour later, before descending over the following ten minutes.

The Airbus plane crashed in a remote region at 09:41GMT.

On 26 March, French investigators said information from the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) found at the crash zone revealed that Mr Lubitz had taken over the controls of the plane and sent it into a dive intentionally.

A full investigation report is expected to be completed in a year.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

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Living with earthquakes

There is one thing all of us in Nepal have struggled to do since 25th April: live with uncertainty.

The hundreds of aftershocks that followed the 7.8 magnitude earthquake on that Saturday had been slowly decreasing in their intensity. I had come to keep calm at the new jolts that would punctuate our days and nights, even not noticing the “mild” ones when I was concentrated on the tasks at hand.

Then, I was in front of my computer in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Kathmandu last Tuesday when the ground started shaking again. I ran to the nearest door frame, previously identified as a safe area. A colleague joined me. We waited there for what seemed like a terrifyingly long time, as the building swayed, the floor creaked and, worse than anything, the movement got increasingly violent.

When we could finally get outside, thoughts started rushing in: is everyone here? Are my husband and son safe? What happened to our teams in the field, to our staff in the south of the country?

Around me, colleagues were frantically trying to reach loved ones, battling jammed networks. One staff member was hugging someone who was desperately sobbing. As details on the epicenter of the quake trickled in, the tension became even more palpable on the faces of the colleagues who had their families there. Their houses had already been destroyed in the first quake. What news would they learn now?

Flocks of birds rose in the sky, and someone shouted: “Earthquake!” We regrouped at the center of the open space, as a second powerful tremor shook the ground.

Birds know.

When everyone had been accounted for, I finally felt relief. One of our staff was blocked in Chautara by a huge landslide that had cut the main road, but he was safe.

Driving home at night, the streets that had come back to life over the past days were again deserted, the shops that had reopened were again shuttered. It was a bad night. There were three more powerful tremors. People were screaming, others were blowing whistles. My colleagues and I all have whistles, meant to attract the attention of rescuers if you are trapped under debris.

I lay awake, thinking of those living under tents, of colleagues taking their elderly parents to the relative safety of open spaces. Of those brave Nepalis who had already started rebuilding their destroyed houses, of the children who so badly needed to go back to school, to engage in any activity that would take their minds off the disaster.

The next day, all were back to work at the ICRC delegation, but many faces showed exhaustion. Everyone was affected by the stories of grief coming from newly hit areas. More deaths, more injuries, more houses crumbling like a pack of cards. What could we answer to anxious survivors who asked “what next”, when not even geologists could predict when the aftershocks would be over?

Yet as I was poring over reports from the field and listening to colleagues, hope started creeping back. Nepal Red Cross Society (NRCS) teams were providing first aid services to the injured and continuing relief distributions. One hospital, in Dhulikhel, with which we had developed a partnership on the Emergency Room Trauma Course, was operating on patients airlifted from remote areas. Our Nepali psycho-social professionals and community based psychosocial workers, together with their NRCS colleagues, continued helping survivors cope with their uncertainty, fear and sadness. Others were striving to restore links between separated family members. The two physical rehabilitation facilities we have supported for years, in Kathmandu and Pokhara, were already treating patients from the earthquake.

Helping hands were at work everywhere.

Continuity. This was it, I thought. The ICRC has been in Nepal since 1998, responding to the needs arising from the internal conflict between the Maoists and the Government. For the last 16 years, we have contributed to strengthen the emergency preparedness capacity of the NRCS and of state institutions, give hope to separated families through Red Cross messages, provide comprehensive psycho-social support to family members of those missing in the conflict, train forensic specialists to identify dead bodies. Now, this longstanding collaboration was being put to work for the earthquake victims.

I deeply hope continuity will prevail. The famed Nepali resilience does not need be put to the test yet again.

Dragana Kojic is head of the International Committee of the Red Cross Nepal delegation.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

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6 bodies found after Guyana mining accident; 4 still missing

Rescue crews in Guyana have recovered the bodies of six miners who had been missing since an open-pit gold mine collapsed in the South American country.

Police said Tuesday that authorities are still searching for four other miners. They said crews are digging despite heavy rains and mud to recover bodies buried up to 20 feet (6 meters) in the pit.

The collapse occurred Sunday in the remote southern Potaro-Siparuni Region near the border with Brazil. Seven other miners were injured and taken to the hospital.

Miners Association President Patrick Harding said the group will meet to talk about safety issues and the role of officials charged with supervising mining operations.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

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Colombia flood, mudslide death toll rising rapidly

Rescuers searched for more bodies on Tuesday (Wednesday NZT) as the death toll from a deadly flood and mudslide that swept through a Colombian town rose to 65.

The avalanche of mud and debris roared through the mountain town of Salgar before dawn on Monday (Tuesday NZT), taking away homes and bridges. Authorities said the death toll, which had risen to 65, was likely to grow throughout the day as an undetermined number of people, perhaps as many as 100, remain missing.

Survivors recalled being stirred from their beds by a loud rumble and neighbours' shouts, barely having enough time to gather their loved ones as modestly built homes and bridges plunged into the Libordiana ravine.

"The river took out everything in its path," said construction worker Diego Agudelo, adding that the back part of his home was lost to the river.

Dozens of rescuers supported by Black Hawk helicopters on Monday evacuated residents near the ravine for fear of another mudslide. A red fire truck could be seen hauling away several bodies, their bare feet dangling from an open trunk.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who traveled to the town to oversee relief efforts, said several children lost their parents and the bodies of those killed needed to be transported to Medellin for identification. He vowed to rebuild the lost homes and provide shelter and assistance for the estimated 500 people affected by the calamity.

"Nobody can bring back the dead ... but we have to handle this disaster as best we can to move forward," Santos said.

By Monday evening (Tuesday NZT), Carlos Ivan Marquez, head of the National Disasters Unit, said 58 people had been killed and 37 injured. An undetermined number of people were missing.

The flooding destroyed the town's aqueduct and even areas in less hazardous zones experienced flooding. Authorities provided water, food supplies and blankets to help residents cope with what they described as a humanitarian emergency.

Colombia's rugged topography, in a seismically active area at the northern edge of the Andes, combined with shoddy construction practices, has made the country one of Latin America's most disaster-prone. More than 150 disasters have struck the country over the past 40 years, claiming more than 32,000 lives and affecting more than 12 million people, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

The tragedy in Salgar appeared to be the single deadliest event since a 1999 earthquake in the city of Armenia that left hundreds dead. A wave of flooding during the 2011 rainy season left more than 100 dead.

"I said to my wife 'let's hold each and hope that God saves us,"' said Jorge Quintero, a local resident, describing to RCN TV how he was trapped between two raging currents that had taken with it two homes on either side of his own. "I know God gave us his hand because here we are, alive, still frightened, but alive."

Wednesday 20 May 2015

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