Sensors Mag

Heroes, the Sleaze Factor, and a Personal Note

February 27, 2006 By: Stephanie vL Henkel, Sensors

My heart was broken by the mudslide that took out the Philippine village of Guinsaugon. The official death toll as of February 22 stood at 107. It is expected to surpass 1000, including some 300 children and teachers at the elementary school. I think it's the school, and the memory of another lost in Wales many years ago under similar circumstances that really got to me. First, though, I'd like to talk about the heroes.

Those Heroes

The 100 feet of mud over Guinsaugon is a trickier material to contend with than the fallen rock and dirt that regularly trap coal miners. The U.S. Marines brought in a drill capable of reaching depths of 180 feet but could not use it for lack of brace poles.

Philippine soldiers tackled the school area, identifiable only by satellite and topographical maps and property boundary lines, with shovels, hands—anything that could move the mud.

Emergency teams from Taiwan brought acoustic devices to listen for sounds of life. The signals were so attenuated that what the listeners picked up turned out to be only the sighs and groans of settling mud.

Could anything else have failed? Yes. The big generators the Marines wanted to bring in were deemed likely to exert dangerous levels of vibration on the unstable slide.

I'm sure that there were more teams and more equipment at the site. Those heroes' hearts could not have been braver. Some had to be rescued from sinking into the muck. The equipment could in future—and I hope it will be—beefed up to pick up weaker signals and tightly tuned to identify their likely sources. The generators could be outfitted with dampers to allow their use on fragile surfaces. But sensors and other appropriate technology were brought in, everyone hit the job with what they had, and they all did their best.

Meanwhile in Moscow

In downtown Moscow, on February 23, the roof of the Basmanny market collapsed under a heavy snow load, killing 49 and injuring another 29. Many of the survivors used cell phones to help rescuers find them. Don't leave home without yours!

The Sleaze Factor

The colliery waste tip disaster in the south Wales village of Aberfan was laid directly on the mine operators. It was a small town, made smaller yet by the deaths of 144 residents including 116 school children and five teachers, when the mining debris rolled over it. The architect of the Basmanny market has been fingered for construction defects that led to a collapse in the Transvaal Park building, also in Moscow, and also of that architect's design, that killed 28 and hurt more than 100. (The charge is being contested.) And in Guinsaugon, there are rumblings of deforestation on a geologically unstable land area and bureaucratic foot-dragging.

Local Heroes

In northern New England we don't have enough topsoil to make a significant mudslide, nor is there any coal mining. But we do have snow storms and ice storms, and, last week, a violent windstorm that took out electric lines all over the area. The line crews were out there on cherry pickers, wrangling wires that whipped around in the 65 mph blow. Road by road, house by house, they brought us all back up. I hail them as my heroes. Don't you?

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