19 February 2006

A methane explosion in a coal mine near Nueva Rosita in Mexico kills 65 miners.

Palau, Mexico — Fermin was a mechanic, not a coal miner, but on the morning of February 19, 2006 he had to go down into the Pasta de Conchos mine near here to fix a broken cart that couldn’t haul the coal out.

Five years later, Fermin’s remains are still more than 100 meters (109 yards) below the ground, together with dozens of miners who worked that night.

Daniel Ezquiel, Fermin’s only son, doesn’t remember his father. He was just 1 year old when “the mine swallowed the miners.”

So that he won’t forget, his mother, Maria de Lourdes, sets aside part of her widow’s pension — 2,200 pesos a month — to buy any newspaper that publishes something about the incident. She cuts articles and photos, and pastes them in an album.

That Sunday, just past 2:30 a.m., an explosion left 65 miners buried who were working inside the Pasta de Conchos mine, in the Mexican state of Coahuila, in northern Mexico.

The mine is owned by Grupo Mexico, one of the largest mining companies in the country.

Then-President Vicente Fox never visited the relatives mourning at the mine site. President Felipe Calderon has also avoided meeting with the more than 300 family members.

After five years, the relatives and about five widows continue asking for the bodies to be retrieved from the mine. Citing dangerous conditions, the company abandoned the attempts to pull them out.

Maria de Lourdes says that a year and a half ago, she stopped receiving the 420 pesos the-ex governor of Coahuila sent so that the children of the miners could continue studying.

She sells baby clothing to complement her income and keep her son in school. She doesn’t want Daniel Ezequiel to be a coal miner.

There are several versions about the cause of the incident that killed the workers. Grupo Mexico says that there was an explosion caused by a ball of gas — gas that escapes from the earth at the moment of the coal extraction — and that as a consequence, the temperature in the mine rose to more than 900 degrees Celsius.

However, according to the autopsies of the only two bodies that were pulled from the mine, their deaths were caused by asphyxiation, not burns.

Those two bodies were located in the ninth diagonal tunnel in the mine. Grupo Mexico says it went nearly 2.8 kilometers into the mine, but hadn’t found the other remains.

In February 2007, the Coahuila state government produced 65 death certificates certified by a medical examiner, even though only two bodies had been recovered.

With 63 bodies still underground, Grupo Mexico decided to suspend the rescue of the bodies in April 2007. At that time, the company argued that according to their investigations, 25% to 75% of the mine was flooded and “the water possibly is contaminated by HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis, that could contaminate the rescuers, their families and entire populations.” These findings were given to the Pasta de Conchos Family Organization, which has advised the victims’ relatives.

Inspection records from a few months before the blast revealed that the ventilation system was failing and that there were problems with the electrical equipment. Some family members say the workers complained of a strong odor of gas.

Through a spokesman, Grupo Mexico declined to speak about the incident, citing internal policies.

Cristina Auerbach, lawyer for the victims’ relatives in the Pasta de Conchos Family Organization, said that explosions in the regions’ mines had been recorded since 1889. Even then, the only times that bodies were left inside the mine were 1889 and 2006. In the rest of the cases, the bodies were always recovered, alive or dead.

Auerbach recalled one of the biggest blasts that happened in 1969 in the town of Barroteran. In the Guadalupe mines, more than 160 people died. A little over a year later, all the bodies were recovered.

“The question isn’t whether Chile could and Mexico couldn’t, because the answer that they will give is that it was different because that mine was mineral and this one was coal, and this one had gas and that one didn’t. What you can compare is the government’s attitude,” she said. “Neither Vicente Fox nor Felipe Calderon has wanted to meet the families. Not only that, but in coal mining region, the bodies are always rescued. Only at Pasta de Conchos they are not.”

In northeast Coahuila, it’s common to find someone who has a miner in the family. Walking down the streets of towns like Nueva Rosita, Palau, San Juan Sabinas and Muzquiz, you can see trucks full of freshly mined coal at all hours.

At the end of each shift — around 3 p.m., 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. — trucks pass by with men whose faces are painted black by the carbon dust that fell on them during their 12 hours of work.

Nearly all the coal in Mexico is produced in Coahuila, according to the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information.

Raul Villasana, retired at age 67, also was a miner. He worked for more than 20 years in Grupo Mexico’s mines. One of his sons remains inside Pasta de Conchos. He and his wife Trinidad have traveled several times to Mexico City to participate in demonstrations in front of Grupo Mexico and the Labor Ministry to plead for the excavation of their son.

“We were recently at the Interior Ministry in November and what I asked for was my son’s rescue. I have asked for that since the beginning. Because the mine is not a cemetery, right? It’s for people to work in,” he said. “What we are asking the company and the government to do is to give the bodies to us, so we can do a holy burial and take him flowers, go see him, go visit him with his daughters, wife, sister, who also have asked for this.”

Villasana’s son left behind a son and two daughters. The widow decided to invest the 750,000 pesos that the family received from the company to set up a used clothes business that she supplies from the United States.

Maria de Lourdes, Fermin’s widow, knows the mining life well. Her father, Arsenio, was also a miner. He mined black gold from Pasta de Conchos. He retired several years before the blast.

Five years after the tragedy, she says some rescuers have dared to confess that at night they heard “noises like pickaxes striking on metal.”

Arsenio thinks those were the sounds of the last surviving miners.

“Though after all that time there is no way that they could come out alive,” he stated.

For residents like Villasana and Arsenio, Pasta de Conchos turned from a mine into a cemetery the morning of February 19. 2006.

18 February 1930

Clyde Tombaugh discovers Pluto.

Pluto, once believed to be the ninth planet, is discovered at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, by astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh.

The existence of an unknown ninth planet was first proposed by Percival Lowell, who theorized that wobbles in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune were caused by the gravitational pull of an unknown planetary body. Lowell calculated the approximate location of the hypothesized ninth planet and searched for more than a decade without success. However, in 1929, using the calculations of Powell and W.H. Pickering as a guide, the search for Pluto was resumed at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. On February 18, 1930, Tombaugh discovered the tiny, distant planet by use of a new astronomic technique of photographic plates combined with a blink microscope. His finding was confirmed by several other astronomers, and on March 13, 1930–the anniversary of Lowell’s birth and of William Hershel’s discovery of Uranus–the discovery of Pluto was publicly announced.

With a surface temperature estimated at approximately -360 Fahrenheit, Pluto was appropriately given the Roman name for the god of the underworld in Greek mythology. Pluto’s average distance from the sun is nearly four billion miles, and it takes approximately 248 years to complete one orbit. It also has the most elliptical and tilted orbit of any planet, and at its closest point to the sun it passes inside the orbit of Neptune, the eighth planet.

After its discovery, some astronomers questioned whether Pluto had sufficient mass to affect the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. In 1978, James Christy and Robert Harrington discovered Pluto’s only known moon, Charon, which was determined to have a diameter of 737 miles to Pluto’s 1,428 miles. Together, it was thought that Pluto and Charon formed a double-planet system, which was of ample enough mass to cause wobbles in Uranus’ and Neptune’s orbits. In August 2006, however, the International Astronomical Union announced that Pluto would no longer be considered a planet, due to new rules that said planets must “clear the neighborhood around its orbit.” Since Pluto’s oblong orbit overlaps that of Neptune, it was disqualified.

17 February 1979

The Sino-Vietnamese War starts.

On February 17, 1979, troops from the People’s Republic of China attacked the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in what became known as the Sino-Vietnamese War. Although for many years China and the regime in Hanoi had been allies, “as close as lips and teeth,” this “marriage of convenience” slowly began to fall apart beginning in the 1970s when China was unable to match the Soviet Union in military support to Hanoi.

Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia directly threatened Chinese interests in the region. China could not sit idly by while the Vietnamese had their way in Cambodia. Beijing sent several thinly veiled warnings to Hanoi, but Vietnamese officials responded by agreeing to discuss long-standing “border/ territorial issues” only, refusing to address the presence of Vietnamese troops in Cambodia, which was the main point of contention in the escalating tensions between the two countries.

The invasion of Cambodia and the ouster of the pro-Beijing Pol Pot regime ultimately proved to be the final straw for China, which condemned the invasion of Cambodia and the installation of Heng Samrin as “Vietnamese hegemonism abetted by Soviet social-imperialism.” The growing antipathy between China and Vietnam was further exacerbated by what China saw as persecution of 200,000 ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. There was some truth to this charge; Vietnamese Chinese were stripped of their citizenship and forfeited their rights to own businesses and hold public office. This only added to the rapidly worsening situation. Several Chinese officials were quoted as saying that China was probably going to have to “teach Vietnam a lesson.”

On February 15, 1979, Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping publicly announced China’s intention to strike back at the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. At dawn on the morning of February 17, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army launched a “punitive” expedition against Vietnam, attacking at numerous points along the 480-mile Sino-Vietnamese border after a massive artillery and rocket barrage.

The overall commander of the PLA forces was General Xu Shiyou, a member of the Politburo and a longtime supporter of Deng Xiaoping. Xu’s deputy, General Yang Dezhi, was in tactical control of the operations. Yang also had been the deputy commander of Chinese troops during the Korean War, during which he had developed the tactics of infiltration and envelopment followed by mass attacks. Yang was chosen to take tactical control due to the similarity of the terrain in northern Vietnam to that in Korea.

Once the attack was joined in earnest, Beijing, concerned about Soviet reaction to the invasion, issued statements to deter Soviet intervention, justifying the action by claiming that it was in response to repeated violations of Chinese territory by Vietnamese troops. Furthermore, Beijing announced that Chinese troops would stay in Vietnam only for a short while and that talks should be initiated to resolve the border conflict as soon as possible.

In response to the Chinese attack across the border, the Soviets sent several naval vessels to Vietnamese waters and initiated a Soviet arms lift to Vietnam. The Soviet military attaché in Hanoi threatened that the USSR would “carry out its obligations under the Soviet-Vietnam treaty,” but Moscow made it clear to Beijing that it would not intervene as long as the conflict remained localized along the common border between China and Vietnam.

The Chinese appear to have had several reasons for launching the attack. First, China wanted to punish Vietnam for the invasion of Cambodia and the toppling of the Pol Pot regime. They hoped that their massive attack would force Vietnam to withdraw troops from Cambodia and thereby remove the pressure on Pol Pot’s forces there. Second, the invasion was designed to deter extension of Vietnamese power across the border into China. Whether this threat was real or not was irrelevant; the Chinese made several statements reiterating their claims that there had been Vietnamese incursions into Chinese territory and that China would defend its territory and people from any Vietnamese aggression. Third, China was concerned about increasing Soviet influence and power in Southeast Asia. By attacking Moscow’s key ally in the area, Beijing could cast doubt on the extent of Soviet power in the region and thus avoid a direct threat to China while dealing a blow to Soviet prestige.

The invading force included 11 Chinese armies of regular ground troops and militia from the Kunming, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Guangzhou military regions. It is thought that troops from Fuzhou and Jinan military regions also participated; if this is true, it means that troops from six of China’s 11 military regions were involved in the campaign. Estimates of the total number of Chinese troops committed range from 200,000 to 450,000. The attacking forces included about 200 tanks and massive amounts of supporting artillery.

After the initial broad thrust across the border, the Chinese attack focused on three objectives: Lang Son, Cao Bang and Lao Cai. Arrayed against the attacking Chinese forces were about 15 Vietnamese combat regiments controlled by four regular divisions – a total force of about 50,000 augmented by local militia and border guards. Most estimates put the total number of Vietnamese defenders at around 130,000.

The initial Chinese plan was to forge a shallow penetration all along the front, hoping to draw into battle and destroy the regular Vietnamese divisions, which the Chinese felt would be compelled to react to protect the provincial capitals and important communication centers that were threatened by the advance. This would result in major battles of attrition in which Chinese forces would inflict heavy punishment on the Vietnamese defenders.

The main Chinese attack appeared to be against Lang Son, a provincial capital on the hills overlooking the Red River Delta, which lay only about 150 kilometers from Hanoi. The Chinese began their assault against Lang Son with an artillery barrage. After the barrage lifted, Chinese 55th Army attacked to seize Dong Dang and was to continue the attack toward Lang Son. At the same time, Chinese 43d Army initially focused on the Vietnamese positions in the hills around Chi Ma, and after taking the town was to turn northwest to secure its ultimate objective, Lang Son. For the attack on Lang Son, Chinese 54th Army was in reserve, following 55th Army. The plan called for 43d and 55th armies to link up southwest of Lang Son, effectively isolating Vietnamese 3d Division there, where it could be destroyed or forced to surrender.

The Chinese had hoped to fight “battles of quick decision,” but their attacks were conducted in a slow and deliberate manner, normally involving massive frontal attacks that relied upon the weight of numbers and firepower to defeat the Vietnamese defenders. The Chinese also used tanks, which surprised the Vietnamese given the hilly nature of the terrain in the area, but the tanks proved useful in bunker busting.

Chinese 43d Army achieved some success, but 55th Army’s attack was slowed by stiff resistance that employed spoiling attacks, minefields and heavy artillery to disrupt and disorganize the Chinese advance. The terrain favored the Vietnamese defenders, and they occupied hills from which they could place devastating plunging fire on the attackers. Against this resistance, the Chinese were unable to maintain sufficient operational tempo to overcome the Vietnamese. Ultimately, Chinese 54th Army had to be committed to the fight. The reinforcements made the difference, but even so, the battle for Lang Son was not over until March 5.

On the Cao Bang front, the attack began on February 17 with Chinese 41st and 42d armies attacking on two separate axes of advance toward the town. These forces would be supported by elements of 12th, 20th and 50th armies. The force allocated to this front numbered around 200,000 troops.

Chinese 41st Army was to cross the border and attack Cao Bang from the north, while 42d Army was to attack it from the southeast. As on the Lang Son front, the Chinese advances were slow and deliberate against stiff Vietnamese resistance. Chinese 42d Army made some progress, but the cost was high; in one engagement, the Vietnamese knocked out a number of Chinese tanks. As at Lang Son, the terrain favored the greatly outnumbered Vietnamese defenders, and they made the Chinese pay for every inch they advanced. Eventually, the sheer numbers of Chinese troops prevailed and Cao Bang fell on February 25. Heavy fighting continued on the Cao Bang front for the next five days, but on March 3, Chinese forces from the Cao Bang and Lang Son fronts linked up at Duet Long, on Highway 4, effectively closing the gap between the two Chinese thrusts.

On the Lao Cai front, the Chinese had attacked with elements of three armies, more than 125,000 troops. Chinese 11th Army attacked across the border from the northwest to seize the town of Phong Tho, about 65 kilometers from Lao Cai, to prevent reinforcement from the west. At the same time, 13th and 14th armies attacked south to seize Lao Cai itself. The Vietnamese defenders in this area included six regiments, totaling about 20,000 troops. As on the other fronts, the out numbered Vietnamese troops put up a stiff defense; after five days, the Chinese had advanced only a few kilometers. The Chinese employed human wave attacks to overcome the Vietnamese positions, but the battle continued until March 5 when Lao Cai fell to the attackers.

While the main Chinese thrusts focused on Lao Cai, Cao Bang and Lang Son, several supporting attacks were conducted elsewhere along the China-Vietnam border. Many of these attacks resembled the larger Chinese operations. For example, in Quang Ninh, on the eastern edge of the border, a platoon of Vietnamese held up an attack on Cao Ba Lanh Mountain for five hours, inflicting 360 casualties on the attacking Chinese force that numbered over 2,800 men.

The day after the Chinese captured Lang Son, Beijing declared that the gate to Hanoi was open; that the Vietnamese had been sufficiently chastised; and announced that it was withdrawing its forces. By March 16, all Chinese forces had crossed the border back into China, blowing bridges and railroads and generally laying waste to the Vietnamese countryside along the way.

16 February 1985

Hezbollah is founded.

The ideology of Hezbollah has been summarized as Shiite radicalism. Hezbollah was largely formed with the aid of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers in the early 1980s in order to spread Islamic revolution and follows a distinct version of Islamic Shi’a ideology developed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the “Islamic Revolution” in Iran.

Hezbollah declared its existence on 16 February 1985 in “The Hizballah Program”. This document was read by spokesman Sheikh Ibrahim al-Amin at the al-Ouzai Mosque in west Beirut and simultaneously published in al-Safir as “The Hizballah Program, an open letter to all the Oppressed in Lebanon and the World”, and a separate pamphlet that was first published in full in English in 1987.

Since then, Hizbullah published a new manifesto on 1 December 2009, which shifts its direction to better stay coherent with the current situation in their community. This new manifesto contains language that downplays the Islamic rhetoric and focuses more on integration into their community. Furthermore, the new manifesto calls for the elimination of the sectarian system in place right now in Lebanon and calls for replacement of this system by a secular modern system. However, the new manifesto states that the US and Israel are still Hizb’Allah’s prime enemies. Moreover, it eliminates the possibility of open discussion on its right to bear arms. It pursues this agenda with the assistance of various like-minded Allies in the region.

15 February 1971

The decimalisation of British coinage is completed on Decimal Day.

February 15, 1971 All change as Britain switches to decimal currency
Britain said farewell to pounds, shillings and pence and hello to the new penny, the seven-sided 50p piece and the ‘tiddler’ as Decimal Day finally arrived.

The biggest change to Britain’s currency for more than a thousand years took place on this day in 1971 when the system of pounds, shillings and pence made way for a decimal system that divided the pound into 100 new pence.

Although the decimal debate dated back as far as the 17th century, Britain had resisted change from the old system of 240 pennies to the pound even though most of the world had adopted currency systems based around units of 10, 100 or 1,000.

A 1963 report by the Halsbury Committee recommended a switch to a decimal currency, and in March 1966 Chancellor of the Exchequer James Callaghan told the House of Commons that Britain would go decimal in 1971. The Decimal Currency Act wouldn’t be passed until May 1969, but by then the Decimal Currency Board, under Lord Fiske, was well established and the first decimal coins – versions of the shilling and two-shilling, or florin, bearing the 5p and 10p legends – had already reached the high street.

Decimal Currency Board chairman Lord Fiske on Decimal Day

The new 50p coin followed in October 1969, so that by Decimal Day itself, the population was already familiar with three of the six new coins – the ½p, 1p and 2p coins were introduced on ‘D Day’ itself.

Banks were closed from Thursday February 11 to give them time to clear cheques written in ‘old money’ and convert balances to decimal, while railway companies began accepting the new coins a day early to ease the process. Large stores opened special counters where shoppers could exchange their £sd for a handful of the 4,140 million new coins in circulation.

Thanks to a three-year education campaign which included a TV drama called Granny Gets the Point, free ready-reckoners and rudimentary conversion calculators and even a song by Max Bygraves extolling the virtues of the new coinage, fears of galloping inflation, crafty retailers rounding up prices or public rejection never came to pass, and the transition to the new decimal currency was hailed a success.

14 February 1929

Seven people, six of them gangster rivals of Al Capone’s gang, are murdered in Chicago in what became know as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Fourmen dressed as police officers enter gangster Bugs Moran’s headquarters on North Clark Street in Chicago, line seven of Moran’s henchmen against a wall, and shoot them to death. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, as it is now called, was the culmination of a gang war between arch rivals Al Capone and Bugs Moran.

George “Bugs” Moran was a career criminal who ran the North Side gang in Chicago during the bootlegging era of the 1920s. He fought bitterly with “Scarface” Al Capone for control of smuggling and trafficking operations in the Windy City. Throughout the 1920s, both survived several attempted murders. On one notorious occasion, Moran and his associates drovesix cars past a hotel in Cicero, Illionis, where Capone and his associates were having lunch and showered the building with more than 1,000 bullets.

A $50,000 bounty on Capone’s head was the final straw for the gangster. He ordered that Moran’s gang be destroyed. On February 14, a delivery of bootleg whiskey was expected at Moran’s headquarters. But Moran was late and happened to see police officers entering his establishment. Moran waited outside, thinking that his gunmen inside were being arrested in a raid. However, the disguised assassins were actually killing the seven men inside.

The murdered men included Moran’s best killers, Frank and Pete Gusenberg. Reportedly Frank was still alive when real officers appeared on the scene. When asked who had shot him, the mortally wounded Gusenberg kept his code of silence, responding, “No one, nobody shot me.”

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre actually proved to be the last confrontation for both Capone and Moran. Capone was jailed in 1931 and Moran lost so many important men that he could no longer control his territory. On the seventh anniversary of the massacre, Jack McGurn, one of the Valentine’s Day hit men,was killed him in a crowded bowling alley with a burst of machine-gun fire.

McGurn’s killer remains unidentified, but was likely Moran, though hewas never charged with the murder. Moran was relegated to small-time robberies until he was sent to jail in 1946. He died in Leavenworth Federal Prison in 1957 of lung cancer.

13 February 1955

Israel gets four of the seven Dead Sea Scrolls.

On February 13, 1955, Israels prime minister, Moshe Sharett, held a press conference to announce that the country had acquired four more of the fabled Dead Sea Scrolls, an acquisition of sterling importance to scholars of ancient Judaism and early Christianity and a real coup for the fledgling states national pride.

The initial discovery of what came to be known collectively as the Dead Sea Scrolls — referring to whole documents and fragments of some 950 parchment scrolls, dating to the period between the 3rd century B.C.E. and the 1st century C.E. — was in 1946. Thats when three Bedouin of the Taamra tribe happened upon the first part of a cache of seven rolled-up pieces of parchment, stored for over 2,000 years in clay jars in a cave in the hills overlooking the western shore of the Dead Sea, adjacent to the site known as Qumran, north of Ein Gedi.

The Bedouin quickly recognized that these artifacts might be of significant historical value. One of the antiquities dealers with whom they consulted was in touch with an archaeologist at the American School of Oriental Research, today the Albright Institute, in Jerusalem. This contact soon led to a scientific expedition which surveyed a number of the caves in the area, in search of additional documents and information about the finds.

Unknown apocalyptic text

In December 1947, as the clouds of war were gathering over the region, Eliezer Lipa Sukenik, professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University, succeeded in purchasing three of those seven scrolls from a dealer in Bethlehem. They included a partial manuscript of the biblical Book of Isaiah, and two scrolls that were dubbed the Thanksgiving Scroll, and the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness.