Thursday, July 29, 2021

Liverpool - The City of Remembrance

When you look throughout history there are many tragic incidents, accidents and disasters that occur in every city in the world, but one that has many memorials to such periods is that of the western English city of Liverpool, home of the Beatles and two Premier League football clubs.

I have visited Liverpool on several occasions in the last 20 years, each time finding new things to see and it is my intention to head back at some point to see other historical pieces that have since been erected in memory of people from long ago. But we shall start with the maritime history of this great city and its connections to two of the most famous lost liners in the world.

Back in the early 1900s the two shipping rivals Cunard and White Star were in the process of designing and building their most inspiring ships, for Cunard it would be the Lusitania and Mauritania and for White Star it would be the three sisters Olympic, Titanic and Britannic. Lusitania was launched in 1907 and was a regular here at the docks, but the Titanic never came here despite the fact that the name Liverpool was emblazoned on her stern as her port of registry.

Both of these ships sank in tragic circumstances – Titanic was lost on 15th April 1912 after striking an iceberg killing 1512, Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat off Ireland on 7th May 1915 killing 1197. The Merseyside Maritime Museum features these ships heavily and tells the story of how so many local merchant mariners put to sea in these ships and how many lost their lives. Two monuments adorn this area by the docks, the first one is in the grounds of the museum and that is the propeller of the Lusitania, salvaged from her wreck, the second is a memorial to the Titanic unveiled a few years after the sinking.

Just over the main roads from here are the old White Star Line offices, the headquarters of a company that ended up merging with Cunard and eventually phased out after the Second World War. The building itself has a plaque but mentions nothing about the company’s most famous ships.

Over in Birkenhead is the U-boat Story, a museum dedicated to the wreck of the German submarine U-534 (featured in a previous blog story). Sunk in the last days of the war in 1945 she was salvaged in August 1993 in a hunt for lost gold. A few years later she was brought here where she went on display and this is where I first went around the wreck in 2000. Several years later she was sold once again, cut up and made into an incredible museum that she sits in today with all her artefacts, a fascinating piece of history and one that we can commend those that have put all their time and effort into the preservation of the wreck and the things that this submarine can teach us about the Second World War.

The final memorial to talk about is one that is much closer to home and one that actually didn’t happen anywhere near here. On 15th April 1989 a football match at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield ended with thousands of Liverpool FC fans being crushed in a stand that was overcrowded and badly managed. By the end of the day there were dozens dead, the final toll being 96. While the city of Sheffield was in shock, it was Liverpool where all the victims came from and because of this a memorial at the Liverpool FC ground at Anfield pays tribute to the people who did not come home that day.

While there was controversy for many years over the blame for this terrible incident, the city did not forget their people and a second memorial was unveiled in the city in 2013. This memorial is one that I have not yet had the chance to visit but one day I will make the journey and seek it out for myself.

My trips here have shown me that the city of Liverpool, heavily bombed during the Second World War and the scene of several headline-hitting murders over the years, will continue to remember their people no matter where they are. It is a city that acts more like a family than a neighbourhood, one that will make sure that no one from Liverpool is ever forgotten.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

A Massacre in Norway

Whenever you think of terrorism, very rarely does any part of Scandinavia come up in conversation. But all that changed ten years ago when the world knew the name of Anders Behring Breivik, a white supremacist hell bent on infecting vulnerable people with his poisonous ideology.

But he was a nobody, he needed to make the world stand up and take notice of him and the only way to do this was to light the fire that would cause the revolution that he dreamed of. He would have to cause absolute chaos, to do this he decided he would orchestrate a massacre.

Born in 1979, Breivik spent his life in his home in Norway living with his mother and playing vast amounts of video games online. His unhealthy interest in attacking the governmental system and migrant issues his only friend, but one that he would go over in his mind again and again.

On 22nd July 2011 he drove a van to the government buildings in the capital Oslo which included the office of the Prime Minister, setting the fuse. With no warning the explosives stored in the back exploded with devastating consequences, the shockwave sending ripples across every building in the vicinity and leaving a trail of casualties. This bombing killed 8 and left over 200 injured.

Emergency services were on their way while Breivik was already outbound, heading to his next attack. This time it was a children's political summer camping trip on the island of Utoya. Dressed as a police officer he managed to trick the ferry operators to take him over to the island saying that he was protecting the people camped there following the terrorist attack that was already making the news.

But without any inkling of what was about to happen, Breivik pulled out his weapons and opened fire, shooting everybody he could see. He began a murderous rampage across Utoya, cutting down any human being that moved, round after round ripping across the trees and outbuildings. The terrified campers hid as best they could but he did not stop. Word got out that gunfire was heard on the island and the police sped to the scene.

Armed response teams found Breivik and ordered him to lay down his weapons, he did as he was told and surrendered without a fight. By now he had killed 69 people on the island and injured 110. He was taken away and locked up, charged with terrorism which he freely admitted….yet he pleaded not guilty as he “did not recognise the court” that he was to be tried in.

After a trial lasting several months, he was found sane by a court of law and sentenced to 21 years detention, the maximum time a court can give a killer in Norway. This does not mean he will be released when his time is up, this can be extended if he is considered a threat.

In 2018 I made a visit to Oslo and went to check out the place where the bombing took place. There is a small museum which unfortunately wasn’t open at the time and a damaged bus stop was relocated from its original position a street away to outside the PM’s old office, glass still damaged and with the newspaper from the day of the bombing behind the glass for the commuters to read while waiting.

What got me was that the building looked fine, although by now it had been over 7 years since the attack, but this thought was soon dashed when I realised that the front of the building seemed to move with the wind. It took a while to see but the entire front of this tall office block was a canvas photograph designed to look like the building is still standing, behind this would be a damaged fa├žade and no doubt empty rooms. It seems that after so many years the damage is still there and the legacy of Anders Breivik is still there to see.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

The Crash of TWA Flight 800

25 years ago a disaster hit the aviation industry that sent shockwaves around the world. The loss of Trans World Airlines flight 800 was one of those air crashes that baffled the investigators and led to a host of conspiracy theories before the eventual investigation report concluded that it was something much simpler.

On 17th July 1996 the TWA Boeing 747 sat on the runway at JFK Airport in New York waiting to take off, with 230 people on board heading for Paris. As the aircraft sped down the runway a chain reaction of events was already under way. 12 minutes after take off it exploded in flames, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean. When rescuers reached the site, they were greeting with burning wreckage floating on the sea in the dark. There were no survivors.

What happened next was unprecedented, for after the mourning period came the questions. What had caused the aircraft to explode in mid-air so suddenly? Rumours of a terrorist bombing were rife but no group had claimed responsibility. Then suddenly a photograph was released to the press that set tongues wagging and conspiracies booming.

On Long Island a party was in full swing as the aircraft was heading out to sea and photographs were being taken of the people enjoying drinks and chatter without realising what was going on in the background. In one photograph, high in the sky, is what looked like a missile streaking across the night. The US Navy ships were doing exercises in the area and immediately came under suspicion.

Accusations were thrown around as the wreckage of the aircraft was still being recovered, the investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board hard at work trying to sift through the clues as to what really went on. The missile strike was soon discredited due to the fact that any military exercises did not come close to the aircraft and there were no objects in the sky being tracked on RADAR before the crash.

The wreckage of TWA 800 was reovered piece by piece, a painstakingly slow process and a massive jigsaw puzzle now started to take shape in a hangar, but before long the investigators were getting more of an idea of what had happened. It turned out that the fuel tanks were not full to capacity and that the residual space within the fuel tanks were creating a space for vapours to congregate and therefore leaving potential dangers within the aircraft. 

With this confirmed, all it took was one spark from a short circuit to blow the aircraft up, which was the conclusion of the NTSB four years after the disaster. An animation was set up to show the world what went on and it was nothing short of horrific. The front of the aircraft had been blown completely off in the initial explosion, but the aircraft continued flying for another 34 seconds without a cockpit. The Boeing 747 then descended rapidly and crashed into the sea.

Although 25  years has passed the pain of this tragedy has not gone away. Having to wait four years for an answer as well as the conspiracies only heightened the pain and not-knowing. The wreckage of the aircraft was reconstructed in a hangar and used for training, recently this has been announced that after a quarter of a century, this huge piece of aviation history will now be decommissioned from use and put to scrap.

Memorials to the disaster were installed in New York by the families group, where the relatives will gather on 17th July like they have done every year for over two decades. With the cause of the crash now known, the only thing that could be done was to take away the lessons learned and prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.