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Fatal Train Wreck Is Latest Jolt to a Besieged Britain

March 01, 2001|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Funeral pyres of farm animals paint hellish landscapes in North Yorkshire, Wales and Devon. Scotland is buried by snowstorms. A freak train wreck leaves at least 13 dead and 70 injured on the Newcastle-to-London line.

Britain is feeling besieged.

The steady march of foot-and-mouth disease across the length and breadth of Britain is broadcast on the news: six more outbreaks Wednesday. No, this just in--two more confirmed Wednesday night. Plus, the first case in Northern Ireland.

"It is like a bad dream," Essex farmer John Morley said after the last of his 500 pigs had been slaughtered.

Morley, 45, escaped the "mad cow" disease of the last decade by raising pigs instead of cattle. He avoided an outbreak of swine fever last year, and his hillside Green Acres farm stood above the flood waters that inundated his neighbor's home this winter for the first time in a quarter of a century.

But the first mass outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in more than 30 years has wiped him out. His farm has been emptied and hosed down with disinfectant.

"It was one of those old diseases we thought would never return," he said.

The fast-spreading virus affects cloven-footed animals such as cattle, pigs, sheep and goats but rarely infects humans. It can be carried on boots, clothing, cars and wind, transmitted from one animal to another or contracted through contaminated feed--an unsettling fact for Northumberland residents who learned that a local farmer's infected pigs were fed on swill made from leftover school dinners.

In its uphill battle to stop the spread of the disease, the government has declared the countryside off-limits to city dwellers and banned the movement of farm animals for two weeks, with some exceptions that are to be overseen by the army. In some rural areas, children have been kept home from school.

National parks and public footpaths are closed, with fines of up to $7,200 for violators. Horse racing has been suspended for a week, and a big rugby match between Wales and Ireland scheduled for Saturday was canceled. At least one zoo has closed its doors.

Last week's talk that Prime Minister Tony Blair--riding high in polls--might call national elections for as early as April has evaporated in the smoke of the bonfires for slaughtered animals. Now political pundits are talking about a vote possibly in the autumn, with the bad news seeming to fall from above.

Land Rover Rolls Onto Train Tracks

The train wreck Wednesday in Great Heck, about 175 miles north of London, was just that kind of fluke.

A Land Rover pulling a trailer careered off a highway overpass and rolled onto train tracks ahead of a Newcastle-to-London passenger train. After the driver escaped from the vehicle, the train crashed into the Land Rover at 120 mph in a collision that knocked carriages onto adjacent tracks, where they were struck by an oncoming cargo train carrying 1,000 tons of coal.

At least 13 people died and 70 others were injured. Emergency crews spent hours extricating victims from the wreckage.

The Land Rover's driver had called police on a cellular phone to alert them that his vehicle was on the tracks, but "while the operator was speaking to him, we heard him shout, 'The train's coming!' and then there was a bang," a police spokesman said.

Pictures of mangled coaches strewn across a muddy field added to the country's sense of despair. It was the fourth fatal train crash in 3 1/2 years, and although there was no indication of equipment failure or engineer error, it reawakened doubts about British rail safety.

Meanwhile, the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is a tremendous blow to the country's 400,000 farmers and farmhands, a community that was only just recovering from the crisis involving bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE--the scientific name for mad cow disease.

Warning Signs Pop Up Everywhere

"Keep Out" signs and "No Unauthorized Access" warnings are sprouting across the countryside like mushrooms in a wet field.

Foot-and-mouth outbreaks have been identified in 28 areas of Britain, and 102 farms have been isolated. About 11,000 animals have been slaughtered. That is still far short of the half a million that were killed during the last major outbreak, in 1967, but the spread shows no sign of abating.

"Livestock farmers must feel they are reliving the biblical plagues of Egypt," said one piece in the Independent newspaper Wednesday. Mad cow, swine fever, floods "and now the nightmare that their entire herds may be put to the sword and burnt on giant pyres because of a quirk in the wind, a stray footstep or some other accident utterly beyond their control."

"Even if the worst does not happen, the effects of this outbreak will be huge."

Britain is losing nearly $12 million a week in sales under a worldwide ban on its livestock and animal products, and truckers say the ban on moving animals and meat is costing them $6 million a week.

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