Murphy's Law: What Goes Up. . .


January 12, 2012:  Recently, the Filipino government made a major effort to convince people to refrain from using fireworks and gunfire (into the air) to celebrate the New Year. Not many people listened, and some 500 people were killed or wounded by the fireworks and bullets returning to earth. The fireworks, which are banned in many parts of the world (except when used by professionals) caused 95 percent of the injuries. The rest were the result of bullets fired into the air and returning with enough velocity to injure, or even kill. This is a widespread problem that does not get much attention.

But it is a problem. For example, five years ago, three civilians were killed and fifty wounded in Baghdad, Iraq by gunfire associated with the Iraqi team winning a game during the Asian Games. This was all about the Arab custom of firing weapons into the air on happy occasions (they are called "joy bullets" in Arabic), often with deadly consequences. When someone is killed or injured by the bullets that inevitably come back to earth, the injury is shrugged off, or blamed on a handy enemy. Palestinians blame Israelis, some Iraqis blame any armed foreigners in the vicinity or nearby Iraqis they don't get along with. Otherwise it's just "God's Will."

Such use of joy bullets is actually widespread. While such behavior is generally banned (and the ban enforced) in Europe, the Americas are subject to many injuries from falling bullets. Even some cities in America have a problem with this, quite illegal, practice. In some parts of Latin America there are even more guns, and fewer police available to try and halt the joy bullets. Because there are relatively few injuries from joy bullets (compared to fireworks) the dangers from falling bullets tends to be given little publicity.

This was even the case during major incidents of heavy losses from falling objects. During World War II, when lots of anti-aircraft guns were used around densely populated urban areas in Europe and Asia, there were thousands of casualties from what were, at first, mysterious metal objects falling silently from the sky. The British later estimated that some 25 percent of civilian casualties from German World War II bombing attacks on their cities were from friendly fire. That is, British anti-aircraft shells eventually fell to earth and caused property damage and casualties.

Most of the civilian casualties from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were from American anti-aircraft shells and bullets falling back to earth. A lot of the anti-aircraft guns used to defend Pearl Harbor were .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine-guns, and these bullets will kill you if they drop on your head and injure you if they hit any other body part. A .50 caliber bullet weighs about 50 grams (nearly two ounces). This is four times heavier than rifle bullets, which will also kill or injure you if one drops on your head and hits the right spot. Kids are more vulnerable to this sort of thing. Shell fragments often weigh a kilogram (several pounds) and have sharp edges as well.

In Iraq, during the 1990s, there were instances of anti-aircraft missiles falling back to earth intact. Since these things weigh several tons, they hit like a bomb. Normally, the missiles are supposed to self-destruct (explode) if they don't find a target. But even if they do that thousands of fragments fall back to earth. Some of these missile pieces weigh five kilograms (11 pounds) or more. Get hit by one of these and you are dead. Large objects coming down will damage buildings and vehicles. Most explosions, be they roadside bombs, smart bombs, artillery shells, or missiles, toss heavy objects into the air. This stuff comes down somewhere and if someone is in the way they become a casualty. Whose casualty is largely a matter of who gets the more convincing press release into circulation.

In the Philippines, and some other parts of the world, a massive use of fireworks in a short period of time can cause another problem - black powder smog. These huge clouds of unhealthy explosives residue suspended in the air can be so bad that local airport operations have to be suspended for a while. In some areas, the manufacture of fireworks is unregulated (not by design) and some of the amateur rockets and such contain a kilogram (2.2 pounds) or more of black powder. Fortunately, black powder is a slow burning and not-very-powerful explosive, so terrorists generally avoid it. Industrial and military explosives are much more effective at killing people. But, in a pinch, some of that fireworks grade black powder will do.





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