Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Tom and Matt found Dr. Rao later that morning and asked for an interview. They explained their involvement with the families and with Owego Island. Dr. Rao recognized the public health implications. "You say the pipe line broke that carries mine waste to the sea, and the waste contains cyanide?"
Matt nodded. "And I saw children playing in the mud created by the spill."
"I don't think so; not that day at least. But the mud was there for more than a week before the pipe was finally fixed."
"Interesting. Now let's see if we can close the final gap in the chain."
That afternoon, Dr. Rao visited the children again. Tom had described his wife's brief association with Palli and Lisa as their school teacher. The doctor invited her to be his interpreter when he talked with the children individually, while their mothers waited outside the examining room.
After first questioning Palli about her island home and her family to put her at ease, Dr. Rao turned the conversation to what she liked to to do with Lisa and Timothy. It turned out that she and Lisa were close friends, but that they played with Timothy only occasionally. "He's a boy," she explained.
"And what do boys do that you don't like?"
"Sometimes he chases us, or pushes us when we're playing."
"Does he hurt you?"
"Not really, but he's bigger and thinks he can boss us around."
Palli was a talkative little girl, and could describe her village very well. One story, further along in their conversation, caught Dr. Rao's special attention.
"There's this big pipe that's broken, see, and it's made a mess on the road. Lisa and I had sticks and were scratching a path through the mud so the water could go to the ditch. Timothy came along and told us we were doing it wrong, and we told him to go away, and he pushed us in the mud, and that made us angry, and we splashed mud back at him, and it hit him in the face!" She giggled at the memory.
"And then what?" Dr. Rao encouraged.
"Well, he pushed us down again and tried to make us drink some of the muddy water, but we got away and ran! He chased us and we ran hard and he never caught us. But we were all worn out."
The doctor turned to Kim and said, "Tell your husband, I think we may have found the missing link in the story."
They went on to interview the other two, and the mothers as well, and found nothing to contradict Palli's story, except for Timothy's mother, who angrily denied that her son would ever behave like that. She emphasized it with a spit of betel juice, and in her irritation missed the spittoon.
Dr. Rao summed it up the next morning, presenting the three children's cases to all the senior medical students in their informal weekly clinical pathology conference. "Sometimes the cause of the sudden crisis in konzo remains a mystery, but most doctors who deal with it think that stress plays a part. For example, its appearance after a woman's childbirth. In our cases here, we have a chronic diet of manioc, sometimes carelessly prepared, and then the sudden addition of exposure to a new cyanide source from the pool of pipeline waste, together with the stress of a childhood fight-and-flight event.
"There is not much value in trying to assign blame for this unfortunate tragedy of three children partially disabled for life, except to learn from it." Dr. Rao was silent for a moment, thinking.
"Better schooling for this generation will make it possible for future mothers to prepare their family's food more wisely. . . .A better health-care system will provide therapy in home districts without the need to travel all the way to Port Moresby. And, although cyanide is apparently the best way to extract gold from its ore, better enforcement of mine safety laws could prevent fouling the surrounding community with toxic waste. You young doctors must never forget that the practice of medicine does not end with the diagnosis. Nor even with treatment."
The students pondered this silently for perhaps a minute. Dr. Rao sensed more questions coming, and waited. "Yes?" he said, as one of them half-raised her hand.
"About a better health-care system; we have our own medical school now, and a few districts have a hospital with an X-ray machine and a laboratory. But . . ." she struggled to express her question, "I am going back to a small town after I finish my studies. Many people I see will have to walk for a day or more to reach even my small clinic. What is 'a better health-care system' going to mean out in the districts?"
Dr. Rao nodded understandingly. "How do we get along in the districts, far from the X-ray, and laboratory, and consultants, is that it? You will be surprised when you realize how much equipment you already have. It starts with your own mind, which comes equipped with many 'applications'―ears with which to listen to your patient's story, eyes with which to see, a sense of curiosity with which to put together all that you see, hear, smell, feel. A stethoscope is not an extra necklace, you know, but a tool to listen to the heart, the bowel sounds, the breathing, and the baby within the mother's belly.
"You will not have a completely equipped lab in your clinic, but science has supplied you nowadays with some tools in the form of test-strips, with which you can detect not only the presence of malaria, but its type, at the bedside with a finger prick. Other test-strips to tell you whether the urine is infected, or the kidneys are failing, or whether the patient is diabetic. Used wisely, such tests should cost only one or two Kina. You don't need a laboratory to alert you to blood loss, or liver failure. Use the senses that God gave you. And always keep in touch with new developments. Subscribe to at least one good medical journal, and attend a medical conference every year or two."T
Monday, April 28, 2014
The message from the Owego Mine arrived at South Sea Gold's Port Moresby office next morning. As it happened, Jeremy Blake was the first to see it.
"Mr. Li, I don't know what they've got down there, but it could be serious. Even at best, I believe we should approve transport of these children to Alotau Hospital. Sending the company plane for them would be a positive move in our public relations situation."
Li Kao Hsai rubbed his chin as he studied the fax. "Not many helpful details here, but yes, Jeremy, I agree we could use some favorable publicity, and sending the plane would help. Fax the mine, tell them we will provide transport for the three children and one parent apiece to Alotau. Tell them to be ready this afternoon."
"Yes sir. Would it help if we could seize the initiative with a press release for tomorrow's editions?"
"Do it. I'll square it with headquarters in Hong Kong." But he thought, I'm not sure how.
Blake's news release arrived on Sophia's desk at 3 pm, well before deadline. She conferred with Jon Sinto. "This is an important change on South Sea's attitude. Tom and Matt are on the scene; how can we get in touch with them? "
"With luck, I can raise Matt on his mobile, but the conversation usually breaks up. The children are already on their way to the Alotau Hospital as we speak. The best way to reach Tom and Matt is to call that helicopter man Tom knows, and just have him go to Owego and bring our people to Alotau. They can go on covering the case from there. I think the service is listed as Island Heli, or some such." She checked her computer. "Island Heliport. That's it." She looked up at Jon. "What'll I tell him?"
"Tom's been there a week or more. He should have covered the local scene thoroughly by now. Kim and Morrie will need a little time to pack. If the pilot goes to Owego early tomorrow morning, or better yet, tonight, he can get them back to Alotau tomorrow noon. Matt could either go with them, come back here, or stay on Owego; it's up to him and his boss at The Chronicle."
"I'll suggest Matt come back here," Sophia said decisively.
Sinto looked at her, saw her blush, but said nothing.
Tom, Kim, Morrie, and Matt loaded aboard the waiting helicopter next morning. Kim was very apologetic to Beverli and two of her pupils and their mothers who had come to see her off. "I hope I can come back soon, but it depends on my husband; his boss sends him wherever there's news. Anyway, I'll see the children at the Alotau hospital and let you know how they are." Morrie waved bye-bye to his friends as the helicopter rose and arced to the southwest. Kim stayed with Morrie at the Alotau guest house, while the two men went to the hospital. "Tell the kids Morrie and I will come see them tomorrow."
Tom and Matt asked the attendant at the hospital emergency room if they might speak with the doctor attending the three children from Owego. Presently, a young woman in a white coat appeared. "I'm Doctor Silanta. And you are...?"
They produced their respective reporter ID cards. "We've been following the children's condition for the past four days at Owego. "What can you tell us?"
"First, I need to speak to the parents," the doctor said. "Please wait here a moment." After a five-minute wait she returned, satisfied that the parents did indeed know these two men. "They can talk with you now. I'd like to verify a few details of their story with you too, if I may."
Tom talked with the children and parents in Tok Pisin then switched to English with the doctor so that Matt could follow it. "They say that they feel less pain now, but want to know when they can walk again. What do you think happened to them, Doctor? The attendant at the mine clinic said they had a virus."
"From what I've observed so far, they have no fever, and their minds are alert. I understand they all got this the same day?"
Tom nodded. "Within about a 36-hour period. Palli missed school first; Lisa missed the next day, and Timothy got ill later that same day."
"Sometimes we see a kind of hysteria among school children; one gets sick and then others imagine they have it too," Dr. Silanta said. "It's definitely not polio, with their legs so stiff. No signs of encephalitis or brain fever. I've not seen anyone like this before."
"About the hysteria," said Tom, "I saw Timothy the first day he became ill, and I found his muscles stiff, as you say. And he was the last to get sick. I don't think it was a "me too" reaction. It was real."
"I'm going to talk about these kids with the other doctors at our staff meeting tomorrow morning. There's always a reason for what's happening. We just have to find it." She excused herself to see another patient who had arrived in the Emergency Room.
"What did she say?" demanded Timothy's mother, an aggressive large woman.
"She was just discussing what diseases resemble the children's behavior. She is honest about it; says she hasn't seen anyone like this before, and will talk with the other doctors at their meeting tomorrow morning."
Timothy's mother snorted. "There's not much to decide!" she declared. "Either a witch is to blame, or the foreigners who came to dig in the ground and kill the fish." She spat betel juice out the window as Tom and Matt left.
"So, what do you think?" Matt asked as the two men walked back to the guest house.
"Something wrong in that village, something that's not happened before. Nobody in West Owego is sick, and the ER doctor here hasn't seen anything else like it in Milne Bay. Must be something involving the mine, but what? And why these three children and not others?"
A half-dozen doctors gathered in the children's ward the next morning to go over the known facts. They talked with the parents, examined the children, reviewed the symptoms. They considered diet, known parasites and infections in Owego's home district, as well as on the mainland around Alotau.
"We think it's a condition in the nervous system." Dr. Silanta explained to Tom and Kim, following the doctors' conference, but we have no neurologist on our staff. We'd like them to see someone at Port Moresby General Hospital or the Medical School who is more specialized than we are."
"Is there a neurologist up there?" asked Tom.
"There are neurosurgeons. And perhaps someone in pediatrics who has done special study on the nervous system since the time I trained there. We frankly don't know what else to do. But if this affected three children, it can affect more, and we need to find out what is happening."
"South Sea Gold has paid for this up to this point," said Tom. "But what about further transport and expenses?"
"Our hospital business office can figure the cost by air or by sea ambulance. It's cheaper to treat three children now than to treat a possible epidemic later. We'll work it out."
The neurosurgeon at Port Moresby's General Hospital spoke with an air of authority. "It's some acquired general defect in the central nervous system," he pronounced, after examining the three children the next day.
"What does that mean exactly, Doctor?" asked Tom. He often thought his whole job as a news reporter could be described as breaking down experts' big words into language the average reader could understand.
"It means there is nothing I can operate on," said the surgeon. "No brain tumor, no epilepsy, no physical injury. But we have a pediatric specialist from India visiting this week, and I'd like to consult him."
Dr. Sandur Rao, MBBS, visiting lecturer from Mumbai, India, was a physician in his fifties, with graying hair and a quiet manner. He made hospital rounds with three UPNG medical students who had expressed interest in childhood neurological diseases, and he found the three children from Owego very interesting. "We have here," he said, "three children with an obvious defect in nerve transmission, who all suddenly became ill within a day or two, without any preceding warning. They complain of pain in the legs, and falling over when they try to walk."
He lifted one of Timothy's thighs with his hand and gently tapped the tendon below the kneecap. Timothy's knee jerked involuntarily. The doctor then supported the calf of Timothy's leg, and with his other hand underneath the foot, briskly bent the ankle upward; the foot jerked back and forth several times before resting. "As you can see, his reflexes are active. Over-active, in fact. Who can tell me the nerve pathway from the leg to the brain?"
The students hesitated, not wanting to make a wrong answer. "The lower nerve goes from leg to spinal cord, where it connects with the upper nerve that goes to the brain?"
"Just so," Dr. Rao smiled. "And in polio, which segment is damaged?"
"The lower one."
"And therefore, what happens in the leg muscles?"
"There's no functioning nerve, so the leg just lies there, limp. It's paralyzed."
"So this is not polio, correct?" All three students nodded. Dr. Rao continued, "But if the upper nerve in the pathway from the brain is damaged, the spinal cord can still tell the muscle to contract, but the brain controls it poorly, if at all.
"We then have, not limp paralysis, but 'spastic paresis'―tense weakness. So these children have developed, all together, and suddenly, an upper motor neuron defect."
The students waited expectantly, their faces blank.
"There are several obscure conditions which cause such a problem to appear slowly," said Dr. Rao, "but only one that I know of that appears suddenly in children, and sometimes in women after childbirth, called konzo. It occurs in Africa where children often have to survive on a diet of cassava. Would one of you ask these mothers what they usually feed their children?"
A student translated the question into Tok Pisin. "She says manioc." The doctor motioned to ask the other two. "Manioc", they both replied. "But that's another word for cassava." the student added.
The specialist spoke quietly, with no trace of self-importance. "Now being a good doctor sometimes requires you to be a good detective. It does little good merely to make a diagnosis. You must find out the 'why' and correct it if you want to make your patient well. In my medical work in Mumbai I see an occasional laborer or his children who have moved there from East Africa, where many of the poorest people live on manioc. Who can tell me the problem with that?"
A student volunteered, "It tastes blah unless you add sugar."
Dr. Rao encouraged her with a faint smile. "And by 'blah' you mean...?"
"Not much taste, or even bitter. But it fills you up," she added.
"And why is it bitter?"
Apparently, none of the three students had ever thought about that.
"There is a trace of cyanide in the manioc pulp," said the doctor. "Not enough to kill you, but not wise to take every day, unless you are careful how you prepare it. Ask these mothers how they do it."
The girl student translated the question. Timothy's mother answered, her mouth full of betel, "Mash it and cook it."
"Does she soak it?" asked the doctor.
The student moved the spittoon on the floor closer to Timothy's mother, who ejected a mouthful of blood-red betel juice, tucked her cud into her cheek, and exhibited her blackened teeth. "If I have time." Her manner made it obvious she considered these questions a waste of that time, too.
"So now we may have a diagnosis, but we don't yet know why three children from different families reached the crisis point of sudden nerve damage at the same time. We'll see these children again tomorrow, and meanwhile, you three young doctor-detectives explore what these three children have in common apart from the others in their village."
"What's the cure for konzo?" asked one student.
"There isn't any." The specialist's face was sober. "Once it happens, it's a life-long disability. The best we can do is physiotherapy, to teach them how to walk in spite of it."
Friday, April 25, 2014
The trip to Owego went smoothly. Kim showed her teaching certificate to the Milne Bay Province education office in Alotau and explained that she was doing a study on introducing elementary education in rural villages. The education officer saw no problem, on a short term basis, and gave her a brief note of informal approval.
Not wishing to call unnecessary attention to their arrival, the four of them, Tom, Matt, Kim and Morrie, chose to fly to an airstrip at one of the larger islands. They then hired a motorboat for the remaining one-hour trip to Owego's second village, which, they learned, simply went by the name West Owego.
Beverli, the guest house proprietor, was delighted to see new customers so soon after Sophia's promise to recommend her place. "Why didn't you bring her back with you?" she asked Matt in Tok Pisin, as Tom translated. Sophia had to work, Tom explained, but might come later. Tom made a courtesy call to the village headman, Keri, to say that his wife was a school teacher, studying ways to introduce schools into villages, and hoped they might talk with some of the local families. Keri asked if this was the school that had been promised by the Alotau office.
"No," Tom said, "A real school will come soon, but my wife might be persuaded to teach some of the village children during the short time she is here, if the village elders wish."
Keri nodded. "I think many of them would like that. May I talk with my friend Yari, too? He is hetman of the bay village."
"Yes, certainly." Tom didn't think it necessary to say that he already knew Yari Banta. "Meanwhile, I am recovering from a recent injury and am here to gain strength. But if I can be of any help in simple work around the village, please ask. Our guest, Matt, whom you may have already met, is from Hong Kong. He speaks English and Chinese, but not Tok Pisin."
"I speak some English, but not well. We will get along. Welcome to our village."
Beverli proved to be a fountain of local information. Originally from West Papua she and her Bengali husband, a trader, had lived in the Indonesian part of New Guinea, until he had died four years ago. She used her small inheritance to move to Milne Bay and set up the guest house she had always dreamed of. Her twenty-year-old son and an older married daughter both lived in West Owego; the daughter had a little girl a couple of years older than Morrie. Kim soon had several acquaintances in the village, some of whom had young children.
Late the next day, Tom and Matt walked over to the main village on the bay, looking for Yari Banta. They found him at his home, preparing for his night shift at the mine. He remembered them both, and also remembered that the boss from Port Moresby didn't want Tom around the mine because of his connection with the Port Moresby newspaper. "You are both welcome in my village," Yari said, "but I get in trouble if you go to the mine, Mr. Akani."
"What about me?" Matt asked. "Is it all right if I visit my engineer friend from Hong Kong?" Tom translated.
"Big boss said nothing about that. I guess it would be all right," Yari said.
"Can you tell me anything about the slurry pipe line?" asked Tom.
"Last landslide crush it again, where it passes close to the hill. Stronger new pipe will come on airplane in about two days. They pass less slurry a day now, but on more days. Pipe still leaks. Big boss says don't shut it off."
Kim had her temporary school set up to start four days after their arrival. Six children from West Owego and four from Bay Village would come for an hour or two each weekday morning. Kim learned that few villagers kept close track of time. Some other families thought that school might be a good idea, but decided to wait and see what it was like, and how much it would interfere with children's duties at home. The children adopted Morrie as their mascot, entering into their games, and content to draw pictures while the older children learned to read.
Tom and Matt talked with the village men, became more acquainted with fishing and subsistence farming, taking notes for further background stories. On the third day a cargo plane arrived, and they walked to the airstrip to see if the new pipe had come. They found four men loading three dozen four-metre sections of new pipe onto the mine's flat-bed lorry along with several crates. The Chinese resident engineer was signing a manifest. Matt asked,"Getting extra, in case of more breaks?"
"Better than that," the engineer said. "We're rerouting the pipeline into the field on the other side of the road to go around the landslide spot."
"My girl friend said a woman engineer would have planned it that way to start with."
The engineer laughed. "Once in a while, the women are right. But the mine boss thinks it was my idea, and and I'm going to let him go on believing it."
Matt walked up to see the damaged pipe and reported back to Tom and Kim, "There's still a large area of mud and leakage there by the side of the road. They're going to go under the road upstream, and again downstream from the trouble area, and there seems to be enough slope there so the flow should be good. The pipe will be about ten meters away from any more landslides."
"Any more kids making mud pies there?" asked Tom.
"Not while I was there. But it's nice mud for it."
"Except for traces of cyanide."
"What do kids eat down here?" Tom asked Kim that night. "The rice Beverli feeds us comes from bags, not from local fields. Everybody has fish, of course. Sometimes pork on special occasions."
"Most of the families grow manioc for starch, here in the lowlands. It takes a while to prepare it; you have too boil it or soak it a long while to get the poison out. What I've seen in the gardens here are a kind of banana, a few coconut trees. She says yams don't do as well here as they do in the mountains, and there aren't many sago palms. The staple food in most families here in Owego is manioc. The bitter kind is usually easiest to grow in their soil, so that's what the kids usually get. They have green vegetables in their gardens, but maybe not as much as they should."
"But there's enough food?"
"If the parents are good farmers, yes. Maybe not always well balanced, especially when a parent is sick or disabled." Kim thought for a few minutes. "Kids here seem to be well fed, but somehow they aren't as full of energy as many kids back home."
Kim's concern grew stronger two days later, when one of her pupils from Bay Village failed to come to class. One of her companions told Kim, "Palli got very sick last night. Sharp pains in her legs and belly, so she stayed in bed today."
"I'm sorry to hear she is sick. Does she have fever?" Kim asked.
"I don't know," said her friend. "She falls down when she tries to walk."
Kim left Morrie with Tom when class was over, and walked back to Bay Village with her pupils. They took her to Palli's house, where Palli's grandmother was massaging the little girl's legs. Palli smiled when she saw her teacher. Her speech slurred a little, but she seemed alert. Kim felt her arm; not hot, but she was trembling. "Are you cold, Palli?"
"No." She seemed to have a spasm then, and cried out. "My legs hurt me."
Kim watched her for several minutes. "What's wrong with her?" asked Grandmother.
"I don't know. Some infection perhaps . . ." Kim really had no idea.
"Is it a curse, do you think?" asked Grandmother.
"No, I don't think so," said Kim.. . . "Has the Clinic nurse looked at her? That might be a wise thing to do. Can her father carry her there?"
"Her father died in the mine," her grandmother said, "but I will ask her uncle."
Kim was very troubled as she walked back to West Owego. "I've never seen anything like that before," she told Tom and Matt. She was wide awake, not hot, but trembling. The family said she fell several times when she tried to walk."
"Do they immunize against polio down here in the provinces?" Tom wondered.
"I don't know, but I'm glad Morrie has had all his shots." She spent much of the afternoon looking through her Home Guide to Children's Health, but could find nothing remotely like what she had seen that morning.
Next morning, she asked her pupils about Palli.
They were all excited. "Lisa has the same thing! She hurts and she falls down!" The children from both villages could talk of nothing else. Kim did what she could to have them focus on reading, but she finally closed the class early. She told Tom and Matt, "I think you ought to look into this. Are we going to have an epidemic?"
They walked over to the village on the bay, and visited both families. Tom recognized Palli's grandmother. "You are the lady that visited us at the helicopter the day after your son died in the mine, aren't you?"
"Yes." Her Tok Pisin was halting but understandable. "What is happening to my family? My son has died. Is my little girl going to die too?"
"What did the nurse at the clinic say last night?" Kim asked.
"He said it was a virus infection. He gave her some panadol for the leg pain, but it hasn't helped."
Tom looked at Matt. "I'm baffled."
He was even more shaken after stopping at Yari Banta's house. The head man had another child to report: a ten-year-old boy, who had taken sick that afternoon.
They went with Yari to visit him. Like the other two children, he had leg pain and was unable to walk. Tom knew very little about medicine, but he tried moving one of the boy's legs. The leg was stiff, but not paralyzed. The boy himself could move it a little, but certainly not in a normal way.
"How did this start?" Tom asked.
"He and his brother had been working in the family's garden this morning. When it was time to go eat their morning meal, he and his older brother raced each other back to the house. This boy won, but after he had sat down to eat, he couldn't get up again, and said his legs hurt," said the father.
"What did he have to eat?"
"Only what he has every morning, a bowl of manioc and a bit of fish, same as the rest of the family."
The clinic nurse had little to add when they checked with him. "With three children sick at the same time, it's surely a virus," he said. "They should start to improve in a couple of more days, with some rest and plenty of water to drink. Not to worry, yet."
Kim was thankful next day that no more illness appeared among her school children. She even had a new pupil from Bay Village. On the other hand, the three sick ones were not improving. Palli thought her leg pain was a little better, but she still couldn't walk by herself.
That afternoon, Yari Banta called a meeting of the families in his village. No one had any new illness to report nor any change in the status of those who were ill. Village opinion on the cause of the illness was divided: some agreed with the clinic nurse. The farmers blamed the pipeline; four people believed the miners had brought a curse by wounding the spirit of the mountain with their drills. Arguments were growing acrimonious and Yari finally called a halt.
"Angry words are not helping our sick children. The mine clinic's nurse does not have medicine that is helping. This trouble is something uncommon. The district health sub-center will not have people who can deal with this. They should go to the hospital in Alotau."
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Morning headline: MAGISTRATE DISMISSES CLAIMS AGAINST EDITOR
"Damn the Torpedoes" is not a terrorist threat
"The prosecution's case against The Journal's editor, Jon Sinto, fell apart yesterday when Magistrate Peter Magoro pointed out that the Constitution of our nation guarantees freedom of the press. He made no comment on where or how the accusations against our editor might have originated, leaving courtroom spectators guessing.
"The Jourmal, with nothing but recent anonymous threats to go on, is also left guessing. Is someone with government connections attempting to sabotage the paper's mine safety campaign? Does someone object to the preservation of PNG's industrial diversity?"
Tom Akani's front page item went on to summarize recent developments in the rapidly expanding mining industry and the effects, both good and bad, on other local commerce. He ended with the comment, "What will it take to remedy the on-going pollution that the mining companies continue to ignore?"
In morning staff meeting, someone proposed a betting pool for which mine would be the next to have a pollution crisis. Early odds favored the huge mines, reasoning that dumping more than a thousand tonnes per day of waste rock and tailings would be a sure bet, sooner or later. A few bet on the newcomers, pointing out their tendency toward speed and cost cutting. No one chose the Owego, believing that lightning rarely strikes the same place twice.
They were wrong.
Li Kao Hsai, regional manager of South Sea Gold for Papua New Guinea, was on his weekly conference call to Mr. Han in Hong Kong. "Good news and bad news this week Sir," he declared.
"Let's have the good news first," growled the Hong Kong CEO. He bit back a comment that good news would be a refreshing first-time experience.
"We have reports on two more drill holes into the main ore body," said Li. "The gold and copper values are holding well, so far. Drill hole 16-B shows a significant content of the mineral molybdenite as well, with trace amounts of rhenium, just like our mine farther up the coast. You asked for rhenium last week; looks like you have got it."
. "What percentage?"
"A single drill hole can't give the full picture, but they think the molybdenum in the ore zone will run about four kilograms per tonne. Rhenium will usually be present as about 0.1 per cent of that, so maybe around four grams per tonne of ore. At market price of US $3,500 per kilogram for rhenium, that adds about fourteen American dollars value per tonne of ore."
Mr. Han was calculating his own possible benefit from this new find, when Li added, "Ready for the bad news, sir?"
The CEO laid down his pocket calculator with a sigh. "Let's have it."
"The land slide a couple weeks ago? There's been another, same place. Our temporary patch on the slurry pipeline now lies crushed under a meter of dirt and boulders. We're working to clear the rocks, but the pipe was badly hit. There's a lot of slurry leakage in the area. We'll have to shut down the pipeline until we can get sturdier plastic pipe in to replace it."
"Reduce the pipe pressure, but don't shut it down entirely," ordered the Hong Kong CEO. "Keep the copper coming."
After Li ended the call, he wondered how much of the overall picture was getting through to his boss. Nevertheless, he passed the instructions along to the day-shift manager at the mine, who reduced the pipe pressure by half, and doubled the hours of flow per day to compensate.
Inspector Kerro had come to a dead end in the Journal threats case. None of the usual information sources on the streets of Port Moresby seemed to know anything about the gang who had beaten Tom Akani and raped Maxine Edon. He checked with a constable who had interviewed Maxine after her assault.
"Nothing new, Inspector. I interviewed Maxine again yesterday and she can only remember that the short man who pointed the way back to the newspaper office was called 'Petey'. She doesn't remember him speaking to her, just pointed and then followed her at a distance. When she looked back from the door of the news building, he was gone."
"Anybody in our records fitting the description?" asked Kerro.
"I already looked. There's an eighteen-year-old named Petey who's been questioned a couple of times on petty thievery cases―cigarettes and the like―but no assaults or serious stuff, so far."
"If you can find him, bring him in for questioning," said Kerro.
"Will do, Inspector."
Two days later, he appeared at Kerro's office again. "Petey's here, Inspector."
Kerro rose from his desk. "Let's go see him."
Petey sat in an interrogation room chair, eyes down and sullen. He glanced up, saw another police uniform, looked down again.
"Petey, I'm Police Inspector Kerro."
"I haven't done anything."
"We just want to ask you some questions."
"I don't know anything."
"Some people say you do. Some people have been beat up lately."
"I didn't do it."
"But you were there. You saw it happen."
Petey said nothing. Kerro tried again. "Who are you afraid of, Petey? I can help you." He paused. "Those other three guys play rough, don't they?"
Petey nodded, eyes still downcast.
"They're headed for a dead end, Petey. Their dead end. Don't make it be yours too. Get out of it while you can."
"I'm scared they'll kill me!"
"The sooner we can get them, the sooner you won't have to worry about them any more. You can help make it happen."
Petey was silent. Kerro waited. Finally he heard the boy sigh, and in a small voice ask, "Can I have a cigarette?"
Kerro visited Tom and Kim Akani that evening. Morrie was already in bed and there was time for a quiet conversation. "This is confidential, and I didn't want to discuss it in the newspaper office or over the phone," Kerro said. Today we picked up one of the men we suspect was involved in the attack on Maxine. He confirms that it's the same men who attacked you, Tom, and says they plan more. He doesn't know who they work for; he's a petty thief who went along for the excitement; now he's afraid of being killed for what he knows. I don't want to alarm you, but I thought you ought to be aware of the risk of staying here at home until we can bring these guys in."
"Any idea when that will be?"
"We have to find them first," Kerro said. There was meditative silence. Kim went to check on Morrie. Tom knew his wife well enough to know that she would not rest easily in town.
Finally Tom spoke. "Kim has a leave of absence from her teaching job," he told Jason, "for health reasons, which is still technically true, I guess, if you consider possible physical attacks to be a health problem." Kim had returned to the room and was listening. Tom continued, "I'm still tied up with the Owego story and mining. I wish there was some solution that could keep us together."
"Sophia told me about the problem Owego has with the promised school that hasn't been built," said Kim. "Is there some way we could improvise a one-room temporary school house where I could teach, while you work on conditions at the mine?"
"I don't think I'd be welcome in Owego village," said Tom.
"Then set it up in the village where Matt and Sophia stayed. The villages are only two km apart. That's not too far for most kids to walk."
"What about schoolbooks? Where do we stay and how do we eat?" asked Tom.
"I know something about school administration," said Kerro. "My father used to be a headmaster in Mt. Hagen, you know. Let me see what I can find out."
"And I still get a paycheck," added Tom.
"It would be like a trial run for a few weeks, to see how parents accept the idea of their kids going to school," said Kim. "I know that some parents want their children to help in their gardens or fields. Maybe just learning to read at first, an hour or two a day. See what the village elders want."
Jon Sinto agreed with the idea next day. "Matt needs to be in on this, to keep up his reporting for the Hong Kong paper," he said. "And Sophia can be your office liaison here."
Monday, April 21, 2014
"What am I charged with?" Jon asked the sergeant, as the two policeman paraded him slowly through the city room, down to the reception area and out to the waiting police car. His hands were cuffed behind his back, and the constable steadied him going down the stairs. Maxine's jaw dropped with amazement as they passed her desk and placed him in the car. She saw a man in the street had a camera, and flashed it in Jon's face just before the door closed.
"Nice orchestration," observed Jon, as the camera flashed a second time. He recognized the camera man from one of the Journal's rival papers. "Are you going to tell me the charges?" he asked the sergeant again, as the car drove away.
"The desk officer will go over all that at the station," the sergeant replied, and that was all Jon could get out of him. He soon realized they were not headed for the local district station. After a five-minute trip across town, the car turned down an alley and parked behind an unfamiliar building. The silent sergeant escorted him up a short flight of stairs to a constabulary office.
"Your name is Jonathan Sinto?" the desk clerk intoned. "You are charged with writing and disseminating material dangerous to the interests of Papua New Guinea. How do you plead?"
Jon stared at him in astonishment. "What kind of nonsense is this?"
"How do you plead?" the clerk repeated.
"Not guilty, of course! I've never heard of such a law or charge in all my years as a news editor."
"You will come before the magistrate tomorrow for arraignment. You are entitled to counsel of law." To the waiting sergeant, the clerk said, "After I catalog his pocket contents, he can go in the holding cell."
Tom located him after a two-hour search. "Are you okay, Jon?" They sat facing each other, separated by bars, with a constable standing by.
"If you mean has anyone beaten me or threatened me, no they haven't. It's humiliating, mostly. Someone had given our competition a heads-up; one of their reporters was there outside the door to photograph me. Where is this place I'm in? They haven't given me any information except I'm accused of being a danger to the country."
"Or more likely to some big man in it," Tom said. "The sign on the front door reads RPNGC Special Investigations. By appointment only.
"I've never heard of it."
"Okay, now that I know where you are, I can get wheels rolling. I'll report to the boss, and Mr. Mobata, the Journal's lawyer, and your wife. What can we bring you?"
"Nothing at the moment."
"Any messages for the crew?"
"Only Sophia's motto, 'Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!'"
Tom saw the constable taking notes. "That last is an historical quote, not a threat," he said, as he passed by him. He turned and gave Jon a parting thumbs up and left the constable still writing.
Later that day, the editor-in-chief, James Baird, and Mr. Mobata the lawyer were no more successful in clarifying charges. In the visitor's room, Mobata asked the constable to leave the room. "Do you want your boss to step out, too?" Mobata asked Jon.
"No, he can stay. I've no secrets to hide."
"Now, what's this about your making a terrorist threat?"
Sinto was startled. "I didn't know I'd made any terrorist threats."
"Something about torpedoing a dam, the desk officer said."
"I said nothing of the sort! When Tom asked if I had any message for my staff, I answered with a sea-faring quote from a hundred fifty years ago, 'Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!' meaning keep working on what you are doing, no matter what happens."
Mobata pursed his lips. "Well, Jon, I must advise you to consider before you speak. Remember the old advice: 'anything you say may be used against you.'
"However," he continued, "we'll get you out of here if the paper is willing to post bail."
"However," he continued, "we'll get you out of here if the paper is willing to post bail."
"Certainly," Mr. Baird said.
But the desk sergeant was firm. "The accused has made a threat about weapons," he said. "Under the circumstances, it increases his alleged danger to the country." And he refused to budge from that position. "The magistrate will hear his case tomorrow morning at nine."
"They want to keep us from making any claims in tomorrow's edition," Mr. Mobata said as he and the chief editor left the building. "The competition won't feel any need for such caution, and we'll see the story on their front page. The rumor will be all over town by the time we can tell our side. I'm sure the magistrate will dismiss all this tomorrow morning."
Tom visited Inspector Kerro later that afternoon, to see if he could get more information on the charge against Jon, or at least where the "Special Investigations" office fit into the rest of the RPNGC.
"It's an old decommissioned jail that's only used occasionally, nowadays," said Kerro. "I'm surprised they opened it up for this. They could just as easily have him questioned at headquarters."
"Why all the secrecy, and this nonsense about being a danger to the country?"
"Let me ask the chief inspector." He tapped out an in-house number on his phone. "Sir? Kerro here. Is there anything going on at the old jail house today?" He listened a moment. "Apparently someone is using it to question a suspect on a charge of disseminating material dangerous to the State. They have the local-news desk editor of the Journal down there . . .No, no, he is the suspect. . . .I've no idea . . . Yes sir, I'll follow up on it and let you know." Kerro put down the phone. "It's news to him, too."
"The sergeant at the jail told me there will be a magistrate's hearing tomorrow morning."
Kerro jotted a note. "This is interesting. It has all the markings of a smoke screen to take attention away from your investigation of mining practices. The police want to keep our own investigation out of the news for now, but tell Jon's lawyer that I offer to be a character witness in the hearing tomorrow. Then we can watch the show from ringside seats."
Tom arrived at district court in Waigani next morning to find that defense attorney Mobata had not only accepted Jason Kerro's offer, but had also co-opted the Journal's Mr. Baird and Sophia as witnesses, if needed. Tom greeted Mrs. Sinto and Matt Lin, in the spectator's section, and took a seat nearby, next to Jason.
"There are at least three reporters here from our competitors. They've already featured this case in their morning editions. Who's that at the public prosecutor's table?"
"He's a junior member of their staff," said Jason. "I don't know who the other guy is. Looks like they think the case is open-and-shut, or else too ridiculous to waste time with. We'll see in a few minutes."
"All rise!" Conversation in the courtroom ceased as Magistrate Peter Magoro entered, swept his eyes over the room and seated himself.
"This District Court is now in session," he said in a pleasant but firm voice as those in the room resumed their seats. "I note the presence of the news media, and I would remind them that taking pictures is not allowed in my courtroom. Will the clerk call the first case."
The clerk referred to the top sheet of several on his desk. "Mr. Jonathan Sinto."
"Are both Prosecution and Defense prepared?" the magistrate's voice was brisk and firm as he looked at a document before him.
"We are, sir."
"Mr. Sinto," the magistrate proceeded, "this is a preliminary hearing, to see whether a court trial is warranted. Do you understand?"
"You are charged with spreading written material dangerous to the nation, and with conspiracy to . . ." he paused, frowning at the document, "destroy a dam? How do you plead?"
"Not guilty on both counts, sir."
"Sir, I wish to move that the prosecution has no case" said Mobata.
"Mr. Prosecutor? What is the basis for these unusual charges?"
"Sir," the young prosecutor said, "a constabulary precinct office received notification that the prisoner attempted to incite dissent against traditional policies of the government in dealing with foreign companies who intend to invest money in Papua New Guinea. Such dissent would prevent proper development of the nation. I present exhibit 'A' in evidence." He handed over a typed sheet.
The magistrate read the page to himself, and looked up. "Mr. Prosecutor, are you aware that this is, with a few misspellings, a copy of an editorial in the Port Moresby Journal of four days ago?"
"No, sir," said the prosecutor, crestfallen.
"And are you aware that Papua New Guinea's Constitution fully protects freedom of the press, and that the defendant here, the acknowledged author, is employed by The Journal to write such pieces? Then why is he under arrest?"
"Sir, the informant was represented to me as a member of the government. When, in addition, the defendant gave an order to a visitor to torpedo a dam, I thought matters urgent enough to demand prompt action."
The magistrate swiveled to face the defense table. "Mr. Sinto, do you have an explanation? Consult with your lawyer, if you wish."
Sinto was smiling with relief. "Sir, what I actually said is not what the constable at the jail apparently wrote down. In the newspaper office, we have a standing joke, quoting a command issued by Captain David Farragut of the American Navy two hundred years ago. When notified of enemy torpedoes, he gave the order, 'Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!' I believe Mr. Mobata has witnesses to that conversation available to the court. At no time did I advise or order destruction of a dam."
The magistrate silenced a few laughing spectators, and looked as if he might be stifling a smile of his own. He then glared at the young prosecutor who was having a whispered conversation with a uniformed constable sitting behind him. "Mr. Prosecutor, I am familiar with Captain Farragut's frequently quoted order myself. I believe he was promoted to admiral soon afterward. Have you anything further to add?"
"Mr. Prosecutor. I am aware that you are new in your job, and may have been set up by someone with an agenda which was not brought out into the open here. Rather than lecture you in open court, I shall see you in my office.
"This case is dismissed. Mr. Sinto, you are free to go. Next case."
Tom caught up with Inspector Kerro as they were leaving the court house. "That proceeding raises more questions than it answers, doesn't it."
"It surely does," said Kerro. I think all the publicity will make things safer for you, Tom, but it may interfere with the police case later. Be careful how you and your team report it."