Friday April 26, 2013

Obama consoles families and survivors of West, Texas, plant explosion

WACO, Texas (AP) -- President Barack Obama on Thursday consoled a rural Texas community rocked by a deadly fertilizer plant explosion, telling mourners they are not alone in their grief and they will have the nation’s support to rebuild from the devastation.

"This small town’s family is bigger now," Obama said during a memorial service at Baylor University for victims of last week’s explosion in nearby West, Texas, that killed 14 and injured 200. Nearly 10,000 gathered to remember the first responders killed in the blast, a crowd more than triple the size of West’s entire population of 2,700.

"To the families, the neighbors grappling with unbearable loss, we are here to say you are not alone. You are not forgotten," Obama said to applause. "We may not all live here in Texas, but we’re neighbors too. We’re Americans too, and we stand with you."

The April 17 explosion left a crater more than 90 feet wide and damaged dozens of buildings, displacing many residents from their homes. The Insurance Council of Texas estimates it caused more than $100 million in damage, and crews were sifting the rubble to search for clues to what caused the explosion or whether foul play was involved.

The blast came about 20 minutes after a fire was reported at the West Fertilizer. Ten of those killed were first responders who sped out to the nighttime blaze.


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More cautious banking sector cuts tens of thousands of jobs

NEW YORK (AP) -- Banks aren’t the big jobs machines they used to be.

One after another, major financial firms are trimming their payrolls. In first-quarter earnings announcements this month, Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley revealed that they have slashed more than 31,000 jobs, or 3.5 percent of their combined workforce, in the past year. For three of those banks, it was the second straight year of cutbacks. And the pattern is being repeated at banks around the world.

Layoffs in the depths of the financial crisis were to be expected. But four years later, and at a time when many banks are reporting higher or even record earnings, the cuts are unsettling to an entire industry.

The losses are an unwelcome reminder of the meltdown and its lingering effects. A slow, halting recovery has kept loan demand in check. Low interest rates are crimping profits from lending. New regulations have extinguished old sources of revenue, and compliance is expensive. The cuts also reflect advances in technology that have made bank tellers more expendable.

Steven Mann, chairman of the finance department at the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business, says many of his students have given up on banking jobs.

Glossing over the hard edges, presidents past and present honor Bush at new library

DALLAS (AP) -- George W. Bush shed a sentimental tear. Barack Obama mused about the burdens of the office. Bill Clinton dished out wisecracks. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush chimed in, too, on a rare day of harmony at the dedication of the younger Bush’s presidential library that glossed over the hard edges and partisan divides of five presidencies spanning more than three tumultuous decades.

"To know the man is to like the man," Obama declared of his Republican predecessor, speaking Thursday before a crowd of 10,000 at an event that had the feel of a class reunion for the partisans who had powered the Bush administration from 2001 to 2009. Dick Cheney was there in a white cowboy hat. Condoleezza Rice gave shout-outs to visiting dignitaries. Colin Powell and Karl Rove were prominent faces in the crowd.

On this day, there was no mention of Iraq or Afghanistan, the wars that dominated Bush’s presidency and so divided the nation. There were only gentle references to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And praise aplenty for the resolve that Bush showed in responding to the 9/11 terror attacks.

Clinton joked that the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center was "the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history." But he also praised Bush for including interactive exhibits at the center that invite visitors to make their own choices on major decisions that he faced.

Bush, 66, made indirect reference to the polarizing decision points of his presidency, drawing a knowing laugh as he told the crowd: "One of the benefits of freedom is that people can disagree. It’s fair to say I created plenty of opportunities to exercise that right."

Clashes in Iraqi city
of Mosul heighten worries as early vote tallies announced

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Clashes spread to a key northern city and gunmen took over a town elsewhere in Iraq on Thursday, raising the death toll from three days of violence to more than 150 people as a wave of Sunni unrest intensified.

The turmoil is aggravating an already sour political situation between the Shiite-led government and Sunnis, who accuse Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government of neglect and trying to disenfranchise their Muslim sect.

Al-Maliki appeared on national television appealing for calm amid fears the country is facing a return to full-scale sectarian fighting more than a year after U.S. troops withdrew.

The spreading violence came as Iraqi electoral officials announced preliminary results in local elections held Saturday -- Iraq’s first since U.S. troops left in December 2011.

With 87 percent of the ballots counted, al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc was on track to win the most votes in eight of the 12 provinces participating in the vote, including Baghdad and the southern oil hub of Basra.

Spending cuts may deep-six crucial
flood gauges

WASHINGTON (AP) -- More than 100 crucial gauges that warn of imminent flooding or lack of needed water will soon be shut down, as part of the federal government’s automatic budget cuts.

U.S. Geological Survey officials tell The Associated Press that stream gauges will be shut down across the nation starting next month. Some are in the nine states threatened with sudden Spring flooding.

In rivers where flooding is imminent -- such as near Fargo, N.D. -- officials are scrambling to keep needed monitors working and make the cuts elsewhere.

The agency’s chief scientist for water is Jerad Bales. Bales says details are still being worked out, but at least 120 gauges -- and as many as 375 -- will be shut down because of the cuts. He calls it a safety issue.

Crossing a ‘red line’? U.S. says Syria used chemical weapons

WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. intelligence has concluded with "varying degrees of confidence," that the Syrian government has twice used chemical weapons in its fierce civil war, the White House and other top administration officials said Thursday.

However, officials also said more definitive proof was needed and the U.S. was not ready to escalate its involvement in Syria beyond non-lethal aid, despite President Barack Obama’s repeated public assertions that Syria’s use of chemical weapons, or the transfer of its stockpiles to a terrorist group, would cross a "red line."

The White House disclosed the new intelligence Thursday in letters to two senators, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, traveling in Abu Dhabi, also discussed it with reporters. The letters were sent in response to questions from members of Congress who are eager for the administration to arm the rebels or get involved militarily.

The Syrian civil war has dragged on for more than two years, with an estimated 70,000 dead. In addition to members of Congress, Leon Panetta and Hillary Rodham Clinton, as secretaries of defense and state, have urged Obama to increase U.S. involvement.

"Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin," the White House said in its letters, which were signed by Obama’s legislative director, Miguel Rodriguez.

Workers trapped in collapsed building in Bangladesh plead for rescue; death toll 238

SAVAR, Bangladesh (AP) -- "Save us, brother. I beg you, brother," Mohammad Altab moaned to the rescuers who could not help him. He had been trapped for more than 24 hours, pinned between slabs of concrete in the ruins of the garment factory building where he worked.

"I want to live," he pleaded, his eyes glistening with tears as he spoke of his two young children. "It’s so painful here."

Altab should not have been in the building when it collapsed Wednesday, killing at least 238 people.

No one should have.

After seeing deep cracks in the walls of the building on Tuesday, police had ordered it evacuated. But officials at the garment factories operating inside ignored the order and kept more than 2,000 people working, authorities said.

Israel shoots down drone off its northern coast, suspicion falls on Hezbollah

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel shot down a drone Thursday as it approached its northern coast from neighboring Lebanon, raising suspicions that the Hezbollah militant group was behind the infiltration attempt.

Hezbollah denied involvement, but the incident was likely to heighten Israeli concerns that the Shiite militant group is trying to take advantage of the unrest in neighboring Syria to strengthen its capabilities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in a helicopter in northern Israel at the time of the incident, said he viewed it with "utmost gravity."

Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the unmanned aircraft was detected as it was flying over Lebanon and tracked as it approached Israeli airspace.

He said the military waited for the aircraft to enter Israeli airspace, confirmed it was "enemy," and then an F-16 warplane shot it down, smashing its wreckage into the sea about five miles (eight kilometers) off the northern port of Haifa. Lerner said Israeli naval forces were searching for the remains of the aircraft.