Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Published:

Stolen radioactive pellets abandoned in Mexico rural area; gov't says no risk to nearby town

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- A missing shipment of radioactive cobalt-60 was found Wednesday near where the stolen truck transporting the material was abandoned in central Mexico, the country's nuclear safety director said.

The highly radioactive material had been removed from its container, officials said, and one predicted that anyone involved in opening the box could be in grave danger of dying within days.

The cobalt-60 was left in a rural area about a kilometer (a half a mile) from Hueypoxtla, an agricultural town of about 4,000 people, but it posed no threat or a need for an evacuation, said Juan Eibenschutz, director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.

"Fortunately there are no people where the source of radioactivity is," Eibenschutz said.

Commission physicist Mardonio Jimenez said it was the first time cobalt-60 had been stolen and extracted from its container. The only threat was to whoever opened the box and later discarded the pellets of high-intensity radioactive material that was being transported to a waste site. It had been used in medical equipment for radiation therapy.

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Deadly NY train derailment highlights risk of highway hypnosis on long, monotonous trips

NEW YORK (AP) -- It's sometimes called highway hypnosis or white-line fever, and it's familiar to anyone who has driven long distances along a monotonous route.

Drivers are lulled into a semi-trance state and reach their destination with little or no memory of parts of the trip. But what if it happened to an engineer at the controls of a speeding passenger train?

A man driving a Metro-North Railroad commuter train that went off the rails Sunday in New York, killing four passengers, experienced a momentary loss of awareness as he zoomed down the tracks, according to his lawyer and union representative, who called the episode a "nod," a "daze" or highway hypnosis.

Their accounts raised questions about just how widespread the problem is in the transportation industry and what can be done to combat it.

At the time of the crash, the train was going 82 mph into a sharp turn where the speed limit drops to 30 mph. That's when the engineer says he snapped out of it and hit the brakes, but it was too late. The train hurtled off the tracks, leaving a chain of twisted cars just inches from a river in the Bronx.

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10 Things to Know for Thursday

Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Thursday:

1. XI, BIDEN CLASH IN BEIJING

After 5½ hours of talks between the two leaders, there's no sign of progress toward defusing tension over China's new air defense zone in the East China Sea.

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'There's still shooting going on! Please!': 911 calls from Conn. school tragedy are released

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- As gunfire boomed over and over in the background, a janitor begged a 911 dispatcher to send help, saying, "There's still shooting going on! Please!" A woman breathlessly reported seeing a gunman run down a hall. And a teacher said she was holed up in her classroom with her children but hadn't yet locked the door.

Recordings of 911 calls from last year's Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting were released Wednesday, and they not only paint a picture of anguish and tension inside the building, they also show Newtown dispatchers mobilizing help, reassuring callers and urging them to take cover.

"Keep everybody calm. Keep everybody down. Get everybody away from windows, OK?" one dispatcher told the frightened teacher who reported hearing shots in the hall.

The calls were made public under a court order after a lengthy effort by The Associated Press. Prosecutors had argued that releasing the recordings would only cause more anguish for the victims' families.

The gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, shot his way through a plate-glass window at the front of the school on Dec. 14. The office staff saw the shooter, who was wearing a hat and sunglasses, as he entered the building with a rifle and began firing down a hallway.

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Senior Hezbollah commander killed in Beirut in a blow to the group and its Iranian patron

BAALBEK, Lebanon (AP) -- The attackers waited in an olive grove around midnight. As the Hezbollah commander pulled into the garage of his nearby apartment building, they went in after him. Five bullets were pumped into his head and neck from a silencer-equipped pistol -- an assassination that reverberated across the Middle East.

The killing early Wednesday of Hassan al-Laqis, described as a member of the inner circle of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, was the latest in a series of recent attacks against the Iranian-backed group.

Hezbollah blamed Israel, which denied involvement. However, the Shiite militant group's open support of Syrian President Bashar Assad has enraged Sunnis and left it with no shortage of enemies eager to strike at its strongholds and leadership. Dozens of people have been killed in deadly car bombings claimed by radical Sunni groups.

The group's participation in the civil war in Syria is highly divisive and unpopular in Lebanon, where many feel it has deviated from its raison d'etre of fighting Israel and exposed the Shiite community to retaliation.

Most recently, two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing 23. An al-Qaida-affiliated group claimed responsibility, saying it was payback for Hezbollah's support of Assad.

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Obama declares income inequality a 'defining challenge of our time'

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama prodded Congress to raise wages and secure the social safety net as he issued an overarching appeal Wednesday to correct economic inequalities that he said make it harder for a child to escape poverty. "That should offend all of us," he declared. "We are a better country than this."

Focusing on the pocketbook issues that Americans consistently rank as a top concern, Obama argued that the dream of upward economic mobility is breaking down and that the growing income gap is a "defining challenge of our time."

"The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed," the president said in remarks at a nonprofit community center a short drive from the White House in one of Washington's most impoverished neighborhoods.

Though he offered no new initiatives, Obama blended a call for Congress to act on pending short-term economic measures with an ambitious vision aimed at rectifying a growing level of income inequality in the United States. Amid public doubts over Obama's stewardship of the economy, the speech served as a guide for the remaining three years of his term.

Still, by drawing attention to past policy proposals that have dead-ended in a divided government, Obama also laid bare the political failures and economic difficulties he has faced trying to halt widening inequality trends.

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Report: NSA tracks nearly 5 billion cellphone locations overseas daily, Americans included

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The National Security Agency tracks the locations of nearly 5 billion cellphones every day overseas, including those belonging to Americans abroad, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

The NSA inadvertently gathers the location records of "tens of millions of Americans who travel abroad" annually, along with the billions of other records it collects by tapping into worldwide mobile network cables, the newspaper said in a report on its website.

Such data means the NSA can track the movements of almost any cellphone around the world, and map the relationships of the cellphone user. The Post said a powerful analytic computer program called CO-TRAVELER crunches the data of billions of unsuspecting people, building patterns of relationships between them by where their phones go. That can reveal a previously unknown terrorist suspect, in guilt by cellphone-location association, for instance.

As the NSA doesn't know which part of the data it might need, the agency keeps up to 27 terabytes, or more than double the text content of the Library of Congress' print collection, the Post said. A 2012 internal NSA document said the volumes of data from the location program were "outpacing our ability to ingest, process and store" it, the newspaper said.

The program is detailed in documents given to the newspaper by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden. The Post also quotes unidentified NSA officials, saying they spoke with the permission of their agency.

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NOAA: 10 whales now dead among pod of dozens stranded in Fla. Everglades National Park

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla. (AP) -- Wildlife workers in boats struggled unsuccessfully Wednesday to coax nearly four dozen pilot whales out of dangerous shallow waters in Florida's Everglades National Park, hoping to spare them the fate of 10 others that already had died.

The workers suspended their efforts after dark, but planned to return Thursday morning to try again, said Kim Amendola, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is taking part in the effort.

Six of the whales were found dead, and four of the whales had to be euthanized Wednesday, said Blair Mase, coordinator for NOAA's marine mammal stranding network. At least three could be seen on the beach, out of the water.

The whales are stranded in a remote area near Highland Beach, the western boundary of Everglades National Park and about 20 miles east of where they normally live. It takes more than an hour to reach the spot from the nearest boat ramp and there is no cellphone service, complicating rescue efforts.

"We want to set the expectation low, because the challenges are very, very difficult," Mase said.

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45,000 LED lights illuminate 76-foot Christmas tree at NYC's Rockefeller Center

NEW YORK (AP) -- With a flick of the switch, a 76-foot Norway Spruce officially became the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree Wednesday night after it was illuminated for the first time this holiday season in a ceremony that's been held since 1933.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg turned on the lights just before 9 p.m., setting off a dazzling 45,000 multi-colored LED lights and a 9 ½-foot-wide Swarovski star that topped the 12-ton tree.

Adam Connery, 41, and his wife Kristy Connery, 37, from Tyngsborough, Mass., watched the ceremony on their first vacation to New York City.

"It's gorgeous, it's enormous," said Kristy Connery of the massive tree towering above the hundreds of thousands of people who gathered to watch the ceremony. "Christmas is my favorite time of the year."

The holiday event in midtown Manhattan also was watched by millions on television. The tree will be on display until Jan. 7, after which it'll be milled into lumber for Habitat for Humanity.

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NBA game between Spurs and Timberwolves postponed; Mexico City arena evacuated due to smoke

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- The game between the San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves was postponed Wednesday night because of smoky conditions inside the Mexico City arena.

The game will be made up in Minnesota at a later date.

The arena was evacuated about 45 minutes before the scheduled 9:30 p.m. EST tipoff when a generator malfunction outside the arena sent smoke pouring into the building, according to NBA spokeswoman Sharon Lima.

About 15 minutes after the scheduled start, the Spurs bus pulled away from the building. The Timberwolves bus followed soon after.

While the teams were warming up for their regular-season matchup, lights went out in parts of the arena and smoke began coming out of vents in the upper deck. The court quickly became cloudy.