Friday, March 28, 2014

Published:

AP IMPACT: Gov't safety agency missed trends that could have led to quicker recall of GM cars

DETROIT (AP) -- For years, the U.S. government's auto safety watchdog sent form letters to worried owners of the Chevrolet Cobalt and other General Motors small cars, saying it didn't have enough information about problems with unexpected stalling to establish a trend or open an investigation.

The data tell a different story.

An Associated Press review of complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that over a nine-year period, 164 drivers reported that their 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts stalled without warning. That was far more than any of the car's competitors from the same model years, except for the Toyota Corolla, which was recalled after a government investigation in 2010.

Stalling was one sign of the ignition switch failure that led GM last month to recall 1.6 million Cobalts and other compact cars, including the Saturn Ion, Pontiac G5 and Chevrolet HHR. Another 971,000 cars from model years 2008-2011 were recalled late Friday to find faulty replacement switches, bringing the total to about 2.6 million.

GM has linked the problem to at least 12 deaths and dozens of crashes. The company says the switch can slip out of the "run" position, which causes the engine to stall. This knocks out the power steering and power-assisted brakes, making the car harder to maneuver. Power to the device that activates the air bags is also cut off.

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Putin, Obama discuss solution to Ukraine crisis; Yanukovych urges nationwide referendum

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin called President Barack Obama on Friday to discuss a diplomatic solution to the Ukrainian crisis, while Ukraine's fugitive leader urged a nationwide referendum that would serve Moscow's purpose of turning its neighbor into a loosely knit federation.

The statement from Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who fled to Russia last month after three months of protests, raised the threat of more unrest in Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern provinces, where many resent the new Ukrainian government.

Also Friday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin the Ukrainian military withdrawal from Crimea was complete. Ukrainian soldiers were seen carrying duffel bags and flags as they shipped out of the Black Sea peninsula that Russia has annexed.

While Yanukovych has practically no leverage in Ukraine, his statement clearly reflected the Kremlin's focus on supporting separatist sentiments in eastern Ukraine.

The White House said that Putin called Obama Friday to discuss a U.S. proposal for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presented to Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov earlier this week. Obama suggested that Russia put a concrete response in writing and the presidents agreed that Kerry and Lavrov would meet to discuss the next steps.

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Washington officials all but abandon hope of finding mudslide survivors, keep death toll at 17

ARLINGTON, Wash. (AP) -- Washington state officials all but abandoned hope Friday of finding survivors under tons of twisted, sodden earth as a community waited in anguish to learn the full scope of what is already one of the most devastating landslides in U.S. history.

The grueling process of locating, extracting and identifying human remains from the unstable debris covering the community of Oso northeast of Seattle has slowed the release of information by the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office to a trickle.

Crews may be finding more remains amid the destruction, but the official death toll will remain at 17 until medical examiners can complete the "very, very challenging" task of identifying the bodies, said Snohomish County Executive Director Gary Haakenson.

Authorities have located at least eight other bodies in addition to the 17, and they previously said they expect the number of fatalities from Saturday's mudslide to rise substantially.

Ninety people were listed as missing, but hope for them began fading by midweek when they had not checked in with friends or relatives, and no one had emerged from the pile alive.

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Washington mudslide survivor tells of swimming to surface after 'wave' of mud, water hit home

DARRINGTON, Wash. (AP) -- The roar of the hillside collapsing was so loud that Robin Youngblood thought an airplane had crashed. But when she looked out the window of her mobile home, all she saw was a wall of mud racing across her beloved river valley toward her home.

"All I could say was 'Oh my God' and then it hit us," Youngblood told The Associated Press. "Like a wave hit our mobile home and pushed it up. It tore the roof off of the house. When we stopped moving we were full of mud everywhere. Two minutes was the whole thing."

Youngblood is among the few survivors of the massive, deadly mudslide that destroyed a rural community northeast of Seattle last weekend. Five days after the destruction, Youngblood visited Darrington to see her cousin and follow up on the process of federal aid.

"It's really hard to see all of this. It's really hard to know that I can't go home. Several times this week I've said 'I need to go home now.' Then I realize, there's no home to go to," she said Thursday.

In the early 1900s, Youngblood's family helped establish the community of Darrington. They were Cherokee who had been forced to move to Oklahoma and Arkansas, but decided to move to Washington. Youngblood's great grandmother is buried a few blocks from the Darrington town center, she said.

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Australians say latest objects need to be inspected before linking to missing plane

PERTH, Australia (AP) -- Objects spotted floating in a new search area for debris from the missing Malaysian jetliner need to be recovered and inspected before they can be linked to the plane, Australian officials said Saturday.

Eight planes were ready to comb the newly targeted area off the west coast of Australia after several objects were spotted Friday, including two rectangular items that were blue and gray, and ships on the scene will attempt to recover them, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

"The objects cannot be verified or discounted as being from MH370 until they are relocated and recovered by ships," the authority said in a statement. "It is not known how much flotsam, such as from fishing activities, is ordinarily there. At least one distinctive fishing object has been identified."

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said a cold front would bring rain, low clouds and reduced visibility over the southern part of the search area, with moderate winds and swells of up to 2 meters (6 feet). Conditions will improve Sunday, although rain, drizzle and low clouds are still likely.

Newly analyzed satellite data shifted the search zone on Friday, raising hopes searchers may be closer to getting physical evidence that Flight 370 crashed in the Indian Ocean on March 8 with 239 people aboard.

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At stroke of midnight, Britain holds its first same-sex weddings

LONDON (AP) -- Gay couples in Britain waited decades for the right to get married. When the opportunity came, it took just a few minutes to make history.

Londoners Sean Adl-Tabatabai and Sinclair Treadway were among the first to tie the knot when Britain's new marriage law came into effect Saturday.

The two men wed in front of about 100 guests at their local town hall in the London borough of Camden -- one of several locales holding late-night ceremonies to mark the occasion. By 10 minutes past midnight they were married, with a kiss and a registrar's declaration: "You are now husband and husband."

It's a sign of a profound shift in attitudes in a country that little more than a decade ago had a law on the books banning the "promotion" of homosexuality.

"Some people say, 'You gays are trying to redefine marriage,' but the definition of marriage has already changed," said Treadway, a 20-year-old student originally from Los Angeles. "Now it's between two people who love each other."

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NJ Gov. Christie puts up traffic cones to separate himself from scandal that has consumed year

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Republican Gov. Chris Christie has spent the past few days putting down traffic cones to separate himself from scandal.

The usually garrulous governor and possible 2016 presidential contender had avoided news conferences and interviews for more than two months until Thursday, the day a report he commissioned cleared him of any involvement in the politically motivated plot to create huge traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge last year.

With investigations by federal prosecutors and state lawmakers looming, Christie also submitted to an interview Thursday with Diane Sawyer on ABC and another set to air Friday night on Fox News.

And a vintage, defiant Christie re-emerged Friday at a Statehouse news conference in which he cracked jokes, jousted with reporters and acknowledged the toll of the scrutiny.

"There is no question this shakes your confidence," he said. "If it doesn't, you're arrogant."

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Vatican open to serving as facilitator in Venez crisis although reconciliation remains remote

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- The Vatican says it's willing to help facilitate talks between Venezuela's government and its opponents aimed at ending weeks of deadly unrest that have paralyzed much of the country.

President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday said he was willing to sit down with the opposition under the watch of an outside observer. He floated the name of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who served as the Holy See's ambassador to Venezuela before being called to Rome last year.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told The Associated Press Friday the Holy See and Parolin were "certainly willing and desirous to do whatever is possible for the good and serenity of the country." He said Parolin, in particular, "knows and loves" Venezuela. But he added that the Vatican needed to understand the expectations of its intervention and whether it could bring about a "desired outcome." Such a study is underway, he added.

Catholicism is a touchstone for critics of Maduro's socialist administration, and opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles, both known to sport rosaries, have been pressing the Vatican to take up the cause. Maduro also heaped praise on Pope Francis after meeting with the first Latin American pontiff last year.

Although the church may be an acceptable go-between, the road to compromise in this deeply polarized nation is a long one. Hardliners on both sides continue to reject compromise even with at least 32 people killed and hundreds more injured, many of them during clashes between protesters and security forces sometimes joined by pro-government militias.

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Colbert's comedy causes Twitter storm

NEW YORK (AP) -- Sometimes satire isn't made for Twitter's 140-character world.

Comedy Central deleted a message Thursday from its "Colbert Report" Twitter feed showing a still from Wednesday night's show where Stephen Colbert joked about starting a "Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."

The joke was part of a skit in which Colbert talked about the Washington Redskins' owner buying things for Native Americans upset with the team's name.

A (hash)CancelColbert hashtag then appeared on Twitter, igniting a debate over what is funny and what is offensive.

Comedy Central deleted the tweet and made clear the feed was not controlled by the show. On his personal Twitter feed, Colbert said of (hash)CancelColbert that "I share your rage."

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5 Things Miguel Cabrera's record $292 million contract with the Tigers can buy

Miguel Cabrera scored the richest contract in U.S. sports history, reaching a $292 million deal over 10 years with the Tigers.

Detroit keeps the Triple Crown winner and two-time MVP, a devastating hitter who has helped the team win three straight AL Central crowns.

So, if he cashed out the biggest contract in American sports, what could Miggy afford?

Five things Cabrera's contract can buy:

DRIVING FORCE: He can buy 6.95 billion -- yes, billion with a 'B' -- gallons of gas in his homeland of Venezuela. It's cheap there, selling for under five cents per gallon. Now, if he paid for a pipeline to Detroit, maybe Cabrera could provide for the whole state -- Michigan motorists used 4.4 billion gallons in 2012, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Energy.