Buffalo, Feb 01 (AP) — A winter storm that delivered heavy snow and biting cold was blamed Thursday for at least three deaths and possibly a fourth, that of a homeless man whose frozen body was found in a suburban Buffalo bus shelter.
Two men died clearing snow, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said, and a 59-year-old man was killed when his vehicle hit a snowdrift and then slammed into a pole in Livingston County, south of Rochester, state police said.
The victims' names weren't immediately released.
An autopsy was planned to determine whether the homeless man found in the village of Williamsville froze to death or died of another cause.
Lake-effect snow continued to fall in areas of western New York Thursday, blown by winds of more than 30 miles per hour. The combination produced a second day of treacherous driving conditions and subzero wind chills. More than 20 inches of snow was recorded at the Buffalo airport since Tuesday evening.
Trucks and commercial buses remained banned from the western section of the Thruway and Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to crack down on violators a day after a tractor-trailer crash near Rochester caused a major pileup that left a trooper with serious injuries.
Truckers who ignore traffic bans during severe weather and cause a crash which results in injury could be charged with reckless endangerment and assault as well as be ticketed, Cuomo said during a Thursday news conference at a state transportation facility outside Buffalo.
Bans also were in place for other Buffalo-area intestates and expressways, although restrictions on traveling local streets were lifted for the city and most Erie County towns.
Cuomo said a tractor-trailer whose driver ignored the ban jackknifed west of Rochester on Wednesday afternoon, causing a 19-vehicle pileup that injured several people, including a state trooper. Buffalo and Rochester media outlets reported several instances of truckers ignoring the ban and traveling on highways and roads despite whiteout conditions.
"That tractor-trailer ban is serious. We're not asking tractor-trailers and buses to stay off the road. That is a legal ban," Cuomo said. "If you violate the law in this situation you could be endangering human life."
State police said the truck that caused the pileup was traveling east on I-90 when it jackknifed between Rochester and Buffalo and struck the rear of the patrol vehicle of Trooper Dominique Wilson, who had pulled over to assist stranded motorists. Her vehicle was then sideswiped by a second truck, troopers said.
Wilson was treated at a Rochester hospital for numerous injuries but is expected to recover, officials said. Two other people were treated and released, police said.
The two truckers were issued several tickets, including failing to heed the roadside traffic control devices that alerted commercial truck and bus drivers that a travel ban was in effect, troopers said.
After the news conference, Cuomo headed out in an emergency services truck to get a look at local road conditions. His entourage came upon two trucks police had stopped from getting on another route closed to truck traffic. Cuomo jumped on the running board of one of the trucks and told the driver to pull over because the roads were dangerous.
"They were a little surprised to see me, to tell you the truth," said Cuomo, adding that both truckers would be ticketed by state police.
The arctic conditions caused problems from Buffalo to Brooklyn, where about 200 firefighters battling an early morning blaze in a commercial building took turns getting warm on buses amid the frigid conditions.
On Manhattan's Upper West Side, a water main break shut down a section of Broadway as water gushed from manhole covers and formed icy patches at an intersection. Crews shut off the water and spread road salt on the street as utility workers repaired the break.
In New Jersey, firefighters contended with single-digit temperatures as they fought a blaze in a parking garage at Newark Liberty International Airport. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said the fire started on the rooftop of the garage at Terminal C and damaged more than a dozen vehicles. No injuries were reported.
Philadelphia, Feb 01 (AP/UNB) — The main sprinkler valve had been turned off before a 2017 five-alarm fire at a Pennsylvania senior nursing and rehabilitation center that left four residents dead and injured two dozen people, federal investigators said Thursday.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives released the final investigative report into the cause of the huge blaze at Barclay Friends Senior Living Community in West Chester, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Philadelphia.
The fire likely started near a patio under an overhang at the multi-building facility, investigators said, but they could not determine the exact origin or cause because of the extensive damage. Local officials requested the federal agency's investigative help because of the fire's size and the scope of the damage.
The main valve to the internal sprinklers had been switched off in the building where the fire started, investigators said. It couldn't be determined when the valve was turned off or by whom, ATF officials said, but they did not believe the fire was set intentionally.
The ATF does not anticipate any criminal charges or any continued investigation specifically into the sprinkler valve, said Charlene Hennessy, a spokeswoman for the bureau in Philadelphia. Investigators conducted more than 300 interviews, she said.
The report did not speculate whether the lack of internal sprinklers played a role in how long it took to put out the Nov. 16, 2017, fire. The heat was so intense that one of the more than 400 firefighters battling the blaze discovered his helmet was melting.
Investigators doubted the internal sprinklers would have helped much because of where the fire started, Hennessy said.
The Barclay facility's executive director posted a letter to residents on its website Thursday.
"We are deeply distressed to have it affirmed, according to the ATF's investigation, that the main valve to the Woolman Building's sprinkler-system was believed to be closed," wrote Linda M. Sterthous. "This information confirms our worst fears, and we have taken steps to make sure this can never have again."
The flames were fanned by wind that pushed the flames up vinyl siding and onto rooftops, the report said. The report noted the facility did not have external sprinklers, which would have helped, but said they are not required under building codes. The victims' families were given access to the report's findings in advance, ATF officials said.
The lack of water, problems with sprinkler design and issues with not ensuring flame-retardant materials were used on the outside of the buildings were mentioned in lawsuits filed against the nursing home by the estates of the four residents killed.
The family of a married couple who died, Thomas Parker, 92, and Delores Parker, 89, sued the home in June, saying the couple, who both had dementia, were left to die "terrifying, gruesome, agonizing and lonely deaths."
Almost 150 residents and staff were evacuated, some in wheelchairs or rolled out on their beds into near-freezing temperatures. Dozens of neighbors also helped, wrapping residents in blankets and ferrying them to ambulances on makeshift gurneys.
The four elderly residents were unaccounted for after the evacuation and were later found dead inside the buildings. The county coroner later said they died of smoke inhalation.
Chicago, Jan 31 (AP/UNB) — The painfully cold weather system that put much of the Midwest into a historic deep freeze was expected to ease Thursday, though temperatures could still tumble to record lows in some places before the region begins to thaw out.
Disruptions caused by the cold will persist, too, including power outages and canceled flights and trains. Crews in Detroit will need days to repair water mains that burst Wednesday, and other pipes can still burst in persistent subzero temperatures.
Before the worst of the cold begins to lift, the National Weather Service said Chicago could hit lows early Thursday that break the city's record of minus 27 (minus 32 Celsius) set on Jan. 20, 1985. Some nearby isolated areas could see temperatures as low as minus 40 (minus 40 Celsius). That would break the Illinois record of minus 36 (minus 38 Celsius), set in Congerville on Jan. 5, 1999.
As temperatures bounce back into the single digits Thursday and into the comparative balmy 20s by Friday, more people were expected to return to work in the nation's third-largest city, which resembled a ghost town after most offices told employees to stay home.
The blast of polar air that enveloped much of the Midwest on Wednesday closed schools and businesses and strained infrastructure with some of the lowest temperatures in a generation. The deep freeze snapped rail lines, canceled hundreds of flights and strained utilities.
Chicago dropped to a low of around minus 23 (minus 30 Celsius), slightly above the city's lowest-ever reading of minus 27 (minus 32 Celsius) from January 1985. Milwaukee had similar conditions. Minneapolis recorded minus 27 (minus 32 Celsius). Sioux Falls, South Dakota, saw minus 25 (minus 31 Celsius).
Wind chills reportedly made it feel like minus 50 (minus 45 Celsius) or worse. Trains and buses in Chicago operated with few passengers. The hardiest commuters ventured out only after covering nearly every square inch of flesh against the extreme chill, which froze ice crystals on eyelashes and eyebrows in minutes.
The Postal Service took the rare step of suspending mail delivery in many places, and in southeastern Minnesota, even the snowplows were idled by the weather.
The bitter cold was the result of a split in the polar vortex, a mass of cold air that normally stays bottled up in the Arctic. The split allowed the air to spill much farther south than usual. In fact, Chicago was colder than the Canadian village of Alert, one of the world's most northerly inhabited places. Alert, which is 500 miles (804 kilometers) from the North Pole, reported a temperature that was a couple of degrees higher.
Officials in dozens of cities focused on protecting vulnerable people from the cold, including the homeless, seniors and those living in substandard housing.
At least eight deaths were linked to the system, including an elderly Illinois man who was found several hours after he fell trying to get into his home and a University of Iowa student found behind an academic hall several hours before dawn. Elsewhere, a man was struck by a snowplow in the Chicago area, a young couple's SUV struck another on a snowy road in northern Indiana and a Milwaukee man froze to death in a garage, authorities said.
Aside from the safety risks and the physical discomfort, the system's icy grip also took a heavy toll on infrastructure, halting transportation, knocking out electricity and interrupting water service.
Amtrak canceled scores of trains to and from Chicago, one of the nation's busiest rail hubs. Several families who intended to leave for Pennsylvania stood in ticket lines at Chicago's Union Station only to be told all trains were canceled until Friday.
"Had I known we'd be stranded here, we would have stayed in Mexico longer — where it was warmer," said Anna Ebersol, who was traveling with her two sons.
Ten diesel-train lines in the Metra commuter network kept running, unlike the electric lines, but crews had to heat vital switches with gas flames and watched for rails that were cracked or broken. When steel rails break or even crack, trains are automatically halted until they are diverted or the section of rail is repaired, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis explained.
A track in the Minneapolis light-rail system also cracked, forcing trains to share the remaining track for a few hours.
In Detroit, more than two dozen water mains froze. Customers were connected to other mains to keep water service from being interrupted, Detroit Water and Sewerage spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh said.
Most mains were installed from the early 1900s to the 1950s. They are 5 to 6 feet (1.5 to 1.8 meters) underground and beneath the frost line, but that matters little when temperatures drop so dramatically, Peckinpaugh said.
On a typical winter day, the city has five to nine breaks, with each taking about three days to fix. But those repairs will take longer now with the large number of failures to fix, he added.
Detroit is in the second year of a $500 million program to rehab its water and sewer system. Last year, 25 miles (40 kilometers) of water mains were replaced.
"Water pipes are brittle. The more years they've gone through the freeze-thaw cycle," the greater the stress and strain, said Greg DiLoreto, a volunteer with the American Society of Civil Engineers and chair of its committee on American infrastructure.
Pipes laid a century ago have far exceeded the life span for which they were designed, said DiLoreto, who described the aging process as "living on borrowed time."
"When we put them in — back in the beginning — we never thought they would last this long," he said.
The same freeze-thaw cycle beats up concreate and asphalt roads and bridges, resulting in teeth-jarring potholes.
"You won't see them until it starts warming up and the trucks start rolling over the pavement again," said DiLoreto who is based in Portland, Oregon.
Caracas, Jan 31 (AP/UNB) — Doctors in scrubs, businessmen in suits and construction workers in jeans gathered on the streets of Venezuela's capital Wednesday, waving their nation's flag and demanding Nicolas Maduro step down from power in a walkout organized by the nation's reinvigorated opposition to ratchet up pressure on the embattled president.
Protesters said they were heeding the opposition's call for another mass demonstration despite the heavy-handed response by security forces over the last week to quell anti-government protests.
"I'm going out now more than ever," said Sobeia Gonzalez, 63. "We have a lot more faith that this government has very little time left."
The latest walkout comes one week exactly after opposition leader Juan Guaido proclaimed himself the nation's rightful president amid a sea of supporters, hurling the nation into a new chapter of political tumult as the anti-Maduro movement tries to establish a transitional government and the socialist leader clings to power.
"We are staying in the streets," Guaido told students at a surprise appearance at the Central University of Venezuela. "Not just in protest of the crisis we are living in all of Venezuela, not just because of how bad things are, but also for the future."
The 35-year-lawmaker has transformed from a little-known opposition figure into a commanding force in the nation's politics with the backing of U.S. President Donald Trump and two dozen other nations recognizing him as Venezuela's interim president.
The turmoil has morphed into a larger geopolitical standoff as Maduro accuses the U.S. of orchestrating a coup by backing Guaido and enacting punishing oil sanctions while powerful Venezuela allies China and Russia continue to stand by the president.
On Tuesday, the government-stacked Supreme Court barred Guaido from leaving the country and froze his bank accounts as a probe into his anti-government activities led by Maduro-ally and chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab advances. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton warned that if Guaido is harmed Venezuela will face "serious consequences."
Guaido has thus far managed to avoid arrest and the Supreme Court did not strip him of his legislative immunity, though the new investigation could signal that Maduro's administration is moving to take a more punitive approach in the days ahead.
Speaking at the walkout, Guaido said he wasn't losing any sleep over the probe. "We don't want to leave the country," he said. "We want people to return."
Maduro huddled Wednesday with military troops, prayed with evangelical supporters and released a video urging the American people to rise up against Trump and support him as Venezuela's rightful leader. He said Trump has his eyes on Venezuela's vast oil reserves and warned against any U.S. military intervention.
"We won't allow a Vietnam in Latin America," Maduro said. "If the aim of the United States is to invade, they'll have a Vietnam worse than can be imagined."
Maduro has been overseeing military training exercises broadcast on state television on a near-daily basis over the past week in an apparent attempt to show he still has the backing of the armed forces, whose support is key to either man's claim to the presidency.
In an interview with Russia's state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, Maduro said he was "willing to sit down for talks with the opposition for the sake of Venezuela's peace and its future," an offer he has repeated often but that the opposition is reluctant to accept. He also accused Trump of ordering a hit on him from Colombia but offered no proof.
The already distressed nation is likely to face even tougher times soon after the U.S. imposed sanctions Monday on Venezuela's state-owned oil company, potentially depriving the Maduro government of $11 billion in export revenues over the next year.
Maduro called the sanctions "criminal" and vowed to challenge the U.S. in court.
Violent street demonstrations erupted last week after Guaido declared during a huge opposition rally in Caracas that he had assumed presidential powers under the constitution and planned to hold fresh elections to end Maduro's "dictatorship."
Under Venezuela's constitution, the head of the National Assembly is empowered to take on the duties of the chief executive under a range of circumstances in which the presidency is vacated. The opposition contends that Maduro's reelection was a sham because, among other things, top opposition candidates were barred from running and that his new second term is therefore illegitimate.
The U.N. human rights office says security forces in Venezuela detained nearly 700 people in just one day of anti-government protests last week — the highest such tally in a single day in the country in at least 20 years — and that more than 40 people were killed.
Maduro's allies blame the opposition for the violence and deny the high death toll as well as reports that minors were among those arrested.
Guaido called on Venezuelans to take to the streets Wednesday holding signs stating "your reasons for fighting" and urging the armed forces to join them.
"I want a free Venezuela," several protesters in the Chacao district of the capital wrote on their signs as passing cars and trucks honked their horns in support. Others chanted, "Maduro is a delinquent, not a president!"
A row of National Guardsmen blocked off one street in Caracas to stop protesters from going through but there weren't any reports of violent confrontations as happened last week.
The walkout drew a cross-section of Venezuelan society ranging from professionals to blue-collar workers, though participation appeared to be lower in some of the poorer enclaves that are traditional government strongholds.
A few of demonstrators from the Catia neighborhood, where protesters set barricades on fire last week, said they didn't feel safe protesting there and joined the walkout from wealthier districts instead.
Among the protesters was Dr. Hugo Rosillo, who stood outside a children's hospital just blocks from Maduro's presidential palace. He said he and others were fed up with not being able to treat their patients facing life-threatening illnesses like cancer because of shortages of medical supplies.
The hospital has turned into just "a storeroom for cadavers," he said.
Brumadinho, Jan 31 (AP/UNB) — Under a scorching sun, Tereza Ferreira Nascimento on Wednesday dug through the mud with garden tools and her hands in search of her brother Paulo Giovane dos Santos, resigned to the reality that he was most likely dead six days after the collapse of a Brazilian dam holding back mine waste.
As search-and-recovery efforts continued, authorities also worked to slow the reddish-brown mud that was heading down a small river with high concentrations of iron oxide, threatening to contaminate a much larger waterway that provides drinking water to communities in five of the country's 26 states.
Friday's breach at the mine owned and operated by the Vale mining company led to a sea of mud that plastered several areas of the southeastern city of Brumadinho. To date, 99 people have been confirmed dead and 259 are missing.
"We have been here since Friday, taking turns between brothers, brothers-in-law, searching for the body so that we can at least give him a dignified burial," said Nascimento, holding back tears. "So far it has been in vain."
Nascimento's sister-in-law, Sonia Monteiro, knelt down to smell the mud. Other smells, of dead animals, had thrown them off before, but this time they believed they were on the right track.
"We were sensing a smell here, more or less, so we are digging to see if we find him," said Nascimento, 41.
In the distance, helicopters could be heard and firefighters, wearing masks because of the strong smell of decomposing bodies, worked several areas. In theory, they were still in search for survivors, but no one had been rescued alive since Saturday, making chances for a miracle less with each passing moment.
Authorities said that in some cases they were struggling to identify the deceased, as bodies were badly bloated or in pieces. They used dental records to identify those with no recognizable physical characteristics or usable fingerprints.
Vagner Diniz, 60, was holding on to some hope Wednesday that some of his five missing family members were still alive. His list of missing was staggering: his two adult children, Luiz and Camila; his daughter-in-law Fernanda, who was five months pregnant; and the biological parents of Luiz, who was adopted.
"This was a massive assassination," said Diniz, who lives in Australia with his wife and had come to his native Brazil on vacation.
They had come to see their children, find out the sex of their expected grandchild and visit Inhotim, a world-renowned art museum about a 15-minute drive from Brumadinho.
"It was going to be a fantastic week," said Diniz, visibly exhausted from long days trying to get information on his family.
Diniz believes that when the dam collapsed Friday, the family was in the Pousada Nova Estancia, an inn that got buried. On Tuesday night, he learned that his son's body had been recovered.
It could be several days or weeks before many bodies are found, as the mud extends several yards (meters) deep. Firefighters have to be careful in spots where it is particularly mushy so as not to become trapped themselves.
To cover more ground, firefighters said they had recruited 58 volunteers to search in areas of low risk.
"The objective is to see if there is a possible trace of a body," said Lt. Pedro Aihara, firefighters spokesman for the state of Minas Gerais, where the mine is located.
The release of the muddy waste has already turned the normally greenish water of the Paraopeba River brown about 10 miles (18 kilometers) downstream from the southeastern city of Brumadhinho, where the broken dam is.
The Paraopeba flows into the much larger Sao Francisco River, which provides drinking and irrigation water to hundreds of municipalities and larger cities such as Petrolina, in the state of Pernambuco, 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) from Brumadhino.
Authorities are focused on the Retiro Baixo hydroelectric dam and plant complex about 185 miles (300 kilometers) from Brumadinho. Officials and environmentalists hope the dam's reservoirs can be used to isolate the muck so it can be cleaned before that water is released and travels farther downstream to the Sao Francisco River.
Technicians for Furnas, the company that operates the dam, have concluded the waste poses no structural risk to the dam, the company said in a statement.
The muddy water and waste, moving about 0.6 mph (1 kph), was expected to reach the dam between Feb. 5 and Feb. 10, according to the Geological Survey of Brazil. The survey said the waste was destroying vegetation and aquatic life.
In the Pataxco Indian village, dead fish and refuse such as plastic sandals were visible along the Paraopeba River's banks.
"We used the river to take baths, to fish, to water our plants and now we can't do any of that," said village chief Hayo, who uses only one name and wore a large feathered headdress and a red-and-black beaded necklace.
Vale said in a statement it planned to install a fabric barrier to retain residues where the river reaches the city of Para de Minas, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Brumadinho. The company may also build levees near the Brumadinho mine in an effort to prevent the sediment from moving.
Vale has also been working to help victims, paying for funerals and announcing that people who lost family members would receive $27,000 in the form of a donation.
But for so many victims, angry and anguished, all they want right now is to find missing loved ones.
Francisco Adalberto Silva has been searching for son Francis Erik Soares Silva and nephew Luiz Pablo Caetano since the disaster. The two worked for a company that contracted with Vale, and were in the area of the collapse when it happened.
"I will keep coming. ... I just want to give my son and nephew a dignified burial," he said.