U.S. unemployment aid applications plummet to 346K
WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell sharply last week to a seasonally adjusted 346,000, signaling that the job market might be stronger than March’s weak month of hiring suggested.
Applications for unemployment aid dropped 42,000 last week, the Labor Department said Thursday. The decline nearly reversed an increase over the previous three weeks. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 3,000 to 358,000.
The number of unemployment applications has been volatile in the past two weeks largely because of the Easter holiday, a department spokesman said. The timing of the holiday changes from year to year. That makes it hard to adjust for school holidays and other changes that can cause temporary layoffs.
Applications had risen two weeks ago to 388,000, the highest level in four months. That spike “appears to have been a false alarm,” Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said in a note to clients.
“The report should assuage some of the concerns raised by last week’s weaker-than-expected data, particularly payrolls.”
Employers added only 88,000 jobs in March, the government said last week. That followed four months in which job growth averaged 220,000. Last week’s drop in applications for unemployment aid could signal that hiring is picking up in April. O’Sullivan noted that the average is near its level for the first three months of the year, when job gains averaged 168,000 a month.
In March, the unemployment rate fell to a four-year low of 7.6 percent last month, down from 7.7 percent. But the rate fell only because more people stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed.
Applications are a proxy for layoffs. The decline in applications signals that companies are laying off fewer workers.
Nearly 5.28 million people were receiving unemployment aid in the week that ended March 23, the latest period for which figures are available. That’s about 10,000 fewer than in the previous week.
Still, layoffs are only half the equation. Businesses also need to be confident enough in the economic outlook to add more jobs.
Companies are posting more open positions but have been slow to fill them. Their reluctance to hire suggests that they are still cautious about the economy.
The Labor Department reported earlier this week that companies advertised about 11 percent more job openings in February than in the same month a year earlier. But the number of people hired each month declined over that time.
Employment experts and staffing firms say many businesses have become highly selective and appear to be waiting for perfect candidates.
Much of the increase in net job gains earlier this year was a result of declining layoffs. Job cuts fell in January to the lowest level in the 12 years that the government has tracked the data.
Economists think economic growth accelerated in the January-March quarter to an annual rate of 3 percent. That would be a vast improvement over the annual rate of 0.4 percent in the October-December, which was held back by steep defense cuts and slower restocking by companies.
One concern is that across-the-board government spending cuts that began on March 1 will shave a half-percentage point from growth this year. That may have also made businesses cautious about hiring last month.
Financial crises for Ga. man who held firefighters
SUWANEE, Ga. (AP) — A gunman who lured firefighters to his Georgia home with an emergency call, then held four of them hostage for hours before being shot to death faced a series of personal and financial calamities before he lashed out violently at the rescue crew.
Lauren Brown’s life apparently reached a crisis this spring. With his power, cable and other utilities cut off because of nonpayment, the 55-year-old had half a dozen guns in his house and spent weeks planning the kidnapping, targeting firefighters rather than police Wednesday so he wouldn’t be shot, authorities said Thursday.
The specific reasons he chose to lash out aren’t known, but Brown had separated from his wife years earlier, though he still lived across the street from her, her new husband and his two children, according to neighbors and people who knew the family.
Brown had worked as a consultant for IBM in 1999, but described himself as disabled when he filed for bankruptcy protection three years later, according to court documents. He said he owed more than $100,000 to the Home Depot, banks and credit card companies. The records suggest that Brown was taping into his retirement savings to make ends meet. A series of tax liens had been placed on his home, which slipped into foreclosure in recent months.
He was arrested and booked into the Gwinnett County jail in 2010 after he failed to appear in court on a charge of striking an unmanned vehicle.
Brown called 911 Wednesday and said he was suffering from chest pains, and five Gwinnett County firefighters arrived at 3:48, believing it was a routine call, said Police Chief Charles Walters. Brown was lying in bed and appeared to be suffering from a condition that left him unable to move. But when they approached the bed to help him, he pulled out a handgun, Walters said.
He let one go to move the vehicles from the front of his house but kept the other four.
That began a 3½ -hour standoff. At about 7:30, police were convinced that even if they met Brown’s demands, he had no intention of releasing his hostages, Walters said.
Brown had requested items from a fast food seafood restaurant for himself and his hostages, and a SWAT officer carrying the food approached the house in Suwannee, about 35 miles northeast of Atlanta.
Other SWAT members set off a stun blast to distract Brown and stormed the house. Brown opened fire on the first officer as he entered the bedroom. The man was hit in the left arm by one of the shots, but managed to return fire, killing Brown. Before Brown fired, police told him to drop his weapon, Walters said.
Exposed wooden beams could be seen through a gaping hole in the side of the house Thursday and debris littered the yard. Public records indicate the red brick house with white siding is in foreclosure and has been bank-owned since mid-November.
Next to Brown’s home, another brick house with tan siding appeared to have even more damage. A large area of the side was missing, again with wooden beams and insulation exposed.
Jasmin Gutierez, 12, was at home with her family in that house Wednesday afternoon. They huddled in the master bedroom at the other end of the house.
“We started, like, at least trying to get in a group hug to save ourselves because we got scared,” she said. “I mean there was a lot of people, like the SWAT teams and the police.”
After a while, they heard a loud bang and then they heard shooting and black smoke started to fill their home and police knocked on the door to make sure they were all right.
After the hostage-taking was reported, dozens of police and rescue vehicles surrounded the home and a negotiator was keeping in touch with the gunman, police said. The situation remained tense until the blast rocked the neighborhood of mostly two-story homes and well-kept lawns.
“The explosion you heard was used to distract the suspect, to get into the house and take care of business,” Gwinnett County Police Cpl. Edwin Ritter said in a news conference minutes after the ordeal ended. He said the situation had gotten to the point where authorities believed the lives of the hostages were in “immediate danger.”
“It’s an unfortunate circumstance we did not want to end this way,” Ritter said. “But with the decisions this guy was making, this was his demise.”
Firefighters were able to use their radios to let the dispatch center know what was going on and that’s how negotiators communicated with Brown initially, Walters said. Once they got his cellphone service turned back on, they were able to speak to him by phone.
Fire officials did not believe there was any danger in responding to the initial call that seemed routine and dispatched the usual one engine and one ambulance to the house.
This was the second time in recent months that firefighters have been targeted.
On Dec. 24, a man in upstate New York set his house ablaze and shot and killed two firefighters as they arrived, then himself. Two other firefighters and a police officer were wounded.
2 killed, dozens injured in bus crash near Dallas
IRVING, Texas (AP) — At least two people were killed and more than 40 were hospitalized after a charter bus careened off a North Texas highway and flipped onto its side Thursday, drawing a large emergency response as rescue crews struggled to reach victims inside, authorities said.
The Cardinal Coach Line bus was carrying mostly senior citizens when it suddenly weaved across the busy highway, striking two concrete barriers, and toppled over in the center median, witnesses said. The wreck occurred along President George Bush Turnpike in Irving, just east of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
“It was pretty bad, people screaming,” said Ed Cluck, who stopped after driving by the wreck and seeing smoke. He said he popped the bus’ roof hatches and helped six to eight people escape.
“It was just people stacked on top of each other,” he said.
“It’s just a lot of injuries, a lot of people in shock, broken bones,” added Robert Hare, another motorist who stopped to help. He said many passengers were crying and appeared to be in shock as they were pulled from the wreckage.
The bus, which was carrying about 45 people, was on its way to a casino in Oklahoma, authorities said.
Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Lonny Haschel confirmed that two people were killed in the accident. Authorities said 41 other people were taken to local hospitals, many of them suffering from fractured bones.
Emergency vehicles were seen swarming the bus as it lay in the grassy center median, and ladders were being used to access the vehicle. The cause of the accident has not been determined, but the National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending investigators to the scene.
Cardinal Coach has reported no accidents in the last two years that resulted in deaths or injuries, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. A man who answered the phone at the company’s offices in Mansfield, just south of Dallas, confirmed that one of its five buses was involved in the crash but said he didn’t have time to talk because he was trying to get information about the crash.
Law enforcement officers were interviewing bus passengers and drivers who witnessed the crash. The wreck occurred near a highway interchange, so traffic was snarled for several miles.
“We ended up swirling and weaving and then ended up on the side,” passenger Daniel Risik, 73, told The Dallas Morning News. “People were screaming and hollering, a very traumatic situation to say the least.”
“People were piled on top of each other,” he said. “It was unbelievable. A lady had pinned me. Rescue got there and started pulling people out of a roof emergency hatch. People were hollering, screaming, there was blood all over the place. It was unbelievable.”
He said passengers had been picked up in Fort Worth and other locations in the area.
A spokesman for Baylor Medical Center in Irving said 13 patients arrived at the hospital following the accident. Officials at Las Colinas Medical Center in Irving confirmed that six patients were there.
Another 15 patients were transported to Parkland Memorial Hospital, including the bus driver, and another victim was airlifted in critical condition, hospital officials said. Public transportation buses with Dallas Area Rapid Transit were used to transport some passengers with lesser injuries.
The charter bus was heading to a casino in Durant, Okla., about 95 miles north of Dallas, Choctaw Casinos spokeswoman Arlene Alleman said.
The bus company has been beset with financial problems since its founding in 2007, according to court records. The Internal Revenue Service placed a lien on Cardinal Coach’s property in December for nearly $60,000 in unpaid business taxes, and the owners, Matt and Teresa Biran of Mansfield, filed for bankruptcy in December 2008.
George Barnes, the attorney who handled the couple’s bankruptcy, said the proceeding was discharged three months later and wasn’t related to any issues with the bus company, other than it wasn’t generating enough income.
“It had nothing to do with any lawsuits, safety aspects,” Barnes said Thursday. “It was just a matter of they had way more debt than they had before. It was just one of those situations where they needed a fresh start and this did it.”
Thursday’s accident comes as bus safety advocates push for quicker implementation of a new law aimed at making motor coaches safer. Approved in July, the law set deadlines for the U.S. Department of Transportation to implement a series of provisions, though a recent spate of high-profile accidents has prompted some supporters to call for an accelerated timeline.
In a March 21 letter to the agency, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio pointed to a crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike involving the Seton Hall University women’s lacrosse team, as well as others in California, Oregon, Maine and Missouri. The Democrat also noted that a provision requiring the agency to finalize regulations regarding seat belts on buses within a year had “languished.”
Jackie Gillan, president of Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said Thursday’s accident was yet another reason to fast-track the law’s provisions, particularly those involving seat belts and other equipment upgrades.
“There’s nothing to stop anyone from accelerating those deadlines, and in fact one would think they would in light of these crashes,” she said.
Bullet hits Philadelphia shop worker’s belt buckle
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A grocery store employee said Thursday that he is thanking God and his belt buckle for saving him from a stray bullet that smashed through the market’s front door.
The bullet lodged in the metal buckle worn by Bienvenido Reynoso, who had only recently started his job at 8 Brothers Supermarket in Philadelphia.
“It saved my life,” Reynoso said of the belt. “I keep it for (my) whole life now.”
Reynoso, 38, said he was about to wheel a hand truck outside the market in the city’s Grays Ferry section when he heard gunshots around 4 p.m. Wednesday. He hit the floor.
Surveillance footage shows a man on a bike firing a gun outside the market. One person outside the store was hit in the abdomen and was hospitalized in critical condition, police said.
At first, Reynoso didn’t realize he could have been a second victim.
“When I check my body, I don’t see nothing, no blood, nothing,” he said in an interview at his home Thursday. “And I said I’m going to be OK.”
Then someone noticed a hole at the bottom of Reynoso’s shirt. That’s when he found the bullet stuck to his belt buckle.
Police took the bullet and shirt as evidence. But Reynoso, the father of a young daughter, got to keep the belt, which he said he got in New York three years ago.
Christian Vinas, 21, was working behind the counter and also dived to the ground when the shooting began. Reynoso had perfect timing in dropping to the floor, he said.
“That has to be God,” Vinas said. “Out of all the places you could get hit in the body, you get hit right there. It was truly amazing.”
Police arrested a 24-year-old suspect and charged him with attempted murder and aggravated assault.