Portable shelters couldn’t save 19 firefighters
PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Trapped by a wildfire that exploded tenfold in a matter of hours, a crack team of firefighting “Hotshots” broke out their portable emergency shelters and rushed to climb into the foil-lined, heat-resistant bags before the flames swept over them.
By the time the blaze had passed, 19 men lay dead in the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years.
The tragedy Sunday evening all but wiped out the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, a unit based at Prescott, authorities said Monday as the last of the bodies were retrieved from the mountain in the town of Yarnell. Only one member survived, and that was because he was moving the unit’s truck at the time.
The deaths plunged the two small towns into mourning as the wildfire continued to threaten one of them, Yarnell. Arizona’s governor called it “as dark a day as I can remember” and ordered flags flown at half-staff. In a heartbreaking sight, a line of white vans carried the bodies to Phoenix for autopsies.
“I know that it is unbearable for many of you, but it also is unbearable for me. I know the pain that everyone is trying to overcome and deal with today,” said Gov. Jan Brewer, her voice catching several times as she addressed reporters and residents at Prescott High School in the town of 40,000.
The lightning-sparked fire — which spread to 13 square miles by Monday morning — destroyed about 50 homes and threatened 250 others in and around Yarnell, a town of 700 people in the mountains about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Department said.
About 200 more firefighters joined the battle Monday, bringing the total to 400. Among them were several other Hotshot teams, elite groups of firefighters sent in from around the country to battle the nation’s fiercest wildfires.
Residents huddled in shelters and restaurants, watching their homes burn on TV as flames lit up the night sky in the forest above the town.
It was unclear exactly how the firefighters became trapped, and state officials were investigating.
Brewer said the blaze “exploded into a firestorm” that overran the crew.
Brian Klimowski, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Flagstaff, said there was a sudden increase and shift in wind around the time of the tragedy. The blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours.
Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin said the crew and its commanders were following safety protocols, and it appears the fire’s erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.
The Hotshot team had spent recent weeks fighting fires in New Mexico and Prescott before being called to Yarnell, entering the smoky wilderness over the weekend with backpacks, chainsaws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees as a heat wave across the Southwest sent temperatures into the triple digits.
Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling said all 19 victims had deployed their emergency shelters as they were trained to do. When there is no way out, firefighters are supposed to step into them, lie face down on the ground and pull the fire-resistant fabric completely over themselves.
“It’ll protect you, but only for a short amount of time. If the fire quickly burns over you, you’ll probably survive that,” said Prescott Fire Capt. Jeff Knotek. But “if it burns intensely for any amount of time while you’re in that thing, there’s nothing that’s going to save you from that.”
Autopsies were scheduled to determine exactly how the firefighters died.
President Barack Obama offered his administration’s help in investigating the tragedy and predicted it will force government leaders to answer broader questions about how they handle increasingly destructive and deadly wildfires.
“We are heartbroken about what happened,” he said while on a visit to Africa.
The U.S. has 110 Hotshot crews, according to the U.S. Forest Service website. They typically have about 20 members each and go through specialized training.
Many of those killed were graduates of Prescott High, including Clayton Whitted, who would work out as firefighter on the same campus where he played football for the Prescott Badgers from 2000 to 2004.
The school’s football coach, Lou Beneitone, said Whitted was the type of athlete who “worked his fanny off.”
“He wasn’t a big kid, and many times in the game, he was overpowered by big men, and he still got after it. He knew, ‘This man in front of me is a lot bigger and stronger than me,’ but he’d try it and he’d smile trying it,” Beneitone said.
He and Whitted had talked a few months ago about how this year’s fire season could be a “rough one.”
“I shook his hand, gave him a hug, and said, ‘Be safe out there,’” Beneitone recalled. “He said, ‘I will, Coach.’”
Hundreds of people were evacuated from the Yarnell area. In addition to the flames, downed power lines and exploding propane tanks continued to threaten what was left of the town, said fire information officer Steve Skurja.
“It’s a very hazardous situation right now,” Skurja said.
Arizona is in the midst of a historic drought that has left large parts of the state highly flammable.
“Until we get a significant showing of the monsoons, it’s showtime, and it’s dangerous, really dangerous,” incident commander Roy Hall said.
The National Fire Protection Association website lists the last wildfire to kill more firefighters as the 1933 Griffith Park blaze in Los Angeles, which killed 29. The biggest loss of firefighters in U.S. history was 343, killed in the 9/11 attack on New York.
In 1994, the Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., killed 14 firefighters who were overtaken by an explosion of flames.
A makeshift memorial of flower bouquets and American flags formed at the Prescott fire station where the crew was based.
Prescott resident Keith Gustafson showed up and placed 19 water bottles in the shape of a heart.
“When I heard about this, it just hit me hard,” he said. “It hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Death Valley temp may tie June record
LAS VEGAS (AP) — A heat wave smothering the West is rewriting the record books, likely tying a more than century-old record for the U.S. while putting Las Vegas through its hottest June ever.
The National Weather Service says California’s Death Valley National Park tentatively recorded a high temperature of 129 degrees on Sunday, which would tie the all-time June record high for the United States. It could take months to verify whether the record set in 1902 at Volcano, a former town near the Salton Sea in southeastern California, was matched.
The reading, however, is short of the all-time, world record 134 degrees set in Death Valley on July 10, 1913.
Triple-digit heat struck again elsewhere in Southern California, while metropolitan Phoenix saw just a slight drop in temperatures after experiencing record-breaking heat Saturday. The 119-degree high in Phoenix on Saturday marked the fourth-hottest day in metro Phoenix since authorities started keeping temperature records more than 110 years ago. The high temperature for the metro area hit 115 on Sunday.
Las Vegas temperatures have been at 115 and above in recent days — including a record-tying 117 on Sunday — helping make June the hottest ever in Sin City.
National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Stachelski (stah-HEL’-skee) says Las Vegas will continue to bake in near-record temperatures at least through Thursday.
June was the third-hottest in Salt Lake City history, highlighted by the record high for the month of 105, set on Friday and Saturday.
The forecast for the first week of July calls for temperatures of 100 degrees or higher Tuesday through Thursday.
That would mark a streak of eight straight days of triple-digit heat, said National Weather Service meteorologist Nanette Hosenfeld. The record is 10 consecutive days, set in 2003.
Tragedy struck north of Phoenix as hot gusty winds fueled an out of control wildfire that overtook and killed 19 firefighters near the town of Yarnell.
Forestry spokesman Art Morrison said the firefighters were forced to deploy their fire shelters, tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat.
Six half-marathon runners in Southern California were hospitalized Sunday for heat-related illnesses. A day earlier, paramedics responding to a Nevada home without air conditioning found an elderly man dead.
Southern California will continue to broil under a massive heat wave, though forecasters say more record-setting temperatures are unlikely.
High-temperature records were shattered across the region over the weekend. The high of 115 at Lancaster’s Fox Field on Sunday represented not just a record for a June 30 but an all-time high — surpassing the 114 degrees recorded 53 years ago.
In San Diego County, Campo set a record with a 107-degree mark.
In Oregon, circling buzzards led neighbors to discover sheep with full-grown wool that had dropped dead of the heat in a field in rural Marion County near Turner.
The sheriff’s office said Monday that 30 to 40 had died in the 80-acre field covered with green standing grass
Sheriff’s spokesman Don Thomson told Statesman Journal deputies responded Sunday and gave remaining sheep water and food. More than 200 survived.
Archdiocese documents show priests paid to leave
MILWAUKEE (AP) — As more victims of clergy sex abuse came forward, then-Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan developed a plan to pay some abusers to leave the priesthood after writing to Vatican officials with increasing frustration and concern, warning them about the potential for scandal if they did not defrock problem priests, according to documents released Monday.
Dolan’s correspondence with Vatican officials and priests accused of sexual abuse was included in about 6,000 pages of documents the Archdiocese of Milwaukee released Monday as part of a deal reached in federal bankruptcy court with clergy sex abuse victims suing it for fraud. Victims say the archdiocese transferred problem priests to new churches without warning parishioners and covered up priests’ crimes for decades.
The documents have drawn attention in part because of the involvement of Dolan, who is now cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York and the nation’s most prominent Roman Catholic official by virtue of his position as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The records provide new details on his plan to pay some abusers to leave the priesthood and the transfer of nearly $57 million for cemetery care into a trust as the archdiocese prepared to file for bankruptcy.
Victims and their attorneys accused Dolan of bankruptcy fraud, pointing to a June 2007 letter in which he told a Vatican office that moving the money into a trust would provide “an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability.”
Church law requires bishops to seek Vatican approval for any property sale or asset transfer in the millions of dollars. Dolan wrote in the letter that the transfer had been approved by archdiocese’s finance council and college of consultors.
A Vatican office approved the transfer within a month. Jeff Anderson, an attorney for many victims, compared that to the long lag in responses to defrock abusive priests.
“These documents show that if they want to move money to protect it from survivors they can act quick as a fox,” Anderson said. “If they want to protect kids, if they have full knowledge of kids in peril, they keep it secret while the Vatican drags its feet and children are kept at peril.”
In a statement, Dolan called any suggestion he was trying to shield money from victims an “old and discredited” attack. Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for current Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said the money was always set aside in a separate fund for cemetery care and moving it to a trust just formalized that.
Peter Isely, Midwest director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he would ask the U.S. attorney’s office in Milwaukee to look into the possibility of bankruptcy fraud. However, Marquette University law professor Ralph Anzivino, a bankruptcy specialist, said no criminal charges could be filed unless the bankruptcy judge determined the transfer amounts to fraud.
S.F. Bay Area transit more crowded with train strike
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — San Francisco Bay area commuters sweated in crowded buses, shivered on loaded ferries or inched through crowded freeway traffic on Monday after hundreds of train workers demanding higher wages went on strike and the region’s heavily used rail system ground to a halt.
The walkout derailed hundreds of thousands of daily riders who use the nation’s fifth-largest rail system each day, forcing them to find other means of transportation in the second-most congested region in the country.
However, morning rush hour did not come to a standstill as feared, and some travelers who used carpool lanes and other options added relatively little time to their commutes.
“It’s been an absolute nightmare for some commuters, but we didn’t see total gridlock,” said Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization focused on public transportation and walkable communities. “Everybody got so worried about potential congestion they found an alternative,”
Two of the largest unions representing Bay Area Rapid Transit workers went on strike early Monday after their contract expired Sunday night. It was their first strike since a six-day walkout in 1997. No new talks were scheduled.
Theresa Tramble, 23, and Antanisha Thompson, 24, who usually ride BART trains together from Oakland to San Francisco, were upset after their long, hard commute. They usually enjoy a $5.85 round-trip on a line deep beneath the bay on the quiet, cushioned seats of BART trains. Instead, they rode the bus, a noisy, jerking ride that cost $4.20 one way, almost doubling the price of their commute.
How was the ride?
“Super crowded, super hot,” groaned Thompson, who works at a drug store in San Francisco.
At her side, Tramble said she had to get up two hours early and spent two hours at an Oakland bus stop. On her last day of college, she was worrying about final exams.
California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Sgt. Diana McDermott said it could have been worse.
“It’s summertime and a holiday week, so plenty of people didn’t go to work,” she said. “Others had prepared for it, or they were able to work from home, and we saw lots of informal carpooling.”
Transit authorities also made accommodations, including longer carpool lane hours, additional ferries, and extra buses and bike shuttles over the Bay Bridge.
Caltrans spokesman Bob Hahn said the biggest delay added 25 minutes to a stretch of Highway 80 between the Carquinez Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The heaviest traffic, he said, was to the south along a stretch of Highway 880, which was twice as heavy as a week ago.
Meanwhile the unions and management reported being far apart on key sticking points including salary, pensions, health care and safety. BART workers picketed outside stations on Monday.
“Our members aren’t interested in disrupting the Bay Area, but management has put us in a position where we have no choice,” said Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555.
The unions, which represent nearly 2,400 train operators, station agents, mechanics, maintenance workers and professional staff, want a 5 percent raise each year over the next three years.
BART said train operators and station agents in the unions average about $71,000 in base salary and $11,000 in overtime annually. The workers also pay a flat $92 monthly fee for health insurance.
BART spokesman Rick Rice said the agency had upped its original offer of a 4 percent pay increase over the next four years to 8 percent. The proposed salary increase is on top of a 1 percent raise employees were scheduled to receive Monday, Rice added.
The transit agency also said it offered to reduce the contribution employees would have to make to pensions, and lower the cost for health care premiums.
BART, with 44 stations in four counties and 104 miles of lines, handles more than 40 percent of commuters coming from the East Bay to San Francisco, said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Dozens of people who lined up single file at a bus stop in downtown Berkeley climbed into an F bus at 9:30 a.m. destined for San Francisco. In the 15 minutes it took to reach the border of Oakland, the bus had reached capacity, coasting by stops where would-be riders looked on.
The sometimes heavy heat prompted passengers to pop open small ventilation windows on the bus and led to sharp brakes that threw several passengers off balance to collide with neighbors.
Still, Yuan Wu, a 26-year-old baker who works in San Francisco, said the ride was “not any worse than I imagined.”
On July 4, Statue of Liberty to finally reopen
NEW YORK (AP) — Months after Superstorm Sandy swamped her little island, the Statue of Liberty will finally welcome visitors again on Independence Day.
Sandy made landfall one day after the statue’s 126th birthday, flooding most of the 12 acres that she stands upon with water that surged as high as 8 feet. Lady Liberty herself was spared, but the surrounding grounds on Liberty Island took a beating.
Railings broke, docks and paving stones were torn up and buildings were flooded. The storm destroyed boilers, sewage pumps and electrical systems.
Hundreds of National Park Service workers from as far away as California and Alaska spent weeks cleaning mud and debris. In recent months, all mechanical equipment was moved to higher ground as workers put the island back in order.
The damage to Liberty Island and neighboring Ellis Island cost an estimated $59 million. Some repairs to brick walkways and docks are still underway, but on July 4 visitors will arrive via ferry boats once again to tour the national landmark.
“People will have, more or less, the same access to Liberty Island that they had before,” said John Warren, a spokesman for the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
The ceremony Thursday will include remarks by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others. It will close with a ribbon-cutting and performance by singer and actor Dominic Chianese, best known as Corrado “Junior” Soprano on the HBO series “The Sopranos.”
A gift from France, the statue was conceived to symbolize the friendship between the two countries and their shared love of liberty. It was dedicated in 1886 and welcomes about 3.5 million visitors every year.
People who purchased tickets in advance can also look out over New York Harbor from the statue’s crown, which reopened after a long hiatus one day before Sandy hit and was forced to close again due to the storm. The crown had been off-limits for a year during a $30 million upgrade to fire alarms, sprinkler systems and exit routes.
Security screening for visitors will be held in lower Manhattan after city officials criticized an earlier plan to screen them at neighboring Ellis Island, which endured far worse damage to its infrastructure and won’t be open to the public anytime soon.
Home to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the island still doesn’t have working electricity, sewage systems or telephone lines, Warren said.
The museum showcases the stories of the millions of immigrants who disembarked there to start their lives as Americans. Its historical documents and artifacts survived the storm unscathed, but more than 1 million items were transported to storage facilities because it was impossible to maintain the climate-controlled environment needed for their preservation.
Park officials would not provide a projected reopening date for Ellis Island.
For tourists like Davide Fantinelli, an 18-year-old from Italy, the reopening comes a bit too late. Fantinelli will already be back home by July 4th, but he and his parents managed to catch a glimpse of the statue from the deck of a water taxi.
The sight of it was one he’ll never forget.
“Because it’s liberty,” Fantinelli said. “It means freedom — of this great nation.”