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‘End of the world’: Countdown to Beirut’s devastating blast
Source:  Albuquerque Journal
Sunday, 23 August 2020 19:13

BEIRUT — The 10 firefighters who received the call shortly before 6 p.m. — a big fire at the nearby port of Beirut — could not know what awaited them.

The brigade of nine men and one woman could not know about the stockpile of ammonium nitrate warehoused since 2013 along a busy motorway, in the heart of a densely populated residential area — a danger that had only grown with every passing year.

They and nearly all the population of Beirut were simply unaware. They were not privy to the warnings authorities had received, again and again, and ignored: ammonium nitrate is highly explosive, used in fertilizer and sometimes to build bombs. The stockpile was degrading; something must be done.

They knew, of course, that they lived in a dysfunctional country, its government rife with corruption, factionalism and negligence that caused so much pain and heartbreak. But they could not know that it would lead to the worst single-day catastrophe in Lebanon’s tragic history.

Across the city, residents who noticed the grey smoke billowing over the facility Aug. 4 were drawn to streets, balconies and windows, watching curiously as the fire grew larger. Phones were pulled out of pockets and pointed toward the flames.

The firefighters piled into a fire engine and an ambulance and raced to the scene — and to their doom.

___

Seven years ago, a ship named the Rhosus set out from the Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi carrying 2,755.5 tons of ammonium nitrate destined for an explosives company in Mozambique.

It made an unscheduled detour, stopping in Beirut on Nov. 19, 2013. The ship’s Russian owner said he struggled with debts and hoped to earn extra cash by taking on pieces of heavy machinery in Lebanon. That additional cargo proved too heavy for the Rhosus and the crew refused to take it on.

The Rhosus was soon impounded by Lebanese authorities for failing to pay port fees. It never left the port; it sank there in February 2018, according to Lebanese official documents.

The Port of Beirut is considered one of the most corrupt institutions in a country where nearly every public institution is riddled with corruption. Port officials are notorious for taking bribes. A bribe from an importer, for example, will ensure an incoming shipment is mislabeled to get lower customs duties — or escapes duties and taxes completely. Confiscated goods are sometimes sold off on the sly for a profit.

For years, Lebanon’s ruling political factions have divvied up positions at the port and handed them out to supporters — as they have ministries, public companies and other facilities nationwide.

The longtime head of customs is known to be a loyalist of President Michel Aoun, for example, while the head of the port is in the camp of Saad Hariri, the Sunni leader who has repeatedly served as prime minister. The Hezbollah militant group and, even more, its Shiite ally the Amal faction headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, also have loyalists at the port, though Hezbollah doesn’t have the same influence as it does at, for example, the airport, which it controls and uses to ferry in cash from Iran.

The result is a port divided into factional fiefdoms that don’t necessarily work together and are sometimes outright rivals. Individual port authorities are sometimes more concerned with their scams than with proper functioning. And government officials avoid looking too closely at goings-on at the port to protect their loyalists.

___

The first known warning came on Feb. 21, 2014, three months after the ship docked at the port.

In a letter to the customs authority’s anti-smuggling department, senior customs official Col. Joseph Skaff wrote that the material on board was “extremely dangerous and endangers public safety.�

It is not known if Skaff ever received a response or if he sent other letters. He was found dead outside his house near Beirut under mysterious circumstances, shortly after he retired in March 2017. At least one medical report suggested he might have been murdered.

Skaff’s son, Michel, said he was killed by a blow to the head. He said his father dealt with other sensitive matters, including drug trafficking. “Someone maybe was trying to hide what is happening at the port,� he said by telephone from his home in New York City.

In the years that followed, Skaff’s letter was followed by other correspondence that went back and forth between top customs and port officials and members of the judiciary and the army.

On June 27, 2014, with the ammonium nitrate still aboard the Rhosus, Jad Maalouf, a judge for urgent matters, warned the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation in correspondence that the ship was carrying dangerous material and could sink. He said the ministry should deal with the ship, remove the ammonium nitrate and “place it in a suitable place that it (the ministry) chooses, and it should be under its protection.�

It is not clear if there was ever a reply. Ministry officials did not respond to requests from The Associated Press asking for comment.

In October 2014, the ammonium nitrate was moved into the port’s Warehouse 12, which holds impounded materials.

A chemical forensic expert, commissioned by the courts and the owners of the ammonium nitrate, got a look at the stockpile soon after. It was “in terrible shape,� she said in her February 2015 report. Most of the sacks — she estimated more than 1,900 of the 2,750 sacks– were torn open, their contents spilling out. Some of the crystals had darkened, a sign of decomposition. The sacks were piled so haphazardly that she could not count them to be sure all were still there.

The inspector recommended the chemicals be disposed of according to environmental guidelines. Her report was uncovered by Riad Kobaissi, an investigative reporter with Al Jadeed TV who has followed corruption at the port and within the customs authorities since 2012.

On Oct. 26, 2015, the army command asked customs to sample the material and check the level of nitrogen “and based on that we can give a suggestion regarding them.�

The then-head of the customs department, Shafeeq Merhi, wrote back in February 2016, saying an expert found the nitrogen level was 34.7%, a very high and dangerous level, well above the acceptable concentration of around 11%.

The army command responded the following April, saying it didn’t need the ammonium nitrate. It asked customs to contact Lebanese Explosives Co. — a maker of explosives for construction of roads and tunnels and for imploding structures — to see if that private company could use it.

If not, the material should be exported at the expense of the ship owner who brought it to Lebanon, the army said in its letter.

An administrator at Lebanese Explosives told the AP that it was “not interested in buying confiscated material because we did not know where they were brought from, what is the quality nor its expiry.�

Merhi and his successor as customs chief, Badri Daher, sent multiple letters in the following years to the Courts of Urgent Matters, warning of the danger and seeking permission to sell the material or a ruling on another way to get rid of it.

Daher told the AP and other media that he never received any reply from the court. But Kobaissi, the investigative reporter, found documents showing the court responded each time that it didn’t have jurisdiction and that the Public Works Ministry had to decide.

Over the years, Lebanese built and bought luxury property opposite the port, a nearby Beirut Marina including restaurants, cafes and retail shops was built up, concerts were held, children rode their bicycles and workers went about their daily business, oblivious to the massive “bomb� waiting to explode.

___

At some point, someone battered open a door to Warehouse 12 and knocked a hole in one of its walls.

When is not known. It was reported when State Security inspected the site this summer. In a July 20 report, it warned that the warehouse’s “Door Number 9 has suffered a blow in the middle, knocking it away from the wall enough to allow anyone to enter and steal the ammonium nitrate.� It also noted the hole in the wall and pointed out that there was no guard at the warehouse, “making theft even easier.�

The report to President Michel Aoun and then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab warned that thieves could steal the material to make explosives. Or, it said, the mass of material could cause an explosion “that would practically destroy the port.� Kobaissi shared the report with the AP.

Aoun has been in office since 2016. After the explosion, he said the State Security report was the first time he’d heard of the dangerous stockpile. He said he immediately ordered military and security agencies to do “what was needed� — though he added he had no authority over the port.

After being criticized by rival politicians and on social media for not doing more, Aoun’s office issued a further statement saying that his military adviser had immediately forwarded the State Security report to the Higher Defense Council, the top defense body in the country.

But a government official said security agencies had repeatedly sent warnings directly to the government.

“The same memo was sent roughly every year basically since that ship arrived, and it became clear the stuff wasn’t moving. So, it was like a tradition and it wasn’t marked as priority,� the official told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the media.

Kobaissi, the investigative reporter, said all political factions in the country benefited from using the port for patronage, and most overlooked dubious dealings. He said many people knew about the initial warning by Skaff, including Hezbollah’s former point man at the port.

Port and customs officials “are a gang, a mafia, appointed by a mafia gang that has come to office through an election process,� Kobaissi told the AP.

He believes officials at the port were trying to find a legal cover to sell off the ammonium nitrate and skim off some of the money. He noted a similar scheme was run in the past when containers of confiscated asbestos were auctioned off. He said there were many instances of port officials profiting off impounded shipments, even keeping some goods — like Mini Coopers — for themselves.

Both the customs chief Daher and the head of the port, Hassan Koraytem, are among those detained in the wake of the explosion.

___

On the afternoon of Aug. 4, security officials say, three metalworkers who had been working for several days to weld the broken Door Number 9 of Warehouse 12 finished work and left the facility.

The cause of the original fire has still not been determined and is at the heart of the current investigation. Some have questioned whether the welding may have sparked stocks of flammable liquids used in making detergents, as well as tons of fireworks that were also being kept in Warehouse 12. Other possibilities such as sabotage are also being investigated. The metalworkers, who were hired to fix the door by the port authorities in response to the security report, have been detained for questioning, according to security officials.

Shortly after the 10 firefighters arrived at the port, they sent an urgent call back to headquarters, asking for reinforcements. Photos they sent from their mobile phones to their colleagues showed them trying to open the gate of Warehouse 12.

“When they called us, they said they are hearing the sound of fireworks,� Beirut fire chief Nabil Khankarli told the AP.

No one told the emergency responders that dangerous material was stored in the warehouse. No port officials were even there to help them open the gate, Khankarli said.

A second team jumped into their vehicles and headed toward the port. All across the city, flames and the pillar of black smoke could be seen pouring into the sky, lit up by popping fireworks. Many residents would later report hearing a jet or a drone and presuming it was Israeli, since Israel sends reconnaissance flights over Lebanon on an almost daily basis. No evidence has yet emerged of warplanes.

There was an initial explosion, sending shredded debris into the air. That first blast, survivors would recount later, sent some who had been watching the fire scurrying for cover.

Twelve seconds later, at 6:08 p.m., the ammonium nitrate detonated in one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded.

In an instant, a blast with the force of hundreds of tons of TNT sucked in the air — one video showed a luxury store window exploding outward from the suction, spraying a bride and groom taking their wedding video on the sidewalk outside — and then unleashed its power across the city.

It blew a crater nearly 200 meters (yards) wide out of the port where Warehouse 12 once stood, and seawater poured in to fill it. The port was leveled. A grain silo right next to the warehouse was shredded and sheared in half — though its massive bulk partially shielded sections of the city from the blast. For miles around, in people’s homes and in shops and hospitals, windows were shattered, doors knocked off their hinges, ceilings or walls blown in a vicious whirlwind onto those inside.

Alaa Saad and his friends were out diving, about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) off the coast of Beirut, when they started hearing noises from the direction of the port and saw the smoke. Was it fireworks? Ammunition?

“There were lots of flashes going off inside the smoke,� he said. He heard some kind of eruption, like a volcano. “Something that was boiling very much,� he said.

“Five seconds passed, and this is when I saw the cloud or the wave that was coming toward us at very high speed,� he said. “It was insane speed. I could not even think if I wanted to jump in the water or stay on the boat.�

Saad fell on the deck. A friend tumbled into the water.

“After that,� he said, “I thought it was the end of Beirut or the end of the world or the war has started.�

More than 6,000 people were injured, and at least 180 were killed — among them the 10 first responders. It would take days of searching before colleagues found all their bodies in the rubble.

Nearly three weeks later, theories abound. In the deeply polarized country, some have turned their suspicion to Hezbollah, which maintains a huge weapons stockpile in the country and dominates its politics. A member of the militant group was sentenced to six years in prison after he was arrested in Cyprus in 2015 in connection with the seizure of nine tons of ammonium nitrate at a house where he was staying.

An investigative team that includes Kobaissi, working with The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, found that the shadow owner of the Rhosus was actually a Cypriot who owed money to a Lebanese bank linked to Hezbollah — raising speculation that he brought in the ammonium nitrate for the group. The businessman, Charalambos Manoli, denied the report, insisting to the AP that he sold the ship in May 2012.

Others have peddled a theory that rivals of the group had sought to accrue the fertilizer for use as explosives in the war in neighboring Syria.

The documents show clear negligence and failure; the question of whether something more triggered the blast depends on an investigation that so far has seemed predictably slow and ineffectual.

The fire chief, Khankarli, is furious. So much destruction. So much bloodshed. All of it avoidable.

“We are waiting for the investigation,� he said. “But what is gone cannot be recovered.�


By a hair, it’s Sinclair for the Men’s City Golf title
Source:  Albuquerque Journal
Sunday, 23 August 2020 18:36

Ross Sinclair, shown driving Sunday at Los Altos Golf Course, held on Sunday to win the Men’s City Golf Championship. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Aiden Krafft almost broke 60. “BMT� Aidan Thomas’ effort fell a hair short.

The second-round leader of the 79th Albuquerque Men’s City Championship was also its eventual champion, as University of New Mexico fifth-year senior Ross Sinclair nipped Krafft and Thomas by a shot on a toasty Sunday afternoon at Los Altos Golf Course.

Krafft set Los Altos ablaze Sunday with a remarkable 12-under par 60 that nearly led to a comeback for the ages. But Sinclair, who carded a 2-under 70, edged Krafft, a Cibola High junior, and Thomas, a New Mexico State sophomore from St. Pius, by a single shot.

Sinclair, a 22-year-old South African, finished at 12-under 204 for the 54-hole event. The victory was not secured until the tournament’s final stroke, as Sinclair drained a tricky three-foot, left-to-right slider for par on the 18th green.

“It was a sense of a little bit of pride and relief because of that putt I rolled in,� Sinclair said. He started the day with a two-shot cushion over Neil Parasher and was four clear of Thomas and Simon Miller. “It spoke to my game and what I’ve been working on with my putting.�

Ross Sinclair, right is congratulated by Simon Miller after winning the Men’s City Golf Championship Final Round held at Los Altos Golf Course. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

The suspenseful final hour yielded all manner of thrills and one untimely spill.

Krafft, the 2019 Class 5A state champion, torched Los Altos in a round that featured seven birdies, three eagles and a lone bogey. He drove the par-4 17th green, knocking it in from 6 feet away for his third eagle, and closed out his brilliant day with a birdie at the 18th.

“I always feel like I can do that, that I can shoot the best round there is, but to actually do it, it’s crazy,� Krafft said. “It’s awesome.�

Krafft’s previous best round was 65, at Sandia Golf Club.

“That was an amazing round,� Sinclair said of Krafft’s 60.

Krafft posted at 11-under 205, a number that filtered its way back to the final group of the day — which included Sinclair and Thomas — when they arrived at the 17th tee.

Cibola’s Aiden Krafft. shown in action during his win in the State Boys 5A Golf Tournament held last May at The Canyon Club, shot a remarkable round of 60 on Sunday to get into contention at the Albuquerque Men’s City Golf event. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal file)

Sinclair had a 3-shot lead over Krafft at that moment and led Thomas by four.

But then Sinclair brought both of them back into the picture when he made a sloppy double-bogey at the drivable par-4 17th. He blocked his tee shot right, then shanked his second shot, which banged off a golf cart and went out of bounds.

He eventually made a 4-footer for double, which he said steadied him as he walked to the 18th tee, his lead over Krafft shaved to one.

“That showed me my nerves had cooled down a little bit,� Sinclair said.

Thomas, meanwhile, parred the 17th and was two back going to 18. Thomas made a great up-and-down from 50 yards short of the green for birdie, forcing Sinclair to make par to avoid a three-man playoff. He two-putted from about 40 feet above the hole.

“You could see that in Aidan’s eyes, as soon as I did what I did at 17, he went into the zone again,� Sinclair said of Thomas. “He has what I call BMT — big match temperament. He’s one of the best players who has it and it’s cool to watch.�

Thomas shot 67 in the final round.

“I felt like I played pretty good all day,� said Thomas. “But what was keeping me alive was my short game. … I didn’t capitalize on anything today. I was leaving stuff out there.�

That didn’t apply to Krafft, whose lone bogey, at the par-3 13th, included a bad bounce on his second shot from the greenside bunker.

Krafft was coming off a pedestrian 71 on Saturday at Arroyo del Oso and was 11 shots back of Sinclair when Sunday dawned. But he eagled both par-5s on the front Nos. 3 and 8 to get into contention.

Later, Krafft reflected on his Friday round at Ladera Golf Course, when he bemoaned three lost golf balls on tee shots in an opening 74.

Defending champion Miller (68) and Parasher (70) tied for fourth, at 10-under 206.

For Sinclair, it was his first victory in just over two years.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been in that situation,� he said. “It was fun to get back at it.�

(Click here for full results.)

 


Vanessa Bryant posts heartfelt message to Gianna, Kobe on what would have been his 42nd birthday
Source:  KOST - Albuquerque News
Sunday, 23 August 2020 18:34

Vanessa Bryant posted a heart-wrenching message to her late husband Kobe Bryant and their daughter Gianna on what would have been the NBA star's 42nd birthday on Sunday.


WV Council of Churches encouraging mask use in new PSA
Source:  KRQE News 13
Sunday, 23 August 2020 18:24

CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) — The West Virginia Council of Churches released two public service announcements this week – encouraging the use of masks and social distancing.

They come following repeated COVID-19 outbreaks at churches around the Mountain State.

“My sisters, honor your father…and your mother…love one another…wear a mask,” it begins.

It’s a message of unity and of looking out for each other encouraging people to wear masks, social distance and to wash their hands.

There’s also an interfaith version.

“We are all in the same boat,” said Bishop Sandra Ball, the president of the West Virginia Council of Churches.

Bishop Ball says more than 80 % of West Virginians are involved in a faith community according to the Pew Research Center.

“Wherever they find themselves, we’re making a call to make a difference in preventing the spread of the virus,” she said.

Making the matter more pressing is the reality that churches have become COVID-19 hot spots.

In July the North Charleston Apostolic Church was the center of a COVID-19 outbreak with more than 30 cases linked to the church, other neighboring states like Kentucky and Ohio have also had COVID-19 outbreaks in churches.

Bishop Ball says faith can coincide with online worship services.

“Whatever happens in that space we are also taking out into our communities,” she said.

When asked what her reaction is to those who argue God is in control and will protect them from COVID-19, or those who say if they can go to Wal-Mart they can go to Church, Bishop Ball says you can both believe in the healing power of faith and look out for others too.

“There’s a message in the Bible that says all things can be lawful but not all are beneficial. As Christians, we believe that God has called us to be good stewards of all God’s creations and God’s people,” she said.

This, she says, includes wearing a mask.

“The most loving thing that I can do for you or for anybody is to wear a mask because I recognize that you are valuable,” she said.


Aftermath: A teen's struggle to recover from a drunk driving crash that killed her mother
Source:  The Las Cruces Sun-News
Sunday, 23 August 2020 18:20

On some days after physical therapy, Alyzae Perez, 17, is so tired the only thing she can do is fall asleep when she gets home.

       

13 Killed In Stampede At Peru Nightclub Operating Against Health Orders
Source:  KRWG
Sunday, 23 August 2020 18:02

At least 13 people were killed in a stampede at a nightclub in Peru when they tried to escape police who showed up to enforce COVID-19 restrictions on such gatherings. According to Peru's interior ministry , 120 people attended a party at Thomas Restobar Club in Lima's Los Olivos district on Saturday night, despite prohibitions on social gatherings under the country's state of emergency. Nightclubs and bars were ordered closed in March, and extended family gatherings were banned earlier this month in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. After being alerted by neighbors around 9 p.m., according to the ministry, police arrived to evacuate the building. Party-goers tried to flee through a single exit, getting trampled and trapped in the staircase as a result. Six other people, including three police officers, were injured. Twenty three people were detained. "The Minister of the Interior deeply regrets the death of thirteen people as a result of the criminal irresponsibility of an

Scheduled execution of Native American man stirs emotion within tribe
Source:  The Santa Fe New Mexican
Sunday, 23 August 2020 18:00

As a member of the Navajo Nation sits on federal death row, his execution scheduled for Wednesday, the tribal government is asking officials to spare his life on the basis of cultural beliefs and sovereignty.

Activists want police charged in Colorado shooting
Source:  The Santa Fe New Mexican
Sunday, 23 August 2020 18:00

Elijah McClain died after being stopped by police in suburban Denver on his way home from a store Aug. 24, 2019.

Shipbuilders approve 3-year pact, ending monthslong strike
Source:  Artesia News
Sunday, 23 August 2020 17:54

BATH, Maine (AP) — A 63-day strike at Bath Iron Works — against the backdrop of a pandemic in an election year — came to an end Sunday with shipbuilders voting to return to their jobs producing warships for the United States Navy.

Trial looms for 1 of 2 men accused in 3 murders near Dixon
Source:  770 KKOB-AM
Sunday, 23 August 2020 17:43

Santa Fe, NM (AP) — One of two brothers accused in a triple homicide in northern New Mexico in 2018 is scheduled to stand trial this week in Rio Arriba County.

Prosecutors said 36-year-old John Powell and his 35-year-old brother Roger Gage allegedly shot and killed two men and a woman near Dixon.

Jury selection in Powell’s trial is scheduled Monday and Tuesday. Trial dates for the case against Gage haven’t been set.

The brothers each were charged with three counts of first-degree murder along with burglary, conspiracy and tampering with evidence.

Killed in the May 2018 shootings were 42-year-old April Browne, 36-year-old Abraham Martinez and 27-year-old Kierin Guillemin.

 

Authorities believe the murders were drug related.

 

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports court filings state that Powell was a heavy heroin user who did work around Browne’s home where the killings occurred in exchange for heroin and a place to live.

But he moved out or was kicked out prior to the slayings.

Police said a surveillance camera at the home captured video of the shootings and the video has been kept under seal for the past two years.

The New Mexican reports that parts of the video likely will be played for jurors during Powell’s trial.


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