Six people dead, others trapped in Chicago fire

Saturday, October 18, 2003

CHICAGO -- Six people were killed Friday in a fire that trapped workers in smoke-filled stairways and hallways of a Cook County administration building in the heart of downtown, officials said.

The dead were among 13 victims overcome by smoke who were not discovered until after the fire had been brought under control and firefighters were conducting a floor-by-floor search of the 35-story building.

Fire commissioner James Joyce said that the people that died appeared to be from one stairwell around the 22nd floor.

A foot-by-foot search of the building was completed about five hours after the fire was first reported at 5:03 p.m.

Joyce said he did not know how the fire got started in the building, which has an alarm system but no sprinklers. The fire broke out in the 12th floor housing Illinois Secretary of State offices.

FBI probes bags with box cutters on two airplanes

WASHINGTON -- The government on Friday ordered intensified security checks of the entire U.S. commercial air fleet after small plastic bags containing box cutters and other suspicious items were found on two Southwest Airlines planes. The FBI announced later it had found the perpetrator.

A 20-year-old North Carolina man was being questioned in Baltimore -- site of a major Southwest hub -- by the FBI in connection with the incidents, according to a congressional official and a senior law enforcement official, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.

The congressional official said the man, described as a college student, had informed the Transportation Security Administration that he planned to put packages on planes in an effort to expose gaps in aviation security.

An FBI statement issued later Friday said only that agents had "located and interviewed the individual believed responsible" for placing the bags and that the person poses no further threat to airline security. The person's name was not released.

No charges were immediately announced, but the statement said legal proceedings were expected Monday in federal court in Baltimore.

Some Cubans fear U.S. tourism 'avalanche'

CANCUN, Mexico -- While they would welcome the enormous influx of tourism dollars if the U.S. Senate lifts a travel ban, Cuban officials worry an "avalanche" of American vacationers would harm the very atmosphere that drew them in the first place.

At a conference that opened Friday between Cuban and U.S. tourism operators, both sides said limited hotel space could restrict any increase in American tourism, even if politics allows it.

"Pent-up demand is going to be huge" after decades of restrictions on U.S. visits, said Robert Whitley, president of the United States Tour Operators Association, which represents companies moving 10 million tourists a year.

Most estimates say at least 1 million Americans -- and perhaps many more -- could try to visit Cuba in the first year after a travel opening. Miguel Figueras, adviser to Cuba's Tourism Ministry, said that figure could reach 2.5 million to 3 million in five years.

Cuba's rapidly growing tourist industry accounts for 40 percent of the Cuban government's foreign trade income.

Investigators look at medication of ferry pilot

NEW YORK -- With weather and mechanical problems all but ruled out as causes, investigators said Friday they have demanded blood and urine samples from the pilot in the Staten Island ferry wreck to determine if his medication played a role in the full-throttle crash.

At a briefing near the crippled vessel, National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Ellen Engleman provided new details about the investigation that suggested authorities were focusing on the human element in Wednesday's wreck, which killed 10 passengers.

She said a federal subpoena was issued for tests that could determine if blood-pressure medication taken by Assistant Capt. Richard Smith may have contributed to the wreck. Smith attempted suicide shortly after the crash and remains hospitalized.

Investigators also said they would interview the ferry's captain, Michael Gansas, whose whereabouts at the time of the crash have been the subject of speculation.

American diplomats in Israel halt Gaza travel

JERUSALEM -- The U.S. Embassy in Israel has suspended official travel to the Gaza Strip and is reviewing security arrangements in response to this week's deadly attack on a U.S. convoy, a senior American official said Friday.

An FBI team met with Palestinian security officials Friday to begin a joint investigation. The Palestinians have so far detained seven members of a rogue militant group, the Popular Resistance Committees, for questioning.

In Wednesday's attack, a remote-controlled bomb exploded under one of the vans in the three-vehicle convoy, killing three American security guards and wounding a fourth. It was the first deadly attack on a U.S. target in the Palestinian areas.

The attack threatens to spur further U.S. disengagement from the conflict. How well the Palestinians cooperate with an FBI team supervising the hunt for those responsible might also be a test of their willingness to crack down on terror groups, the central demand of the stalled U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

Three U.S. soldiers, 10 Iraqis killed in firefight

KARBALA, Iraq -- U.S. combat deaths since the end of major fighting passed the 100 mark Friday after a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol confronted gunmen outside the headquarters of a Shiite Muslim cleric, triggering clashes in which three Americans and 10 Iraqis were killed, including two Iraqi policemen.

Another American soldier was killed and two were wounded by a roadside bomb near Baghdad, and nine U.S. troops were wounded in a roadside bombing in the northern city of Mosul.

The four deaths made it the deadliest day for American soldiers in Iraq since Sept. 18, when three soldiers were killed in an ambush. With the latest deaths, the number of U.S. soldiers who have died by hostile fire since President Bush declared an end to major combat May 1 has climbed to 101.

Jury seated in sniper trial; first statements Monday

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- A jury of 12 was seated Friday for the murder trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad, setting the stage for opening statements on Monday.

The jury that will decide the fate of the 42-year-old Army veteran is made up of 10 women and five men, 13 whites and two blacks. It includes a retired Navy pilot, a bartender, an eighth-grade teacher, a stay-at-home mom, a hardware store employee and a design engineer.

The panel, and three alternates, were culled from a pool of 123 people, with prospective jurors questioned individually about their views on the death penalty, their exposure to news coverage of the case, and whether they felt terrorized by last year's sniper spree that left 10 people dead in the Washington, D.C., area.

The jury was selected over four days.

Episcopal conservatives pursue realignment

LONDON -- U.S. Episcopalians who oppose plans to consecrate the first openly gay bishop next month said Friday they will form an independent network of conservative churches, even as Anglican leaders try to find ways to ease tensions. A split in the American church appears inevitable.

Evangelicals have grown alienated from their denomination over three decades of debate about homosexuality and also are angered that some Episcopal bishops have been allowing blessing ceremonies for gay couples.

Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, a leading U.S. evangelical, said he and other conservatives feel they have enough support from Anglican Communion leaders -- called primates -- to move forward with a realignment of the Episcopal Church, which is the U.S. branch of Anglicanism.

The 37 primates concluded a two-day emergency summit on homosexuality Thursday by warning that the Rev. V. Gene Robinson's scheduled consecration Nov. 2 as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire will "tear the fabric" of their global association of churches.

-- From wire reports

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