Saturday, April 17, 2010

360 Saturday PM News Briefs

Poland Holds Public Memorial For Crash Victims

Some 100,000 Poles filled Warsaw's main square Saturday for a memorial to the 96 people killed in a plane crash a week, standing silent for two minutes before emergency sirens screamed and church bells pealed.

The crowd in Pilsudski Square waved white-and-red Polish flags with black ribbons of mourning affixed to them. A massive white stage, a large cross in the center, was flanked by oversized photos of the dead, including President Lech Kaczynski.

The names of the dead were read aloud, starting with the president and his wife, Maria, while Marta, their only child, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the president's twin brother and former prime minister, looked on. Others at the service included former President Lech Walesa, Prime Minister Donald Tusk and acting president Bronislaw Komorowski.

"Our world went crashing down for the second time at the same place," Komorowski said of the crash near Russia's Katyn forest, site of a World War II massacre of Polish officers.

Tusk called the crash a calamitous event that was "the greatest tragedy in Poland since the war."

The ceremony is the first of two days of ceremonies and will be followed by a funeral Mass for the first couple at St. John's Cathedral at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT; noon EDT) in Warsaw.

Nearby was a group of Chechen refugees who said they were there to honor the first lady for her charity work and efforts to help them.

Members of Solidarity, the freedom movement that Kaczynski supported and that still exists as a labor union, waved their banners.

A state funeral for the president and his wife is set for Sunday but some world leaders canceled their plans to go, citing the volcanic ash cloud hanging over Europe, leaving numerous airports closed.

So far delegations from India, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand and Pakistan have canceled plans to attend Sunday's state funeral, Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Piotr Paszkowski said. Poland said it still expects nearly 100 dignitaries, including President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said that despite airports being closed through Monday, he intends to fly to Krakow Sunday.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus said he would travel to Krakow by train and car while Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic and Slovenian President Danilo turk said they would go by car.

Last Saturday's crash plunged Poland into a deep grief not seen since the death of Pope John Paul II five years ago.

The city operated buses, subways and trams for free and the government banned the sale of alcohol until Saturday night.

On Sunday, numerous world leaders are expected for a tradition-laden funeral for Kaczynski and his wife, whose plane went down in heavy fog after clipping a birch tree on approach to Smolensk, Russia. They had planned to attend a memorial for thousands of Polish army officers executed in 1940 by the forerunner of the Soviet secret police.

Spanish Helicopter Crashes In Haiti, 4 Killed

Four soldiers died in the fiery crash of a Spanish military helicopter Friday in the rugged mountains of eastern Haiti, the United Nations said.

The soldiers were part of Spain's effort to help in Haiti's recovery and reconstruction following the cataclysmic Jan. 12 earthquake, which the government says killed as many as 300,000 people.

The helicopter, identified by Spanish media as a Bell AB-212, crashed in the Fond Verrettes area about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Port-au-Prince near the border with the Dominican Republic. Haiti shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.

U.N. peacekeeping mission spokesman George Ola-Davies said the craft was carrying four soldiers when it went down.

Recovery teams had to lower themselves with ropes in the remote terrain to move toward the wreckage. The bodies remained on the mountain overnight because night fell before they could be reached. Because of the severity of the crash it was difficult for the teams to count the number of bodies.

An Associated Press journalist saw helicopter parts scattered on the mountain, with at least two scorch marks indicating the aircraft might have ricocheted off one hill before plunging into another.

Other witnesses said the helicopter was already in flames before it struck trees and slammed into the ground. The rural area, known as Mount Toro, is sparsely populated by farmers living in wood and concrete shacks.

Spain's Defense Ministry said the helicopter was one of four based on a Spanish navy amphibious ship, the Castilla. Spain has about 450 soldiers in Haiti helping the recovery effort. They are not attached to the 9,000-member U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti.

The crash site is near the mountain where a U.N. surveillance airplane crashed in October, killing all 11 Jordanian and Uruguayan peacekeepers aboard.

Toyota Recalls 600,000 Sienna Minivans

As congressional investigators dig further into potential electronic problems in runaway Toyotas, the automaker is facing other safety concerns, recalling 600,000 Sienna minivans over rusting spare tire holders.

The recall Friday came as House investigators said they would hold another hearing in May to review possible electronic problems in runaway Toyotas. The Japanese automaker has recalled more than 8 million vehicles because of faulty accelerator pedals, humbling a car company long known for its quality and safety.

Company leaders vowed to respond quickly to the safety concerns.

Separately, Toyota said its engineers in Japan had duplicated the same results of tests that led Consumer Reports to issue a rare "don't buy" warning on the 2010 Lexus GX 460 over rollover concerns. Toyota responded by halting sales of new GX 460s and conducting tests on all of its SUVs.

Lexus spokesman Bill Kwong said the company was evaluating potential remedies for the GX 460 but it was "too early to speculate (on) the details of the remedy and its timing."

Toyota said its latest recall covered the 1998-2010 model year Siennas with two-wheel-drive that have been sold or registered in 20 cold-climate states and the District of Columbia. Toyota said rust from road salt could cause the carrier cable that holds the spare tire to rust and break, allowing the tire to tumble into the road. The problem could threaten the safety of other drivers.

Toyota said it was unaware of any accidents or injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it received six complaints of spare tires falling off Siennas.

The company said it was working on a fix. In the meantime, customers will receive a notice telling them to bring their vehicle to a dealership for an inspection.

The recall involves Siennas in the District of Columbia and the following states: Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Steve St. Angelo, Toyota's chief quality officer for North America, said the company was providing free inspections of the spare tire carrier cable across the nation, including states not included in the recall. Owners can call (800) 331-4331 for more information.

Lawmakers remain focused on the spate of recalls affecting the company. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., a subcommittee chairman, said they plan a May 6 hearing to look into potential electronic causes of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

Toyota has said it has found no evidence of electronic problems, attributing the issues to sticking gas pedals and accelerators that can become jammed in floor mats.

Toyota said in a statement Friday it was "more than willing to meet with the committee and discuss the ongoing testing related to our electronic throttle control system, as well as the steps we are taking to improve our quality assurance processes. Nothing is more important to us than the safety and reliability of the vehicles our customers drive."

The Transportation Department has fined the company $16.4 million for failing to promptly notify the government about defective gas pedals. Toyota has until Monday to agree to the penalty or contest it. The fine is the largest civil penalty ever imposed on an automaker by the government.

Discovery Leaves Space Station For Earth

Space shuttle Discovery is on its way home.

Discovery undocked from the International Space Station on Saturday morning. The shuttle and its seven astronauts spent one-and-a-half weeks at the orbiting outpost, giving it a new ammonia tank and other supplies. They're set to return to Earth on Monday.

Before leaving, shuttle commander Alan Poindexter thanked the six station residents for their "utmost hospitality." The station's skipper, Oleg Kotov, said it was "really, really sad" to see them go.

It may be a long time before so many people are together again in space. Only three shuttle flights remain, each with a crew of six. That's one less person than usual, and will result in 12 people orbiting together, instead of 13.

Cat Travels 1,300 Miles From NM To Chicago

No one knows how a tabby cat named Charles traveled the 1,300 miles from his New Mexico home to Chicago, but he's set for a complimentary flight home on American Airlines in a carrier donated by an Albuquerque business.

Charles disappeared about eight months ago while his owner was out of town and a friend was caring for him.

"Oh, I was crushed, and I found out while I was away volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, and I was so upset because I was in New Orleans so there was nothing I could do," said Robin Alex, of Albuquerque.

Then earlier this week, Alex received a call telling her Chicago Animal Care and Control had picked up her wandering cat as a stray. Staffers reached out to Alex after finding that Charles had a tracking microchip embedded between his shoulder blades, said the agency's executive director, Cherie Travis.

But Alex said she could not afford the round-trip ticket to Chicago to bring Charles home, so she was afraid he might be euthanized.

Enter fellow Albuquerque resident Lucien Sims. Sims said he has a tabby cat who strongly resembles Charles, and was moved when his mother sent him an online story about Alex and her pet.

Most importantly, Sims was on his way to Chicago on Thursday for a wedding, so he said he would go to the shelter, pick up Charles and bring him back to New Mexico.

Sims has made all the arrangements for Charles' return, including getting a company to donate a cat carrier and American Airlines to waive the cat's travel fee.

Travis said Charles is definitely ready for his next adventure.

"He's in good condition," she said. "He needs a good brushing. He's got a little bit of a cold - a little bit of an upper respiratory infection -- but otherwise he's in great condition."

AP; Reuters; BBC; WGN; NHTS; NASA.

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