Nation & World News

Elizabeth Peña Remembered As An Actress With Range

By Elizabeth Blair on October 16th, 2014 | Last updated: October 16, 2014 at 7:28 pm

Cuban-American actress Elizabeth Peña has died at age 55. She played dramatic roles in movies such as La Bamba and Lone Star and appeared in sitcoms including Modern Family.

Peña died Tuesday after a brief illness at a hospital in Los Angeles, according to her agent.

She grew up in an artistic family in Elizabeth, N.J. Her father, an actor and playwright, and her mother, an arts administrator, founded the Latin American Theatre Ensemble in New York. Peña graduated from New York’s High School of the Performing Arts. She landed her first film role in 1978, as Aurelita, the teenage daughter of Cubans living in exile in New York City, in León Ichaso’s El Super in 1978.

Peña’s fans, lamenting her death on Latino social media, expressed frustration that such a talented actress could not break away from stereotypical roles such as the seductive maid in the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills or the housekeeper in the short-lived sitcom I Married Dora. As NPR’s Felix Contreras puts it, Peña seemed “doomed to play … the sassy best friend or the emotional Latina.” But it wasn’t for lack of trying. In interviews, Peña often talked about searching for parts where the character just happened to be Latina.

One of her breakout roles was as the sensual, world-weary history teacher who rekindles an old romance in the 1996 film Lone Star.

The director of that movie, John Sayles, said she was perfect playing a woman who had a lot “burning underneath.”

“It was that kind of combination of intelligence, emotion and sexuality,” he says.

More recently, she was the voice of Mirage, the Bond-style villainess femme fatale in The Incredibles. Before she died, Peña had finished filming the action series Matador for the El Rey TV Network.

Peña’s nephew, Mario-Francisco Robles, who is a critic for Latino-Review, wrote in a tribute to his aunt:

“She did it all, and she made it look fun. She made it look easy. But I know it wasn’t. I know she had a drive like no other, and that she was a force to be reckoned with when she decided it was time to make it big or … well, nothing.”

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Death Toll In Himalayan Avalanches Reaches 29

By Scott Neuman on October 16th, 2014 | Last updated: October 17, 2014 at 2:28 am

Updated: 1:55 a.m. ET Friday:

Helicopters on Friday renewed their search for missing trekkers after there were improvements in the weather. Officials in Nepal say at least 29 people are dead — dozens more are missing or are stranded. The government also announced that officials would evaluate rescue efforts after the government was criticized for not doing more to help.

Original Post:

The death toll from unseasonal snowstorms and avalanches in Nepal that trapped dozens of trekkers on the slopes of the Himalayas has risen to 27, with 70 more still missing, Nepalese authorities say.

At least a dozen people are dead on the Annapurna Circuit, and 10 others have been killed in surrounding areas. Many of the dead are foreign trekkers from Canada, Poland, France, Israel, Slovakia and India. At least eight Nepalese are also among the casualties, the BBC says.

The Associated Press quotes Ganga Sagar Pant of the Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal as saying that some 70 people are still missing along or near the popular Annapurna trail, where the death toll was expected to rise.

The Guardian reports:

“High winds and blizzards hit much of central Nepal this week as the tail end of a cyclone travelling west across northern India reached the Himalayan mountain chain. The head of the Trekking Agencies Association Nepal said there had never been a disaster like it.

“The trekking group is reported to be trapped close to the 5,400m (17,700ft) Thorong La, a pass on the famous three-week Annapurna circuit route. Clear weather has raised hopes that they will be reached before further deaths, though there are concerns that members may be suffering exposure, frostbite and severe dehydration.”

The AP says:

“Government administrator Yama Bahadur Chokhyal said rescuers recovered 10 more bodies from the Thorong La pass area, where they had been caught in a sudden blizzard Tuesday.

“The bodies were not yet identified.

“Chokhyal said 64 more foreign trekkers were rescued from the area on Thursday. Two trekkers from Hong Kong and 12 Israelis were airlifted Wednesday to Katmandu, where they were being treated at a hospital.”

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Hong Kong’s Renewed Offer Of Talks With Protesters Meets Skepticism

By Scott Neuman on October 16th, 2014 | Last updated: October 16, 2014 at 9:28 am

Hong Kong’s leader has revived the prospect of talks with student pro-democracy activists, after his government reneged last week on an offer of dialogue with protest leaders.

“As long as students or other sectors in Hong Kong are prepared to focus on this issue, yes we are ready, we are prepared to start the dialogue,” the territory’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told reporters, according to The Associated Press.

The pro-democracy activists have called for Leung’s resignation and for Beijing to make good on a long-standing promise for an open election to find his replacement. Earlier this year, the Chinese government insisted it would hand pick the pool of candidates.

NPR’s Frank Langfitt, reporting that while the government says it will discuss the 2017 vote, it emphasized that Beijing will never accept protesters’ demands for an open election.

Ronnie Tam, who handles Hong Kong’s relations with China, spoke at a news conference, saying both sides needed to be “realistic” about the outcome of such talks.

“There are many years ahead for our young students,” he said. “If they can step a little bit and look beyond 2017, maybe many of their aspirations could be addressed in future years as well.”

Leung said that undisclosed middlemen had been in touch with student protest leaders to convey the government’s wishes, the AP reports.

There was no official response to the offer, but The South China Morning Post quotes Civic Party lawmaker Alan Leong Kah-kit as suggesting the proposed dialogue would likely prove one-sided:

“‘What CY Leung has in mind is, obviously, to lecture the students, instead of having a genuine dialogue,’ he says.

“‘But I would hope that the Federation of Students would … say yes to the dialogue [because] it is important for [Leung's] lack of genuineness to be exposed to both the Hong Kong public and the world by this so-called dialogue.’”

The renewed offer comes on the same day that seven Hong Kong police officers have been suspended for the alleged videotaped beating a protester.

As The New York Times reports:

“The video of the advocate, Ken Tsang, being kicked and beaten in a predawn melee, along with pictures of his bruised body, became an emotion-laden focus for critics of the government after a night of mayhem near the city’s heart. They gave a face to accusations that pro-democracy demonstrators have been targeted by an overzealous police force.

“A video filmed by TVB, a usually pro-government television station, showed a bearded man in a black T-shirt being led away by officers in civilian clothes and black police vests, his hands behind him. The video then jumps to a scene in which a man lying on the ground is kicked and hit many times by several figures who appear to be police officers. TVB said the beating had lasted about four minutes.”

The talks were first proposed amid heightened tensions as tens of thousands of student protesters were on the streets earlier this month, was first agreed to on Oct. 2, but activists called off the talks the next day after what they described as hired thugs attacked their protest camps.

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Nurse Nina Pham To Be Transferred To NIH For Ebola Treatment

By Doreen McCallister on October 16th, 2014 | Last updated: October 17, 2014 at 7:28 am

Updated at 7:53 p.m. ET

Nina Pham, the 26-year-old nurse who became infected with Ebola after treating a patient with the disease at a Dallas hospital, will be transferred to a high-level containment facility at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in testimony before a House committee that Pham will be admitted to the NIH tonight.

There she will will be given “state of the art care” in a high-level containment facility, he says.

Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, where Pham is being treated and also where she contracted the disease, said transferring Pham was the “right decision.”

“With many of the medical professionals who would normally staff the intensive care unit sidelined for continuous monitoring, it is in the best interest of the hospital employees, nurses, physicians and the community to give the hospital an opportunity to prepare for whatever comes next,” the hospital said in a statement.

Officials have said Pham’s condition is good. Another nurse, Amber Vinson, who also cared for index patient Thomas Eric Duncan has also contracted the disease. Duncan died from the disease last week.

Dr. Daniel Varga, a top official from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where Duncan was treated by both Pham and Vinson, acknowledged the facility’s mishandling of the original diagnosis and subsequent handling of the situation.

“We made mistakes,” Varga said in a video link with lawmakers.

Varga’s testimony comes as President Obama, for a second day, canceled out-of-town trips to stay in Washington, D.C., and monitor the response to the outbreak. The president had planned to travel to Rhode Island and New York today.

By late afternoon, Obama announced he was meeting with his cabinet again and issued an order giving the Pentagon the power to call up reserve National guard troops if they were needed to help fight the outbreak in West Africa.

NPR’s Scott Horsley said this did not indicate a mass mobilization, but was instead the authority to “call up people with very specific skills– e.g. engineering, communications and Chaplains.”

Duncan first sought treatment at the hospital on Sept. 26 but was sent home with antibiotics despite a high fever and having told a nurse of his recent travel to Liberia, an Ebola hot spot. Two days later, he returned to the hospital, was placed in isolation and subsequently diagnosed with Ebola. That’s when officials believe Pham and Vinson, 29, became infected.

In his testimony, Varga acknowledges that the hospital did not correctly diagnose the disease on Duncan’s first visit. “We are deeply sorry,” he says.

After treating Duncan but before she exhibited symptoms, Vinson traveled by commercial airliner to and from Cleveland. That has raised questions about why she was allowed to travel with the public and whether anyone in an official capacity cleared her to do so. Her reported temperature was below the threshold set by the agency, and she had no symptoms, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman David Daigle, who talked to The Associated Press. The CDC has said that the likelihood of her passing the virus to a fellow passenger is considered very low.

By Thursday afternoon, however, CDC officials in Ohio began to make contact with passengers on Frontier flight 1142, which Vinson took from Dallas-to-Cleveland.

According to NPR member station WKSU, Dr. Chris Braeden, the head of the CDC team in Ohio, said the widening investigation had to do with the CDC’s evolving definition of symptoms.

In an interview with CNN, Dr. Marguerite Erme, the medical director for Summit County Public Health, explained that through interviews, the CDC found out that Vinson may not have been feeling well days before she tested positive for Ebola.

Vinson, Erme said, is believed to have presented with “non-specific symptoms” earlier than first thought, so the people on her flight to Cleveland and those who may have been in a bridal shop while she was there are now considered “contacts.”

In a statement issued early Thursday from Texas Health Presbyterian, the hospital responded to allegations by National Nurses United that protocols and equipment were not up to the task of treating Duncan. The hospital says it followed CDC guidelines at the time.

Texas Health Presbyterian also said it would offer a special room “to any of our impacted employees who would like to stay here to avoid even the remote possibility of any potential exposure to family, friends and the broader public,” according to a statement late Wednesday, adding, “We are doing this for our employees’ peace of mind and comfort. This is not a medical recommendation.”

Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the CDC, is also expected to testify before the House subcommittee. In prepared remarks, he calls the current epidemic “the biggest and most complex Ebola challenge the world has ever faced.”

Frieden confirmed that after Vinson cared for Duncan and while she was being monitored for symptoms, she called the CDC and asked for guidance on whether she should take a flight from Dallas and Cleveland.

“I have not seen the transcript of the conversation. My understanding is that she reported no symptoms to us,” he said.

Obama has made ramping up efforts to respond to Ebola a priority and wants to make sure what happened in Dallas doesn’t happen elsewhere across the country. He said efforts are being taken very seriously at the highest levels of the government.

“As soon as somebody is diagnosed with Ebola, we want a rapid response team, a SWAT team, essentially, from the CDC to be on the ground as quickly as possible — hopefully within 24 hours — so that they are taking the local hospital step by step through exactly what needs to be done and making sure that all the protocols are properly observed; that the use of protective equipment is done effectively; that disposal of that protective equipment is done properly,” Obama said after Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting.

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Amazon To Hire 80,000 Holiday Workers

By Doreen McCallister on October 16th, 2014 | Last updated: October 16, 2014 at 8:28 am

An increase in customer demand is spurring Amazon.com to create 80,000 seasonal positions at its network of distribution centers across the U.S.

That’s a 14 percent increase over the number of temporary workers it hired last year at this time.

“We’re excited to be creating 80,000 seasonal jobs, thousands of which will lead to regular, full-time roles with benefits starting on day one,” Mike Roth, Amazon’s vice president of North America operations, said in a statement released Thursday.

The giant online retailer said it plans to convert more than 10,000 of its U.S. seasonal jobs into full-time positions.

Seattle-based Amazon now has more than 50 U.S. warehouses, which the company calls “fulfillment centers.” By the end of the year, it will have 15 “sortation centers.”

What’s the difference? Describing a sortation center in Washington state, The Wall Street Journal writes: “Unlike traditional fulfillment centers where employees sort and prepare items for shipment, this warehouse is full of sealed packages that move along conveyor belts, where workers and computers sort them and prepare to ship them to individual post offices.”

Amazon said the sortation centers are “fueling a range of innovations like Sunday delivery, later cut-off ordering times for customers and the ability to control packages deeper into the delivery process.”

The Associated Press reports that Amazon is hoping to avoid problems that occurred last holiday season when shippers such as UPS were caught off guard by spiking online orders, particularly from Amazon.

Amazon employs 132,600 full and part-time workers globally, according to The Associated Press.

The National Retail Federation forecasts holiday sales will be 4.1 percent higher than last year, to $616.9 billion. If that happens, the group says, it would mark the first time since 2011 that holiday sales rose more than 4 percent.

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Kansas City Royals Sweep Baltimore Orioles To Advance To World Series

By Eyder Peralta on October 15th, 2014 | Last updated: October 16, 2014 at 3:29 pm

The Kansas City Royals, who had not seen the playoffs since 1985, have swept the Baltimore Orioles, winning the American League pennant and securing a spot in the World Series.

As The New York Times puts it, right now, the Royals can do no wrong. The team has yet to lose a playoff game, stringing together eight straight victories, a feat no other team has accomplished.

Today, they perfected that run by beating Baltimore 2-1.

In fact, because they won the World Series in 1985, the team’s postseason winning streak goes back 11 games and 29 years.

Here’s how ESPN sums up this team’s improbable journey:

“It’s hard not to be a believer at this point. The Royals, who scratched their way to the postseason as an 89-win wild-card team, have joined the 1976 Cincinnati Reds and 2007 Colorado Rockies as only the third team in baseball history to win seven straight games to begin a postseason. No team has ever opened a postseason with eight.

“With every victory, Kansas City’s fun ‘little engine that could’ narrative gives way to a ‘team of destiny’ storyline. If the Royals weren’t so unassuming and relatively low-paid, you might call them a budding juggernaut.”

The Royals may have to wait a while to continue their streak. On the National League side, the St. Louis Cardinals are battling the San Francisco Giants, who lead the seven-game series 2-1. Game 4 is tonight in San Francisco.

Update: 12:05 a.m. ET Thursday: The Giants beat the Cardinals 6-4 to take a 3-1 lead in the National League Championship Series. They can wrap up their own World Series trip with a win at 8 p.m. ET Thursday in San Francisco. If the Cardinals can win Thursday, the final two games of the series would be in St. Louis on Saturday and Sunday.

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In 2014, U.S. Budget Deficit Falls To Pre-Recession Level

By Eyder Peralta on October 15th, 2014 | Last updated: October 15, 2014 at 5:28 pm

As tax revenues increased and spending cuts took effect, the 2014 budget deficit dropped to the lowest level in six years.

In a statement, the Treasury Department hailed the news by pointing out a few key figures:

– “The deficit in FY 2014 fell to $483 billion, $197 billion less than the FY 2013 deficit and $165 billion less than forecast in President Obama’s FY 2015 Budget.”

– As a percentage of GDP, the deficit fell to 2.8 percent, “the lowest level since 2007 and less than the average of the last 40 years.”

– In terms of dollars, the 2014 deficit is the lowest it has been since 2008.

“The President’s policies and a strengthening U.S. economy have resulted in a reduction of the U.S. budget deficit of approximately two-thirds — the fastest sustained deficit reduction since World War II,” Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in a statement.

The New York Times reports:

“Declining deficits have all but ended the budget fights that preoccupied Mr. Obama and Republicans in Congress from 2011 through 2013. Indeed, the improved picture partly reflects the spending cuts that resulted from compromises between the two sides, as well as higher taxes on wealthy individuals and temporary stimulus measures.

“Even so, many economists believe that the immediate spending cuts brought about by the compromises exerted a ‘fiscal drag’ that slowed the economic recovery and kept pressure on the Federal Reserve to maintain its expansive monetary policies to offset the austerity moves.”

The Wall Street Journal explains:

“‘This is not only a reduction of the deficit, it’s also a return to fiscal normalcy,’ White House budget director Shaun Donovan told journalists.

“The economy fell into recession at the end of 2007 and the government’s budget deficit ballooned over the next few years. It started narrowing again in 2010, as the economy began to recover.

“The deficit as a share of GDP is now below the average for the last 40 years of 3.1%, though that figure is somewhat distorted by the unusually high deficits the government ran during the last recession.”

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Thailand’s Leader Hints At Putting Off Return To Democracy

By Scott Neuman on October 15th, 2014 | Last updated: October 15, 2014 at 6:28 pm

Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in a coup nearly five months ago, is hinting that he may need to backtrack on an earlier promise to restore democracy by next year.

In June, little more than a month after the May 22 putsch that overthrew the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Prayuth said elections would be held by late 2015.

In remarks today, however, Thailand’s former army chief said the date could be pushed back.

“I outlined a roadmap. The election must come with a new constitution and 11 reform areas,” Reuters quotes Prayuth as saying as he boarded a plane in Bangkok to attend an Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan. “Everything depends on the road map, so we must see first if the road map can be completed. Elections take time to organize.”

On May 20, the army first declared martial law and insisted that it wasn’t planning to overthrow the government shortly after Yingluck was removed from office on corruption charges. Two days later, the army, already on the streets, took over.

The move has been condemned by Western nations who have urged Thailand to quickly return to democracy.

Reuters notes:

“Despite Prayuth hanging up his military uniform — he retired as army chief last month — he has kept a firm grip on power. The military has quashed most dissent, threatening or arresting critics of the coup.

“The reforms are partly aimed at ending the political influence of [Yingluck's brother], former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a former telecoms tycoon who upset the establishment with populist policies that won him the votes of the poor.”

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At Least 20 Trekkers Die In Blizzard, Avalanche In Nepal’s Himalayas

By Scott Neuman on October 15th, 2014 | Last updated: October 16, 2014 at 1:28 am

At least a dozen trekkers have been killed in unseasonable blizzards and an avalanche in the foothills of Nepal’s Himalayan mountain range.

NPR’s Julie McCarthy, reporting from New Delhi, says locals and international tourists are among the dead. Rescuers say those killed include four Canadians, two Poles, an Israeli, an Indian and a Nepali.

The Wall Street Journal says:

“More than 100 tourists were crossing the nearly 18,000-foot-high Thorong La pass when heavy snow began to fall Tuesday, said Basant Hamal, general secretary of the nonprofit Himalayan Rescue Association.

“Many rushed to descend to lower altitudes, but others were trapped as the storm closed in. By Wednesday evening, 18 survivors had been rescued, Mr. Hamal said.”

Julie says the bad weather has been linked to cyclone Hudhud.

The trekkers were descending from Mount Annapurna, the world’s 10th-highest peak and one of the most popular high-altitude treks in Nepal, Julie says.

She reminds us that in April an avalanche above base camp on Mount Everest killed 16 Nepalese guides. It was the deadliest single day for climbers on the world’s tallest peak.

Update, 12:20 a.m. ET Thursday: The Associated Press reports that Nepalese authorities in helicopters have spotted at least eight more bodies in the area of the avalanche; five more hikers still are missing on another mountain.

Nepalese authorities have saved others who were caught by the blizzard, the AP reports:

“At least 14 foreign trekkers have been rescued so far, including two from Hong Kong and 12 Israelis who were being treated at the Military Hospital in Katmandu.

“Baburam Bhandari, the chief government administrator in the area, said dozens of people were still stranded on the route and were out of contact because of poor communication.”

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Pentagon Reportedly Hushed Up Chemical Weapons Finds In Iraq

By Scott Neuman on October 15th, 2014 | Last updated: October 15, 2014 at 3:28 pm

The New York Times is reporting that on several occasions, U.S. forces involved in Iraq after the 2003 invasion came across aging stockpiles of chemical weapons and that several service members were injured by their exposure to toxic agents.

The Times reports in an extensive article:

“From 2004 to 2011, American and American-trained Iraqi troops repeatedly encountered, and on at least six occasions were wounded by, chemical weapons remaining from years earlier in Saddam Hussein’s rule.

“In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and American officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.”

The newspaper says it found 17 American service members and seven Iraqi police officers who were exposed to nerve or mustard agents following the 2003 invasion. “American officials said that the actual tally of exposed troops was slightly higher, but that the government’s official count was classified,” it says.

All of the weapons found, however, were produced prior to 1991 as part of a crash program started in the 1980s and meant to be used against neighboring Iran during an eight-year war between the two countries. “In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies,” the Times says.

The Times quotes a former Army sergeant who suffered from mustard burns in 2007 and was denied hospital treatment and medical evacuation as saying: “I felt more like a guinea pig than a wounded soldier.”

According to the Times: “Congress, too, was only partly informed, while troops and officers were instructed to be silent or give deceptive accounts of what they had found. ” ‘Nothing of significance’ is what I was ordered to say,” said Jarrod Lampier, a recently retired Army major who was present for the largest chemical weapons discovery of the war: more than 2,400 nerve-agent rockets unearthed in 2006 at a former Republican Guard compound.”

And, the Times adds:

“Many chemical weapons incidents clustered around the ruins of the Muthanna State Establishment, the center of Iraqi chemical agent production in the 1980s.

“Since June, the compound has been held by the Islamic State, the world’s most radical and violent jihadist group. In a letter sent to the United Nations this summer, the Iraqi government said that about 2,500 corroded chemical rockets remained on the grounds, and that Iraqi officials had witnessed intruders looting equipment before militants shut down the surveillance cameras.”

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