Billy Graham, preacher to millions, adviser to U.S. presidents, dies at 99

By Bill Trott

(Reuters) – U.S. evangelist Billy Graham, who counseled presidents and preached to millions across the world from his native North Carolina to communist North Korea during his 70 years in the pulpit, died on Wednesday at the age of 99, a spokesman said.

Graham died at 8 a.m. EST (1300 GMT) at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, according to Jeremy Blume, a spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

According to his ministry, he preached Christianity to more people than anyone else in history, reaching hundreds of millions of people either in person or via TV and satellite links.

Graham became the de facto White House chaplain to several U.S. presidents, most famously Richard Nixon. He also met with scores of world leaders and was the first noted evangelist to take his message behind the Iron Curtain.

“He was probably the dominant religious leader of his era,” said William Martin, author of “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story.” “No more than one or two popes, perhaps one or two other people, came close to what he achieved.”

Graham found himself at times in controversy over his disapproving stand on gay rights, as well as a over a secretly recorded conversation with Nixon in which the cleric complained that Jews had too much influence on the U.S. media. In the later years of his career he intentionally muted his political beliefs to focus on the Gospel.

Graham was no longer a close associate of presidents in recent years but many former U.S. leaders paid tribute on Wednesday. President Donald Trump said on Twitter: “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.”

In a rare trip away from his home in his later years, Graham had celebrated his 95th birthday on Nov. 7, 2013, at a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, where some 800 guests, including Trump, business magnate Rupert Murdoch and television hostess Kathie Lee Gifford paid tribute.

The event featured a video of a sermon that his son Franklin said was Graham’s last message to the nation. Graham had been working for a year on the video, which was aired on Fox News. In it, he said America was “in great need of a spiritual awakening.”

With his steely features and piercing blue eyes, Graham was a powerful figure when he preached in his prime, roaming the stage and hoisting a Bible as he declared Jesus Christ to be the only solution to humanity’s problems.

In his heyday Graham had a thunderous, quick-burst speaking style that earned him the nickname “God’s Machine Gun.” Through his “Crusades for Christ,” Graham sowed fields of devotion across the American heartland that would become fertile ground for the growth of the religious right’s conservative political movement.

MEDIA MASTERY

His influence was fueled by an organization that carefully planned his religious campaigns, putting on international conferences and training seminars for evangelical leaders, Martin said.

Graham’s mastery of the media was ground-breaking. In addition to radio and publishing, he used telephone lines, television and satellites to deliver his message to homes, churches and theaters around the world.

Some 77 million saw him preach in person while nearly 215 million more watched his crusades on television or through satellite link-ups, a Graham spokeswoman said.

Graham started meeting with presidents during the tenure of Harry Truman. He played golf with Gerald Ford, skinny-dipped in the White House pool with Lyndon Johnson, vacationed with George H.W. Bush and spent the night in the White House on Nixon’s first day in office.

George W. Bush gave Graham credit for helping him rediscover his faith and in 2010, when it was difficult for Graham to travel, Barack Obama made the trip to the preacher’s log cabin home in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Graham’s ties to the White House were mutually beneficial. His reputation was enhanced as preacher to the presidents, while the politicians boosted their standing with religiously inclined voters.

“Their personal lives – some of them – were difficult,” Graham, a registered Democrat, told Time magazine in 2007 of his political acquaintances. “But I loved them all. I admired them all. I knew that they had burdens beyond anything I could ever know or understand.”

Graham’s reputation took a hit because of Nixon after the release of 1972 White House tapes in which the two were heard making anti-Semitic comments. Graham later said he did not remember the conversation and apologized.

In the early half of his career, Graham often spoke his mind on social and political issues of the day, including his strong anti-communist sentiments. He dismissed Vietnam War protesters as attention-seekers and, while he eventually refused to hold segregated revival meetings, he did not take an active role in the 1960s civil rights movement.

But Graham’s politics were not as overt as those of some religious leaders who came after him, such as Pat Robertson, who ran for president in 1988, and Jerry Falwell, co-founder of the Moral Majority, an organization whose purpose was to promote Christian-oriented politics.

As he grew older, Graham said he felt he had become too involved in some issues and shifted to a middle-of-the-road position in order to reach more people. He did, however, dive into the gay marriage issue in 2012 when he came out in support of a state amendment to ban same-sex marriages in North Carolina. He also met with Republican Mitt Romney in October 2012 and told him he supported Romney’s run for the presidency.

FROM FARM TO PULPIT

William Franklin Graham was born on Nov. 7, 1918, into a Presbyterian family and was known as Billy Frank while growing up on a farm near Charlotte, North Carolina. As a teenager, he said he was mostly preoccupied with baseball and girls until he was moved by God after hearing a fiery revivalist in Charlotte.

After attending Bob Jones College, Graham ended up at a Bible school in Florida, where he would preach at his first revival, and was ordained in 1939 by a church in the Southern Baptist Convention. He received a scholarship to Wheaton College near Chicago, where he met Ruth Bell, whose parents were missionaries in China. They married in 1943.

Rather than work from a home church, Graham went on the road, preaching in tents and building a following. His breakthrough came with a 1949 Los Angeles tent crusade that was scheduled for three weeks but extended to eight because of the overflow crowds he attracted.

The success of the Los Angeles campaign and the fame it brought Graham was attributed to media magnate William Randolph Hearst, who had liked Graham’s style and anti-communist stance so much that he ordered his newspapers to give Graham a boost.

Graham eventually outgrew tent revivals and would preach at some of the most famous venues in the world, such as Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden in New York and London’s Wembley Stadium. He delivered sermons around the globe, including in remote African villages, China, North Korea, the Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Liberals accused him of giving credibility to abusive governments while fundamentalist Christians criticized him for going to godless countries and promoting peaceful relations with them. Graham said he simply saw the trips as apolitical opportunities to win souls for Christ.

Graham concluded his career of religious campaigns in June 2005 in New York with a three-day stand that attracted more than 230,000 people, his organization said. He turned over his evangelical association to his son Franklin, who did not shy away from politics and frequently praised Trump once he became president.

Graham’s other four children were also evangelists.

REPUTATION

Graham managed to maintain his public integrity even as other TV star evangelists such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were hit in the 1980s by financial and sex scandals. To keep his reputation pristine, Graham had a policy of never being alone with any woman other than Ruth.

Graham’s closest presidential relationship was with Nixon, who offered him any government job he wanted – including ambassador to Israel. It turned out to be a painful relationship for Graham, who said Nixon and his circle misled him on the Watergate scandal.

Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman first mentioned Graham’s anti-Semitic remarks in a 1994 book, which Graham strongly denied. But when audio tapes from the Nixon White House were released in 2002, Graham could be heard referring to Jews as pornographers and agreeing with Nixon that the U.S. media was dominated by liberal Jews and could send the United States “down the drain.”

Graham, who had a long history of supporting Israel, apologized again after the tapes’ release and said he had no recollection of the conversation.

“If it wasn’t on tape, I would not have believed it,” Graham told Newsweek. “I guess I was trying to please. I felt so badly about myself – I couldn’t believe it. I went to a meeting with Jewish leaders and I told them I would crawl to them to ask their forgiveness.”

The author of more than two dozen books with titles such as “How to Be Born Again,” Graham also ran the weekly “Hour of Decision” radio program broadcast around the world on Sundays for more than 50 years.

Graham helped bring religion into the television age. He first put together a television show, which was eventually syndicated, in 1951 and began live broadcasts of his revival meetings in 1957 from New York’s Madison Square Garden.

In a 2011 Fox News interview, Graham was asked what he would do differently in his career.

“I would study more. I would pray more, travel less, take less speaking engagements,” he said. “I took too many of them in too many places around the world. If I had it to do over again I’d spend more time in meditation and prayer and just telling the Lord how much I love him.”

In addition to suffering with Parkinson’s disease for many years, Graham’s health problems in his later years included a broken hip, a broken pelvis, prostate cancer and installation of a shunt in his brain to control excess fluid. He was hospitalized in 2011, 2012 and 2013 for respiratory problems.

Graham and his wife, Ruth, who died June 14, 2007, had two sons and three daughters.

Graham’s life, in pictures – http://reut.rs/2HBz9p8

(Reporting by Ed Stoddard and Bill Trott; Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Diane Craft and Frances Kerry)

Students plan protests, Washington march, to demand gun control after mass shooting

A senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School weeps in front of a cross and Star of David for shooting victim Meadow Pollack while a fellow classmate consoles her at a memorial by the school in Parkland, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

By Zachary Fagenson and Katanga Johnson

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – Stunned by the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history, students mobilized across the country on Sunday to organize rallies and a national walkout in support of stronger gun laws, challenging politicians they say have failed to protect them.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a former student is accused of murdering 17 people on Wednesday using an assault-style rifle, joined others on social media to plan the events, including a Washington march.

Seventeen candles are seen during a service at Christ Church United Methodist Church for each of the dead in the shooting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

Seventeen candles are seen during a service at Christ Church United Methodist Church for each of the dead in the shooting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

“I felt like it was our time to take a stand,” said Lane Murdock, 15, of Connecticut. “We’re the ones in these schools, we’re the ones who are having shooters come into our classrooms and our spaces.”

Murdock, who lives 20 miles (32 km) from Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 children and six adults were shot to death five years ago, drew more than 50,000 signatures on an online petition on Sunday calling on students to walk out of their high schools on April 20.

GRAPHIC: http://tmsnrt.rs/2nX8ECo

Instead of going to classes, she urged her fellow students to stage protests on the 19th anniversary of an earlier mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Students from the Florida high school are planning a “March for Our Lives” in Washington on March 24 to call attention to school safety and ask lawmakers to enact gun control.

They also plan to rally for gun control, mental health issues and school safety on Wednesday in Tallahassee, the state capital. The students were expected to meet with a lawmaker who is seeking to ban the sale of assault-style weapons like the AR-15 allegedly used in the school shooting.

The demands for change by many still too young to vote has inflamed the country’s long-simmering debate between advocates for gun control and gun ownership.

Students from the Florida school have lashed out at political leaders, including Republican President Donald Trump, for inaction on the issue. Many criticized Trump for insensitivity after he said in a weekend Twitter post that the FBI may have been too distracted with a Russia probe to follow leads that could have prevented the massacre.

“You can’t blame the bureaucracy for this when it’s you, Mr. President, who’s overall responsible,” David Hogg, an 18-year-old Douglas senior, said in a phone interview.

People mourn in front of flowers and mementoes placed in the fence of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, after the police security perimeter was removed, following a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

People mourn in front of flowers and mementoes placed in the fence of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, after the police security perimeter was removed, following a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

‘LISTENING SESSION’

The White House said Trump planned to host “a listening session” with high school students and teachers on Wednesday, but did not specify which students or school would be involved.

Democratic leaders vowed to redouble efforts to fight the nation’s powerful gun lobby to reduce violence from firearms.

“We’re the adults. We’re the leaders in this country who are supposed to keep our children safe – and again and again, our country has let them down,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said on Twitter.

The suspect in the Parkland shooting, Nikolas Cruz, 19, faces multiple murder charges in the deaths of 14 students and three staff members, and the wounding of more than a dozen others in a rampage that eclipsed Columbine as the country’s worst mass shooting at a high school.

Cruz was reported to have been investigated by police and state officials as far back as 2016 after slashing his arm in a social media video, and saying he wanted to buy a gun. Authorities determined, however, he was receiving sufficient support, newspapers said on Saturday.

In addition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation admitted on Friday that it failed to investigate a warning that Cruz possessed a gun and the desire to kill.

A couple who opened their home to Cruz after his mother’s recent death saw no signs he was planning a rampage, according to the Sun Sentinel in south Florida.

Kimberly and James Snead told the newspaper they knew Cruz had guns, and that they made him lock them in a safe. They thought they had the only key, they said.

Cruz faces charges that could bring the death penalty. Prosecutors have not yet said if they will seek capital punishment.

Four people still hospitalized with wounds from the shooting were in fair condition on Sunday, a spokeswoman for the Broward Health system said.

School officials in Broward County said on Sunday they were aiming to have staff return to the high school campus by the end of the week. They did not say when classes would resume.

(Writing and additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York, Letitia Stein in Detroit and Jeff Mason in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)

U.S. flu outbreak worsens, likely to linger for weeks: CDC

A box of masks is shown in the emergency room at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018

(Reuters) – One of the worst flu outbreaks in the United States in nearly a decade worsened last week and will likely linger for several weeks, causing more deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday.

Another 10 children were reported to have died of the flu in the week ending Feb. 3, bringing the total infant mortality so far this season to 63, Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s acting director, told reporters. The CDC does not require national reporting of flu deaths in adults.

“I wish there were better news this week, but almost everything we’re looking at is bad news,” Schuchat said. “There have been far too many heart-wrenching stories in recent weeks about families who have lost loved ones to influenza.”

It was unclear whether the outbreak had reached its peak yet or if it would get worse, she said. Previous outbreaks had lasted between 11 and 20 weeks, and the current outbreak was in its 11th week, she said.

The number of people hospitalized for flu-like illnesses is the highest the CDC has seen since starting its current tracking system in 2010.

The dominant flu strain this season, influenza A (H3N2), is especially potent, linked with severe disease and death, particularly among children and the elderly.

The outbreak has reached almost every corner of the country, with every state except Hawaii and Oregon reporting widespread flu, Schuchat said.

She urged sick people to stay home and said it is still not too late for people to get a flu vaccine, which offers some protection.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Paul Simao)

Mad Max violence stalks Venezuela’s lawless roads

A child looks at a basket filled with mandarins while workers load merchandise into Humberto Aguilar's truck at the wholesale market in Barquisimeto, Venezuela January 30,

By Andrew Cawthorne

LA GRITA, Venezuela (Reuters) – It’s midnight on one of the most dangerous roads in Latin America and Venezuelan trucker Humberto Aguilar hurtles through the darkness with 20 tons of vegetables freshly harvested from the Andes for sale in the capital Caracas.

When he set off at sunset from the town of La Grita in western Venezuela on his 900-km (560-mile) journey, Aguilar knew he was taking his life in his hands.

With hunger widespread amid a fifth year of painful economic implosion under President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has seen a frightening surge in attacks on increasingly lawless roads.

Just a few days earlier, Aguilar said he sat terrified when hundreds of looters swarmed a stationary convoy, overwhelming drivers by sheer numbers. They carted off milk, rice and sugar from other trucks but left his less-prized vegetables alone.

“Every time I say goodbye to my family, I entrust myself to God and the Virgin,” said the 36-year-old trucker.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

While truck heists have long been common in Latin America’s major economies from Mexico to Brazil, looting of cargoes on roads has soared in Venezuela in recent times and appears to be not just a result of common crime but directly linked to growing hunger and desperation among the population of 30 million.

Across Venezuela, there were some 162 lootings in January, including 42 robberies of trucks, according to the consultancy Oswaldo Ramirez Consultores (ORC), which tracks road safety for companies. That compared to eight lootings, including one truck robbery, in the same month of last year.

“The hunger and despair are far worse than people realize, what we are seeing on the roads is just another manifestation of that. We’ve also been seeing people stealing and butchering animals in fields, attacking shops and blocking roads to protest their lack of food. It’s become extremely serious,” said ORC director Oswaldo Ramirez.

Eight people have died in the lootings in January of this year, according to a Reuters tally.

The dystopian attacks in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates are pushing up transport and food costs in an already hyperinflationary environment, as well as stifling movement of goods in the crisis-hit OPEC nation.

They have complicated the perilous life of truckers who already face harassment from bribe-seeking soldiers, spiraling prices for parts and hours-long lines for fuel.

Government officials and representatives of the security forces did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Barred by law from carrying guns, the Andean truckers form convoys to protect themselves, text each other about trouble spots – and keep moving as fast as possible.

Aguilar said that on one trip a man appeared on his truck’s sideboard and put a pistol to his head – but his co-driver swerved hard to shake the assailant off.

On this journey, however, he was lucky. Just before reaching Caracas, assailants hurled a stone at his windscreen but it bounced off.

Even once Andean truckers reach cities, there is no respite.

Armed gangs often charge them for safe passage and permission to set up markets.

“The government gives us no security. It’s madness. People have got used to the easy life of robbing,” said Javier Escalante, who owns two trucks that take vegetables from La Grita to the town of Guatire outside Caracas every week.

“But if we stop, how do we earn a living for our families? How do Venezuelans eat? And how do the peasant farmers sell their produce? We have no choice but to keep going.”

GUNMEN ON BIKES

The looters use a variety of techniques, depending on the terrain and the target, according to truckers, inhabitants of towns on highways, and videos of incidents.

Sometimes gunmen on motorbikes surround a truck, slowing it down before pouncing like lions stalking prey. In other instances, attackers wait for a vehicle to slow down – at a pothole for example – before jumping on, cutting through the tarpaulin and hurling goods onto the ground for waiting companions.

In one video apparently showing a looting and uploaded to social media, people are seen gleefully dragging live chickens from a stranded truck.

The looters use tree trunks and rocks to stop vehicles, and are particularly fond of “miguelitos” – pieces of metal with long spikes – to burst tires and halt vehicles.

A ring-road round the central town of Barquisimeto, with shanty-towns next to it, is notorious among truckers, who nickname it “The Guillotine” due to the regular attacks.

In some cases, crowds simply swarm at trucks when they stop for a break or repairs. Soldiers or policemen seldom help, according to interviews with two dozen drivers.

Yone Escalante, 43, who also takes vegetables from the Andes on a 2,800-km (1,700-mile) round-trip to eastern Venezuela, shudders when he recalls how a vehicle of his was ransacked in the remote plains of Guarico state last year.

The trouble began when one of his two trucks broke down and about 60 people appeared from the shadows and surrounded it.

Escalante, about half an hour behind in his truck, rushed to help. By the time he arrived, the crowd had swelled to 300 and Escalante – a well-spoken businessman who owns trucks and sells produce – said he jumped on the vehicle to reason with them.

“Suddenly two military men arrived on the scene, and I thought ‘Thank God, help has arrived’,” Escalante recounted during a break between trips in La Grita.

But as the crowd chanted menacingly “Food for the people!”, the soldiers muttered something about the goods being insured – which they were not – and drove off, he said.

“That was the trigger. They came at us like ants and stripped us of everything: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots. It took me all day to load that truck, and 30 minutes for them to empty it. I could cry with rage.”

MAD MAX OR ROBIN HOOD?

Though events on Venezuela’s roads may seem like something out of the Mad Max movie, truckers say they are often more akin to Robin Hood as assailants are careful not to harm the drivers or their vehicles provided they do not resist.

“The best protection is to be submissive, hand things over,” said Roberto Maldonado, who handles paperwork for truckers in La Grita. “When people are hungry, they are dangerous.”

However, all the truckers interviewed by Reuters said they knew of someone murdered on the roads – mainly during targeted robberies rather than spontaneous lootings.

With new tires now going for about 70 million bolivars – about $300 on the black market or more than two decades of work at the official minimum wage – looters often swipe them along with food.

The journey from the Andes to Caracas passes about 25 checkpoints, where the truckers have to alight and seek a stamp from National Guard soldiers.

At some, a bribe is required, with a bag of potatoes now more effective than increasingly worthless cash.

Yone Escalante said that on one occasion when he was looted after a tire burst, policemen joined in the fray, taking bananas and cheese with the crowd.

In the latest attack, just days ago, he was traveling slowly over potholes in a convoy with four other trucks after dark, when assailants jumped on and started grabbing produce.

“Even though there were holes in the road, we sped up and swerved to shake them off,” he said. “It’s either us or them.”

(See http://reut.rs/2GVaX0s for a related photo essay and http://tmsnrt.rs/2sgqfJP for a map of one trucking route)

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld in Caracas and Anggy Polanco in La Grita; Editing by Girish Gupta, Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)

Battle over bodies rages quietly in Iraq’s Mosul long after Islamic State defeat

Local residents carry bodies taken from the rubble in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq January 17, 2018

By Raya Jalabi

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – The Iraqis who have come home to Mosul’s Old City knew it would be hard living in the rubble left by the battle against Islamic State, but there is one aspect of their surroundings they are finding unbearable seven months on.

“I don’t want my children to have to walk past dead bodies in the street every day,” said Abdelrazaq Abdullah, back with his wife and three children in the quarter where the militants made their last stand in July against Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces.

“We can live without electricity, but we need the government to clear the corpses – they’re spreading disease and reminding us of the horrors we’ve just lived through.”

The stench of death wafts from rubble-filled corners in the dystopian wasteland of what was once West Mosul, from rusting cars still rigged with explosives and from homes abandoned as those who could, fled the bloody end of the militants three-year rule.

The corpses lying in the open on many streets are mainly militants from the extremist Sunni group who retreated to the densely-packed buildings of the Old City, where only the most desperate 5,000 of a pre-war population of 200,000 have so far returned.

Local residents and officials in predominantly Sunni Mosul say there are also thousands of civilian bodies yet to be retrieved from the ruins, a view which has put them at odds with the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.

“There are no more civilian bodies to be picked up in Mosul,” said Brig Gen Mohammad Mahmoud, the head of Mosul’s Civil Defence, first responders who report to the Interior Ministry and are tasked with collecting them and issuing death certificates.

The Civil Defence says it had collected 2,585 civilian bodies by mid-January – many of them still unidentified – and has completed operations. It does not want to waste resources on the militants.

“Why should we have to give terrorists a proper burial?” Mahmoud said.

The standoff over the dead threatens to stoke the anger of a population already beaten down by a grueling war and the militants’ draconian rule in a place where Islamic State initially found some sympathy. The final civilian death toll is also a highly sensitive political issue in Iraq and beyond.

 

COMMON GRAVES

The municipal government has had to set up its own specialized team to field requests filed by city residents to find more than 9,000 missing people, most of them last seen in the Old City and assumed to be buried under the rubble.

The team is working through a backlog of 300 bodies, dispatching groups to collect them when it can. But these are just the ones where exact coordinates have been given by neighbors, family members or passers-by who saw the bodies.

“We don’t know how many more are under the rubble,” said Duraid Hazim Mohammed, the head of the municipal team. “If the family or a witness who saw the people die doesn’t call us to tell us exactly how many bodies are at a site, we have no way of knowing if one, five or 100 bodies are buried there.”

Locals say common graves were dug as the battle raged. In the courtyard of Um al-Tisaa mosque in the Old City, they say 100 of their neighbors were buried in groups of shallow graves.

“I buried between 50 and 60 people myself, by hand, as planes flew overhead and bombed the city,” resident Mahmoud Karim said.

Several families have since come to excavate the bodies of their relatives, to bury them in proper cemeteries. “But others, we don’t know where their families are,” Karim said. Some are dead, while others are among the thousands lingering uneasily in refugee camps or paying high rents elsewhere in the city.

The municipal government in Mosul has not given an exact figure for civilian casualties, but its head, Abdelsattar al-Hibbu, told Reuters it coincided with estimates of 10,000 civilians killed during the battle, based on reports of missing people and information from officials about the dead. The toll includes victims of ground fighting and coalition bombing.

Asked for comment, a U.S. coalition spokesman directed Reuters to publicly available reports of incidents. A tally based on those reports showed that the U.S. military acknowledges 321 deaths based on “credible allegations” in dozens of reports of civilian casualties from coalition air strikes conducted near Mosul.

A further 100 reports of casualties from coalition air strikes near Mosul, each referring either to one or to multiple deaths, were still under investigation, the data showed.

(To view an interactive graphic on battle for Mosul, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2rEoDr4)

FIGHTERS

While the most visible problem in Mosul is the corpses of fighters left in the streets, residents say they have also found bodies of suspected Islamic State family members in their homes.

The owner of a house in the Old City, who asked Reuters to withhold his name for fear of retaliation from officials, said he had asked the Civil Defence for weeks to come and remove two bodies from the main bedroom of his basement home.

They were badly decomposed but the clothing was clearly that of a woman and child.

“Civil Defence refused, because they say the woman and child are Daesh,” he said using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “They said they’re punishing me because they think I supported Daesh.”

The municipality team has collected 348 bodies of militants so far, but there are many more still around. Residents regularly walk by them to collect water from temporary pumps and on one street, young children played not far from two corpses on a doorstep.

Some of the fighters are recognizable from their clothing, some were identified to the government by neighbors, some yet, were found clutching the weapons they used to make their last stand against surrounding Iraqi and coalition forces.

The municipal government team’s efforts are hampered by very limited funds. On several days in January, they had to halt operations amid a shortage of gloves, masks and body bags.

Some families have resorted to digging out their dead themselves, like 23-year-old Mustafa Nader, who came back to look for his great-uncle Abdullah Ahmed Hussain.

“We weren’t sure if we would find him here,” Nader said of his elderly sculptor uncle, tears in his eyes after an hour of digging unearthed his body. “I thought maybe he could have left or gone to a neighbor’s house.”

Others still have resorted to drastic measures.

Ayad came back in early January after six months in a refugee camp and found the corpses of three Islamic State fighters rotting in what remained of his living room. “The flies, the smell, the disease,” he said. “It was awful.”

The municipality team said it would be weeks before they could get to him so Ayad asked a soldier on patrol to look over the bodies and make sure there were no explosives.

Then, Ayad set them on fire.

With most of his money spent on a tarp to cover the gaping hole where his front door once stood, he borrowed $20 from his sister, for bleach to try to erase the traces so his family of ten could move back in.

“The smell still hasn’t fully gone away,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Locked switch blamed in fatal Amtrak crash

Emergency responders are at the scene after an Amtrak passenger train collided with a freight train and derailed in Cayce, South Carolina, U.S., February 4, 2018.

(Reuters) – A locked switch is being blamed for the collision between an Amtrak passenger train and a freight train that killed two people and injured more than 100 others in South Carolina early on Sunday.

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board said a switch on the tracks, which the freight hauler CSX Corp. owns and operates, was padlocked in a position that steered the Amtrak train onto a siding near Columbia, S.C., where it crashed into a parked, unoccupied CSX train.

“Key to this investigation is learning why the switch was lined that way,” Robert Sumwalt, the chairman of the NTSB, told reporters at a news conference on Sunday. NTSB officials were not immediately available to elaborate.

Amtrak President and Chief Executive Richard Anderson told reporters Sunday that CSX was responsible for the wreck because of the locked switch. CSX officials were not available for comment.

Officials from both companies expressed condolences to the families of the two people killed, an Amtrak engineer and a conductor.

Two of the 116 people injured remained in critical condition overnight, officials said. Specifics were not available.

A team from the NTSB is expected to be on the scene for five to seven days. No probable cause will be issued at that time, the agency told media outlets.

 

(Reporting by Rich McKay, editing by Larry King)

U.S. flu-related hospitalizations highest in nearly a decade: agency

Emergency room nurse Christine Bauer treats Joshua Lagade of Vista, California, for the flu as his girlfriend Mayra Mora looks on in the emergency room at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018.

By Deena Beasley

(Reuters) – Flu activity worsened over the past week as more people headed to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, with hospitalizations at the highest in nearly 10 years, U.S. health officials said on Friday.

Sixteen children died of the flu in the week ended Jan. 27, bringing total pediatric deaths to 53 for the season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly report.

Out of every 100,000 people in the general population, an estimated 51.4 have been hospitalized for the flu, surpassing the rate in the last severe season of 2014/2015, when 710,000 were hospitalized and 148 children died. Adults aged 65 or older had the most hospitalizations, followed by those aged 50 to 64, and children below 5.

The dominant strain during this flu season is an especially nasty type called influenza A (H3N2) that in seasons past had been linked with severe disease and death, especially in the elderly and young.

“So far this year the cumulative rate of hospitalization is the highest since we began tracking in this way,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters on a conference call. The CDC began its current hospital flu surveillance program during the 2009-2010 H1N1 swine flu pandemic.

Schuchat was named acting CDC director earlier this week after Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald resigned from the post because of financial conflicts of interest, including purchases of tobacco and healthcare stocks while in office.

Flu is widespread in 48 states, down from 49 last week, with Oregon reporting less flu activity, the CDC said.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” Schuchat said, noting that sick people should stay home to avoid transmitting the virus to others, frequently wash hands and cover their mouth while coughing or sneezing.

The CDC official also said it was not too late to get a flu vaccine.

(Reporting by Deena Beasley; Editing by Richard Chang)

Warning level raised on another Japanese volcano a week after fatal eruption

Photo taken from a Kyodo News helicopter on January 23, 2018,

OKYO (Reuters) – Japan raised the warning level on another volcano on Tuesday, exactly a week after an dramatic eruption at another peak killed one man, injured nearly a dozen others and stranded scores of skiers – including foreign tourists – for several hours.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency lifted the warning on Zao, a cluster of volcanoes in northern Japan whose highest point is 1,841 meters (6,040 ft), to 2 from 1, meaning that people should avoid going near the crater.

“There is a possibility of a small-scale eruption,” the agency said in a statement, noting that a number of small earth movements were detected on Tuesday, along with a slight bulging of the ground in one area.

It also warned of the possibility that volcanic rocks could be thrown as far as 1.2 km in any eruption.

The announcement came a week after a member of Japan’s military was struck and killed when rocks from the sudden eruption of the Kusatsu-Shirane volcano rained down on skiers at a mountain resort in central Japan.

Video footage taken by skiers on the mountain, including some from Taiwan, showed black ash boiling up into the sky as stones plummeted down, some punching holes in the metal roof of a ski gondola. Eleven people were injured and around 100 skiers took refuge in a mountain hut for several hours until rescued.

Zao, like Kusatsu-Shirane, is a popular resort area famed for its “snow monsters,” created by water vapor freezing on trees in winter. Its slopes are packed with skiers in winter and hikers in other seasons.

Japan has 110 active volcanoes and monitors 47 of them around the clock. In September 2014, 63 people were killed on Mount Ontake, the worst volcanic disaster in Japan for nearly 90 years.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Michael Perry)

South Korean hospital blaze kills at least 37, fleeing patients brave flames

Smoke rises from a burning hospital in Miryang, South Korea, January 26, 2018.

By Christine Kim

MIRYANG, South Korea (Reuters) – Once famous for an award-winning film of the same name, the South Korean city of Miryang became a scene of horror on Friday as flames and toxic smoke swept through a hospital, killing at least 37 people and injuring more than 140.

South Korea’s deadliest fire in almost a decade followed one last month that killed 29 people, reviving concern over safety standards, as the hospital director said current law did not require the building to have a sprinkler system.

“So many lives were sacrificed and the people of our city, as well as those throughout the country, have fallen into deep grief,” the city’s mayor, Park Il-ho, told reporters, appearing visibly distressed.

Many patients “walked though fire and smoke” to escape from the Sejong Hospital as the main exit was on the first floor, which was ablaze, a city official told Reuters.

Those on upper floors used ladders and plastic escape slides to flee, while firefighters carried some who could not walk.

“I saw the elderly patients scrambling out through the windows and had to help,” said Woo Young-min, 25, as he stood in his pyjamas outside the hospital.

The presidential Blue House initially said the number of dead was at least 41, but deferred to a toll of 37 from the fire chief of Miryang, which is about 270 km (170 miles) southeast of Seoul, the capital, and home to about 108,000 people.

Fire officials posted a list of at least 26 victims outside the hospital, their ages ranging from 34 to 96 years, with at least a score over 70.

Families crowded round a handwritten list of names and hospital rooms that officials had scrawled on a wall at a nearby funeral home.

The fire broke out around 7.30 a.m. (2230 GMT) at the rear of the emergency room on the hospital’s first floor, fire official Choi Man-woo told a televised news briefing.

The street outside the hospital featured in the 2007 South Korean drama “Miryang,” or “Secret Sunshine,” which garnered awards at Cannes and other film festivals.

But on Friday, witnesses described scenes of chaos in the sub-freezing temperatures, as nearby residents rushed to take portable hotpacks to shivering victims.

Woo said he was walking home after working a graveyard shift when he saw the fire and patients trying to escape the blaze.

“The firefighters were shouting at us not to go inside the building, so I stayed and helped others bring the patients down the slides.”

Television broadcast images of black smoke billowing from the windows and entrance of the hospital as flames flickered.

At least 177 patients – most of them elderly – were at the hospital and an adjacent nursing home when the fire broke out, hospital director Song Byeong-cheol told reporters.

Song said three of the nine hospital staff on duty at the time died, including at least one doctor, a nurse, and a nurse’s aide, all killed on the second floor.

Most of those who died were on the first and second floors, said Choi, but added that there were no deaths from burns.

Seven people were critically injured, while 126 had less serious wounds, officials told a Friday evening briefing.

The injured were treated at 14 regional hospitals.

By Friday afternoon, police had cordoned off the burnt-out hospital, as forensic investigators combed the smoke-blackened building. Charred debris and shattered glass littered the ground outside.

NO SPRINKLER SYSTEM

Asia’s fourth-largest economy, with one of the world’s fastest ageing populations, South Korea has faced criticism in recent years over inadequate safety standards.

Song said the six-storey hospital did not have a sprinkler system and was not large enough to require one under the law.

The nursing home annexe, where no patients died, is covered by a new law, however, and Song said the hospital had planned to begin installing a sprinkler system there next week.

Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said the government would consider changing the law.

Interior ministry guidelines published in December 2016 suggest sprinklers for all buildings of six or more storeys.

Officials said they were still investigating the cause of the fire, but were looking at a possible short circuit in the emergency room’s heating and cooling system.

“According to an initial eyewitness, fire broke out where there are two air-conditioning and heating devices in the emergency room,” Song said.

“Others said an electric spark occurred on the ceiling of the emergency room and then fire spread quickly.”

The hospital had regular safety inspections and was built to government standards, with fire exits and extinguishers, many of which were used during the fire, he added.

President Moon Jae-in held an emergency meeting with top aides and urged “all necessary measures” to help survivors.

Interior Minister Kim Boo-kyum, who visited Miryang to apologise for the fire, promised government help for victims, Yonhap news agency said.

In December, 29 people were killed in a blaze at an eight-storey fitness centre in Jecheon City, most of them women trapped in a sauna by toxic fumes. The event fed anger over reports of shoddy construction, among other shortcomings.

In 2014, a fire at a rural hospital killed 21 people, while a 2008 warehouse fire outside Seoul killed 40.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting Yuna Park, Dahee Kim and Hyonhee Shin; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Clarence Fernandez)

CDC director urges flu vaccinations as pediatric deaths mount

Emergency room nurse Christine Bauer treats Joshua Lagade of Vista, California, for the flu as his girlfriend Mayra Mora looks on in the emergency room at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018.

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Of the 30 U.S. children who have died from the flu so far this season, some 85 percent had not been vaccinated, said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, who urged Americans to get flu shots amid one of the most severe flu seasons in years.

“My message is, if you haven’t gotten a vaccine, please get a vaccine. Also, please get your children vaccinated,” said Fitzgerald, who is urging citizens “to take every advantage that you can to protect yourself.”

The dominant strain during this flu season is an especially nasty type called influenza A (H3N2) that in seasons past has been linked with severe disease and death, especially in the elderly and young. This year’s seasonal flu epidemic is especially severe.

In its latest report, the CDC said the virus is present in every state, with 32 states reporting severe flu activity.

Although the vaccine is only estimated to be about 30 percent effective against the H3N2 strain, it has been shown in studies to reduce severity and duration if people do become infected, said Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fitzgerald conceded in a telephone interview that reports that the flu vaccine in Australia was only 10 percent effective may have caused people to think the vaccine would not be worth the trouble.

Fitzgerald said the agency’s flu division has been on the job during the three-day federal government shutdown. Senators on Monday reached a deal to keep the government funded through Feb. 8.

Studies have shown that even a vaccine that has lower overall effectiveness can decrease the number of days spent in hospital, duration of the flu and the degree of symptoms.

“That helps support the point of getting a vaccine,” Jernigan said.

Fitzgerald said the flu vaccine and antiviral drugs used to fight the flu are widely available across the country, noting that people can go to the CDC website and enter their zip code to find the nearest flu clinics with vaccines.

Fitzgerald also recommended that people frequently wash their hands or use hand sanitizer, avoid those who are sick or coughing and carry disinfectant wipes.

The CDC does not have numbers for adult deaths from the flu because adult flu is not a reportable disease in all U.S. states. But she said North Carolina, which collects such data, has reported 42 adult flu deaths so far this season.

Official estimates from the CDC are expected at the end of the current season, based on a calculation from hospitals and states reporting data to the agency.

In the 2014/2015 flu season, in which the H3N2 strain was also the leading strain, there were an estimated 35.6 million cases, 710,000 hospitalizations and 56,000 deaths. At this point, it is not clear whether the current flu season will surpass those estimates, Jernigan said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)