As coronavirus ‘storm cloud’ gathers, church in Missouri braces for mourning

By Makini Brice

(Reuters) – When Traci Blackmon, the senior pastor for a predominantly black church in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, is finally able to open the doors for service again, one of her main concerns is the collective sorrow her congregation will experience.

Five members of her 180-strong congregation have gotten sick from the coronavirus and two have died. Two others have died during lockdown due to other causes.

But because the doors of Christ the King United Church of Christ have been closed since the end of March to help stop the spread of the virus, members of the church have not been able to be together and console each other.

“It’s almost like a suspended grief,” said Pastor Blackmon. “It’s like when a storm cloud is hanging over and you know that it is going to rain, but it hasn’t fully rained yet.”

Protestant churches with predominantly African-American congregations has played a crucial role in U.S. history, forging historically black colleges and universities such as Morehouse College in Georgia, fueling the Civil Rights Movement, and serving as campaign stop mainstays for political candidates interested in appealing to black voters.

Many of these churches are now bracing to play a prominent role as the United States grieves for its coronavirus dead.

More than 98,000 people in the United States have lost their lives after battling COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and a disproportionate number of them have been black.

In Missouri, while only 11.8% of the state’s residents are black, they account for 37% of reported deaths from COVID-19, according to figures released by the Missouri Department of Health.

Similar racial disparities have appeared across the United States.

Black Americans are the most religious ethnic group in the country, with nearly half attending religious service at least once a week.

One of those faithful was Christ the King’s Eugene Young.

Young would drive his wife, Annie, who he married nearly 45 years ago, to and from church services in the St. Louis area every Sunday, she recalled recently in a telephone interview. He called her “Precious” and was always able to make her laugh. She called him “Sunshine.”

She described a “storybook romance,” with three sons she calls her “kings,” 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Young became sick from the coronavirus in April, though it remains unclear how he caught it. He died at the age of 61, on Easter Sunday, April 12.

“It’s so fresh for me. It’s still unbelievable to me,” Annie Young said.

Because of social distancing guidelines to stop the spread of the virus, Young’s family had a visitation at a funeral home, not the church, limited to ten people at a time. There was no touching or hugging to comfort family members. Everyone needed to wear a mask.

“My three kings and myself got to see him by ourselves, just the four of us, and we got to spend just a little while with him,” she recalled. “So that was our time to say goodbye.”

Christ the King’s congregation has been keeping in touch through the crisis through Zoom calls, Facebook live streams of sermons given from Blackmon’s dining room and Bible studies conducted over the phone, but it isn’t exactly the same, members say.

Wesley Hurt, 77, and his wife Linda joined the Christ the King congregation more than 40 years ago, and have continued to attend services online during the lockdown.

“The whole camaraderie thing is lost, to a certain extent. We are a church that likes to fix meals for each other and we do a lot of cooking. So we haven’t had that opportunity to meet and come together and have our church dinners like we’d normally have,” Hurt said.

Though Missouri allowed churches to reopen on May 4, Christ the King United Church of Christ remains closed. Blackmon said she remains cautious until she sees progress in a number of factors, including testing.

Blackmon had initially planned to hold an Easter service when people were able to safely sit in the pews again, no matter the date.

But she worries now that the celebratory holiday would ring false for people grappling with all that had been lost from the pandemic.

Instead, she is considering devoting the first service to Good Friday, the Christian holiday commemorating the death of Jesus.

“There are a lot of things you can do over Zoom and there are a lot of things that you can do on different channels of the Internet, but what you cannot do is feel,” she said.

(Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington; Editing by Heather Timmons, Ed Tobin and Rosalba O’Brien)

Former President George H.W. Bush remembered for role in Cold War, Iraq

A flag is draped over the gate to the neighborhood of the home of former President George H.W. Bush, a day after he passed away in Houston, Texas, U.S. December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Gary McWilliams

By Gary McWilliams and Bill Trott

HOUSTON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Tributes to former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who died at the age of 94, poured in from around the world on Saturday as global leaders honored him for his role in helping to end the Cold War and reduce the threat of nuclear annihilation.

FILE PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) picks up the formal endorsement of former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush in Houston March 29, 2012. REUTERS/Donna Carson/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) picks up the formal endorsement of former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush in Houston March 29, 2012. REUTERS/Donna Carson/File Photo

Bush, the 41st U.S. president who served in the office from 1989 to 1993, also routed President Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army in the 1991 Gulf War but lost his chance for a second term in the White House after breaking a no-new-

taxes pledge.

“Many of my memories are linked to him,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, with whom Bush signed a strategic arms reduction treaty that scaled back the two countries’ nuclear arsenals.

“We happened to work together in years of great changes. It was a dramatic time demanding huge responsibility from everyone,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Gorbachev as saying.

Bush, who also served for eight years as U.S. vice president during Ronald Reagan’s two-term presidency and earlier as head of the CIA, died on Friday night at his home in Houston. His death was announced by his longtime spokesman Jim McGrath.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President George H.W. Bush laughs while attending the annual White House Correspondents Association Awards dinner in Washington May 21, 1988. REUTERS/Stelios Varias/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President George H.W. Bush laughs while attending the annual White House Correspondents Association Awards dinner in Washington May 21, 1988. REUTERS/Stelios Varias/File Photo

Speaking in Buenos Aires, U.S. President Donald Trump called Bush “a high-quality man.”

“He was a very fine man. I met him on numerous occasions. He was just a high-quality man who truly loved his family,” Trump told reporters at a G20 summit in Buenos Aires. “He was a terrific guy and he’ll be missed. He led a full life, and a very exemplary life, too.”

The White House said a state funeral will be held on Wednesday at the National Cathedral in Washington. Trump, who plans to attend the funeral with first lady Melania Trump, also designated Wednesday as a national day of mourning and ordered the lowering of the American flag for 30 days.

Former U.S. presidents lauded Bush. “His administration was marked by grace, civility and social conscience,” Jimmy Carter, a Bush predecessor and now the oldest living former president at 94, said in a statement.

Barack Obama described Bush as “a patriot and humble servant” while Bill Clinton, who defeated Bush in the 1992 presidential election, recalled his “great long life of service, love and friendship.”

FILE PHOTO: George H. W. Bush, in uniform as a Naval Aviator Cadet, is pictured in this early 1943 handout photo obtained by Reuters November 30, 2012. George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: George H. W. Bush, in uniform as a Naval Aviator Cadet, is pictured in this early 1943 handout photo obtained by Reuters November 30, 2012. George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Bush, a U.S. naval aviator during World War Two, was the father of former President George W. Bush, who served two terms in the White House in the 2000s, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who unsuccessfully sought the 2016 Republican nomination for president. Like his sons, he was a Republican.

After falling short of his party’s presidential nomination in 1980, Bush ran for the presidency again in 1988 and defeated Massachusetts Democrat Michael Dukakis, winning 40 of the 50 U.S. states.

His death came seven months after that of his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, to whom he was married for 73 years. He was admitted to a Houston hospital with a blood infection that led to sepsis a day after her funeral in April.

“The entire Bush family is deeply grateful for 41’s life and love, for the compassion of those who have cared and prayed for Dad, and for the condolences of our friends and fellow citizens,” George W. Bush said in a statement.

Trump said he spoke on Saturday to George W. Bush and Jeb Bush about their father’s death.

At a gate outside the Houston neighborhood where the Bushes lived, residents on Saturday created a makeshift memorial by laying flowers before a U.S. flag.

“They weren’t just the president and former first lady, they were part of the neighborhood,” said Ellen Prelle, who added a poinsettia and remembered the former first couple as involved and caring.

At the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recalled visiting him in the White House. “He was the father or one of the fathers of German reunification and we will never forget that,” she said.

Bush served as president during the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

“His ethos of public service was the guiding thread of his life and an example to us all,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May. “In navigating a peaceful end to the Cold War, he made the world a safer place for generations to come.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Bush “faithfully served his country all his life – with a gun in his hand during the war years and in high government roles in peacetime,” according to Russian state news agency TASS.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President George H. W. Bush waves goodbye to U.S. Marines and members of the British 7th Armoured Brigade as they conclude a Thanksgiving Day visit with troops in the Saudi desert November 22, 1990. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President George H. W. Bush waves goodbye to U.S. Marines and members of the British 7th Armoured Brigade as they conclude a Thanksgiving Day visit with troops in the Saudi desert November 22, 1990. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

EXTENSIVE POLITICAL RESUME

George Herbert Walker Bush, a Connecticut Yankee who came to Texas to be an oilman, died as the patriarch of a Republican political dynasty. He and George W. Bush were only the second father and son to hold the office of president, after John Adams (1797-1801) and John Quincy Adams (1825-1829).

His second son, Jeb, undertook his own campaign for the presidency in 2015 before dropping out. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, was a U.S. senator from Connecticut.

Trump signed an order closing the federal government on Wednesday in a show of respect for Bush. The New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq will also be closed on Wednesday in his honor.

Bush’s body will arrive at the U.S. Capitol on Monday and lie in state through Wednesday morning. The public will be able to line up to view Bush’s casket continuously from Monday evening until Wednesday morning.

Trump said the presidential plane will be flown to Houston to bring Bush’s body to Washington after Trump returns from Argentina. Bush’s body will be returned to Houston on Wednesday and a service will be held on Thursday at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church there.

Bush’s casket will then travel by train from nearby Spring, Texas to College Station. He will be buried on Thursday on the grounds of his presidential library at Texas A&M University, the school said. He will be buried in a family plot next to his late wife.

Bush had first sought the presidency in 1980, campaigning on experience gathered as a U.S. congressman from Texas, envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, United Nations ambassador and chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Reagan, the former actor and California governor, vanquished Bush in the Republican primaries but chose him as his running mate, hoping Bush’s reputation as a moderate would balance his own hard, conservative image.

The high points of Bush’s presidency included the end of the Cold War, which brought the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its hold on former Eastern Bloc countries.

“He was the only one of the world leaders at the time (who) did so much to overcome communism and help Poland,” said Lech Walesa, the former head of Poland’s Solidarity trade union who led protests and strikes that shook communist rule in the 1980s.

“He will remain in hearts and memory forever,” Walesa said on Twitter.

Bush won a decisive victory in ousting Saddam’s Iraqi army from Kuwait, bringing him popularity at home, and made progress on Middle East peace. But Bush’s foreign affairs victories were overshadowed by a stagnant economy at home. He broke his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes and lost his 1992 re-election bid to Clinton, a Democrat.

Bush, who was born on June 12, 1924, in Milton, Massachusetts, grew up wealthy, attending elite schools but putting off college so he could enlist in the Navy at 18. He flew 58 missions off aircraft carriers in World War Two and survived being shot down over the Pacific Ocean.

After returning from the war, he married Barbara Pierce, with whom he would have six children. After he graduated from Yale University on an accelerated schedule, the Bushes headed to the oil fields of West Texas.

It was there that Bush became involved in politics, first losing a U.S. Senate race in 1964 before winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966.

After two terms and another failed Senate bid in 1970, he was appointed by President Richard Nixon as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In 1974, President Gerald Ford made him an envoy to China and later director of the CIA.

Bush did not endorse fellow Republican Trump, the eventual winner of the 2016 presidential election who attacked both Jeb and George W. Bush during his campaign. He did not publicly say whom he voted for in the election, but a source told CNN he went for Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Bush did send Trump a letter in January 2017 saying he would not be able to attend his inauguration because of health concerns but wishing him the best.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston; Bill Trott, David Morgan, David Shepardson and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Roberta Rampton in Buenos Aires; Mark Heinrich in London; Andrew Osborn in Moscow; and Marcin Goclowski in Warsaw; Editing by Alistair Bell, Jonathan Oatis and Will Dunham)

Greek PM takes responsibility for wildfire as criticism mounts

Burnt cars are seen following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

By Angeliki Koutantou and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras took political responsibility on Friday for a wildfire that killed at least 87 people and led to opposition accusations that the government failed to protect lives.

Tsipras’ opponents went on the offensive on Friday as three days of mourning ended, accusing the government of failing to apologize for the disaster.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives for the second day of a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives for the second day of a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

Seeking to deflect public anger, Tsipras told ministers he was conflicted over whether the authorities had done everything right in response to the disaster.

“I have called you here today first of all to take full political responsibility for this tragedy in front of my cabinet and the Greek people,” he said.

“I won’t hide that I am overwhelmed by mixed feelings right now … Pain, devastation for the human lives unexpectedly and unfairly lost. But also anguish at whether we acted correctly in everything we did.”

Tsipras’ contrition comes after the main opposition New Democracy party criticized a government news conference on Thursday night where not one word of apology was heard.

“This government has just added unbridled cheek to its abject failure in protecting lives and people’s property,” said New Democracy spokeswoman Maria Spyraki.

Civil Protection Minister Nikos Toskas told the news conference that the government suspected arson was behind Monday night’s blaze, which trapped dozens of people in their cars trying to escape a wall of flames.

Survivors of one of the worst Greek disasters in living memory, which hit the town of Mati, some 30 km (17 miles) east of Athens on Monday, heckled Tsipras’ coalition partner, saying they had been left to fend for themselves.

Pressure is growing on the government, which is trailing New Democracy in opinion polls, at a time when it had hoped to finally extricate Greece from years of bailouts prompted by its debit crisis and reap the political benefits.

Tsipras now faces questions over how so many got trapped in the fire as the death toll could rise still further.

Tsipras had not been seen in public since Tuesday when he declared the three days of national mourning for the dead.

Politicians’ criticism reflected anger among the survivors. “They left us alone to burn like mice,” Chryssa, one of the survivors in Mati, told Skai television. “No one came here to apologize, to submit his resignation, no one.”

Toskas said he had offered his resignation but Tsipras rejected it.

Fofi Gennimata, who leads the socialist PASOK party, said the government carried a huge political responsibility.

“Why didn’t they protect the people by implementing on time the available plan for an organized and coordinated evacuation in the areas that were threatened?” she said.

“NO MORE TRAGEDIES”

The government has announced a long list of relief measures including a one-off 10,000 euro ($11,600) payment for families of the victims. Their spouses and near relatives were also offered public sector jobs.

But many felt that was not enough to ease the pain and had wanted authorities to assume responsibility for the scale of the devastation.

About 300 firefighters and volunteers were still combing the area on Friday for those still missing. More than 500 homes were destroyed by the blaze.

Haphazard and unlicensed building, a feature of many areas across Greece, was also blamed. Many routes to the beach were walled off.

Tsipras promised a national plan to tackle decades of unauthorized construction and to reform and upgrade the Civil Protection Service “to guarantee … that there will be no more tragedies”.

Mortuary staff in Athens, shocked at the sight of burnt bodies including children, were expected to conclude post-mortems on Friday after relatives of victims provided information and blood samples which could assist identifications.

The fire broke out on Monday at 4:57 p.m. and spread rapidly through Mati https://tmsnrt.rs/2K6N3Qc, which is popular with local tourists.

Firefighters described a rapid change in the direction of the wind, which also picked up speed, and some suggested the thick covering of pine trees and a mood of panic were a deadly combination that would have been hard to combat.

(Additional reporting by Michele Kambas; writing by Angeliki Koutantou and Costas Pitas; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

The Lives of the Florida School Shooting Victims: We Mourn Together

People attend a candlelight vigil for victims of the shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Kami Klein

Psalm 34:18 The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and he saves those whose spirits have been crushed.

Once again the nation mourns innocent and loving lives that have been taken from us too soon.  Over the course of the week there have been several news stories on the gunman, his motivations, the warning signs, and the steps he took on that horrible day.  His name is mentioned countless times. It will not be mentioned here.

It is the lives that were lost to us that truly matter.  It is their names that should be on our hearts and the family and friends who are enduring a grief that is beyond most of our understanding.

We ask that you honor those we have lost and as you read about each of them, please pray for those left behind, that have no answers.  Please pray for all of the people who loved them.  Pray for the students that survived so that they can heal from the horror and terror they have witnessed.  Pray for the teachers who will be dealing with their own grief but must help these young people attempt to heal.  Pray for our leaders that they may make wise decisions to protect our children.  

Our spirits have been crushed by this horrible tragedy.  Let us come together and pray for healing during this unbelievable grief.  

 

Those we have lost…

Nicholas Dworet (17) was a competitive swimmer aspiring to compete in the 2020 Olympics. A high school senior, he had recently been recruited to swim at the University of Indianapolis.“That was what he was working for, and he would’ve made it,” Nicole Nilsson, a family friend, told TIME. “He had very big aspirations.”

The father of Jaime Guttenberg (14), a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, shared news of her death in an emotional Facebook post on Thursday. “My heart is broken,” Fred Guttenberg wrote.“I am broken as I write this trying to figure out how my family will get through this,” he said, thanking friends and family members for their support. “Hugs to all and hold your children tight.”

Alyssa Alhadeff (14) , a soccer player at the Parkland Soccer Center.  Her family left this message on the club’s facebook post.  “Honor Alyssa by doing something fabulous in your life. Don’t ever give up and inspire for greatness,”  “Live for Alyssa! Be her voice and breathe for her.”

Scott Beigel (35) was a geography teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. One of his students says he protected his classroom during the shooting and that she’s “100% certain” he saved her life.

Meadow Pollack (18), a senior at the high school, had planned on attending Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida next year.“She was just unbelievable,” her father, Andrew Pollack, told the New York Times. “She was a very strong-willed young girl who had everything going for her.”

Coach Aaron Feis (37) shielded students from the shooter with his own body.  He has been described as a phenomenal man who loved his students and he did exactly like everyone knew he would; putting himself second and his students lives first.

Christopher Hixon, (49)  the athletic director at the school, was also among those killed in the shooting.“Chris is probably the nicest guy I have ever met. He would give you the shirt off his back. “Dan Jacob, the athletic director at nearby Coral Springs High School, told the Sun-Sentinel.

Luke Hoyer (15)  a freshman loved basketball and looked forward to High school.. His aunt said, “Our Luke was a precious child, who just went to school yesterday not knowing what was to come.”

Carman Schentrup (16) A National Merit Scholar semifinalist had recently gone on a college visit to the University of Washington, her cousin Matt Brandow said in a Facebook post, calling her the “most intelligible 16 year old I’ve ever met.”

Gina Montalto (14) was reported to be part of her high school’s state-champion marching band.   her mother, Jennifer Montalto, wrote in Facebook post shared by local station CBS 12. “She was a smart, loving, caring, and strong girl who brightened any room she entered.”

Alex Schachter (14) played the trombone in his school’s marching band and “just wanted to do well and make his parents happy,” his father, Max Schachter, told the New York Times.

Peter Wang (15) was in the school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Program, according to the Miami Herald, and was last seen in his gray uniform on Wednesday. His cousin, Aaron Chen, told the Herald that Wang held the door open so others could escape during the shooting.

Alaina Petty (15) was a member of the school’s JROTC program and participated in the “Helping Hands” program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, helping to clean up Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma hit Florida in September, according to the Miami Herald.

Duque Anguiano (14) was a freshman at the school, according to the Miami Herald. His older brother, Miguel, posted about his death on Instagram early Thursday. “Words cannot describe my pain,” he wrote in the post. “I love brother Martin you’ll be missed buddy. I know you’re in a better place. Duques forever man I love you junior!!!”

Helena Ramsey (17) would have gone to college next year, a family member said in a long Facebook post. The relative remembered her as a “smart, kind hearted and thoughtful person.”“Though she was somewhat reserved, she had a relentless motivation towards her academic studies, and her soft warm demeanor brought the best out in all who knew her. She was so brilliant and witty, and I’m still wrestling with the idea that she is actually gone,” the post said.

Joaquin Oliver (17), who was born in Venezuela, moved to the United States with his family when he was 3 years old, according to the Miami Herald. He became a U.S. citizen last January.

Cara Loughran, (14) loved her cousins and spending time at the beach, her family said, according to the New York Times.Her aunt, Lindsay Fontana, posted about Loughran’s death on Facebook and urged readers to take action to prevent future shootings.“We are absolutely gutted. Cara was 14 years old. She was an excellent student, she loved the beach and she loved our girls,” she wrote in the post. “While your thoughts are appreciated, I beg you to DO SOMETHING. This should not have happened to our niece Cara and it cannot happen to other people’s families.”

For pictures and more on the lives of these brave teachers, coaches and students please see this excellent article from time.com.  

Six months on, Grenfell fire survivors weep at London memorial

Six months on, Grenfell fire survivors weep at London memorial

By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – Survivors of a blaze that killed 71 people six months ago in the Grenfell Tower social housing block in west London wept during a multi-faith memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral on Thursday attended by members of the royal family.

Bereaved relatives held pictures of their loved ones as they commemorated Britain’s deadliest fire since World War Two, a tragedy that has profoundly shocked the nation.

Fire broke out in the middle of the night on June 14 and quickly gutted the 24-storey building, which was home to a multi-ethnic community living in a poor area within one of London’s richest boroughs, Kensington and Chelsea.

The disaster highlighted the area’s extreme disparities in living conditions between rich and poor and fueled a debate over why safety concerns voiced by tower residents before the fire had been ignored.

The service reflected the multi-cultural character of the Grenfell community, with Christian and Muslim prayers and music from Middle Eastern, Caribbean and Western traditions.

It also addressed the anger of many survivors over what they perceive as the neglect of their community before and after the fire. A majority of the hundreds of people displaced by the fire are still staying in hotels because suitable permanent homes have not been provided yet.

“Today we ask why warnings were not heeded, why a community was left feeling neglected, uncared for, not listened to,” Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington, told the congregation.

“Today we hold out hope that the public inquiry will get to the truth of all that led up to the fire at Grenfell Tower … and we trust that the truth will bring justice.”

Police are investigating the fire and say charges may be brought against individuals or organizations. A separate public inquiry is under way on the causes of the fire and the authorities’ response.

Mourners pay their respects outside St Paul’s Cathedral after a memorial service in honour of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, in London, Britain, December 14, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

“REMEMBER ME”

Prime Minister Theresa May, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles and his sons Prince William and Prince Harry were among those attending the service along with bereaved families and firefighters who took part in the rescue effort on the night.

The devastation inside Grenfell Tower was such that it took police and forensic scientists several months to recover and identify all human remains. The final death toll was 53 adults and 18 children.

The service began when a white banner bearing a large green heart emblazoned with the word “Grenfell” was carried through the congregation to the pulpit by a Catholic priest and Muslim cleric from the area around the charred tower.

Later, a young Syrian musician played a mournful tune on the oud, an instrument commonly played in the Middle East and parts of Africa, where many Grenfell residents had ties.

A choir of Muslim schoolgirls performed a song called “Inshallah”, and survivor Nadia Jafari, who escaped from the tower but lost her elderly father Ali, read a poem called “Remember Me” by the 13th century Persian poet and scholar Rumi.

The service also included a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” performed by a Caribbean-style steel band, and a performance of “Somewhere” from the musical “West Side Story.”

Schoolchildren from the Grenfell area scattered green hearts, a symbol of solidarity with the victims and survivors, around the cathedral’s altar.

(Editing by Stephen Addison)

Mourners in Ohio remember U.S. student held prisoner by North Korea

FILE PHOTO - Otto Frederick Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who has been detained in North Korea since early January, attends a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo February 29, 2016. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo/File Photo

By Ginny McCabe

WYOMING, Ohio (Reuters) – Friends and family members will gather in Ohio on Thursday to say goodbye to an American student who died days after being returned to the United States in a coma following 17 months in captivity in North Korea.

Otto Warmbier, 22, was arrested in the reclusive communist country while visiting as a tourist. He was brought back to the United States last week with brain damage, in what doctors described as state of “unresponsive wakefulness,” and died on Monday.

A public memorial will be held on Thursday morning at Wyoming High School, in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming. Warmbier will be buried later in the day at a local cemetery.

The exact cause of his death is unclear. Officials at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he was treated, declined to provide details, and Warmbier’s family on Tuesday asked that the Hamilton County Coroner not perform an autopsy.

Warmbier’s father, Fred Warmbier, told a news conference last week that his son had flourished while at the high school.

“This is the place where Otto experienced some of the best moments of his young life, and he would be pleased to know that his return to the United States would be acknowledged on these grounds,” he said.

After graduating as class salutatorian in 2013, Warmbier enrolled at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he was studying at the school of commerce and was a member of the Theta Chi fraternity. Warmbier was scheduled to graduate this year.

At a memorial service on Tuesday night, students at the university remembered Warmbier as outgoing and energetic.

“Being with Otto made life all the more beautiful,” Alex Vagonis, Warmbier’s girlfriend, said.

Warmbier was traveling in North Korea with a tour group, and was arrested at Pyongyang airport as he was about to leave.

He was sentenced two months later to 15 years of hard labor for trying to steal an item bearing a propaganda slogan from his hotel, North Korea state media said.

Ria Westergaard Pedersen, 33, who was with Warmbier in North Korea, told the Danish broadcaster TV2 that he had been nervous when taking pictures of soldiers, and said she doubted North Korea’s explanation for his arrest.

“We went to buy propaganda posters together, so why in the world would he risk so much to steal a trivial poster? It makes no sense.”

(Wrting and additional reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin in Chicago and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Families remember 9/11 victims 15 years after attacks

Honor guard observing silence for 9/11

By Melissa Fares

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Americans remembered the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on Sunday at a ceremony marking 15 years, with the recital of their names, tolling church bells and a tribute in lights at the site where New York City’s massive twin towers collapsed.

As classical music drifted across the 9/11 Memorial plaza in lower Manhattan, family members and first responders slowly read the names and delivered personal memories of the almost 3,000 victims killed in the worst attack on U.S. soil since the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Relatives in the crowd embraced and some held photos of loved ones and signs that read: “Never to be forgotten,” “We miss you,” and “Gone too soon.”

Tom Acquarviva’s 29-year-old son Paul was one of 658 employees of financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald who perished after the first plane struck the north tower just below where they worked on the 101st to 105th floors.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t remember him,” Acquarviva told Reuters.

Angela Checo honored her brother, Pedro Francisco, 35, who was a vice president at investment and wealth manager Fiduciary Trust on the 96th floor of the south tower.

“He was coming down but forgot someone and went back upstairs to save them,” Checo said. “That’s why he never made it down.”

The ceremony paused for six moments of silence: four to mark the exact times four hijacked planes were crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon near Washington D.C., and a Pennsylvania field. The last two record when the North and South towers of the Trade Center crumpled.

It was held by two reflecting pools with waterfalls that now stand in the towers’ former footprints, and watched over by an honor guard of police and firefighters.

More than 340 firefighters and 60 police were killed on the that sunny Tuesday morning in 2001. Many of the first responders died while running up stairs in the hope of reaching victims trapped on the towers’ higher floors.

“PIECE OF THEIR HEART”

At the Pentagon, a trumpet played as U.S. President Barack Obama took part in a wreath-laying ceremony.

“Fifteen years may seem like a long time. But for the families who lost a piece of their heart that day, I imagine it can seem like just yesterday,” Obama said.

No public officials spoke at the New York ceremony, in keeping with a tradition that began in 2012. But many dignitaries attended, including Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

Trump said in a statement that it was a day of sadness and remembrance, but also of resolve.

“Our solemn duty on behalf of all those who perished … is to work together as one nation to keep all of our people safe from an enemy that seeks nothing less than to destroy our way of life,” Trump said.

Clinton said in a statement that the horror of Sept. 11, 2001 would never be forgotten, and paid tribute to the victims and first responders.

She fell ill after about 90 minutes at the service, becoming “overheated,” aides said, and was taken to her daughter Chelsea’s apartment in Manhattan. She emerged later and told reporters she was “feeling great.”

TRIBUTE IN LIGHT

Houses of worship throughout the city had tolled their bells at 8:46 a.m. EDT (1246 GMT), the time American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower.

A second pause came at 9:03 a.m. (1303 GMT), when United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower. American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. (1337 GMT), then the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. (1359 GMT).

At 10:03 a.m. (1403 GMT) United Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the final moment of silence was observed at 10:28 a.m. (1428 GMT) when the North Tower fell.

As evening falls across New York City on Sunday, scores of 7,000-watt xenon light bulbs will project two giant beams of blue light into the night sky to represent the fallen twin towers, fading away at dawn.

The “Tribute in Light” was first set up in 2002, six months after the attacks, and has become part of the annual memorial service. The beams reach four miles (6.4 km) into the sky and can be seen as far as 60 miles (96.6 km) away on a clear night, organizers say.

In the twin towers’ place now rises the 104-story 1 World Trade Center. Also known as the Freedom Tower, it is the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere, at 1,776 feet (541 meters). Fifteen years after the attack, the U.S. government marked its return to the site on Friday, moving its New York City offices there.

Nineteen hijackers died in the attack, later claimed by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, which led directly to the U.S. war in Afghanistan and indirectly to the invasion of Iraq.

In Kabul, the top American commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, paid tribute to members of the NATO-led coalition and Afghan security forces who had been killed since the Taliban regime fell.

But in an address which touched on his own experience as an officer in Afghanistan, stretching back a decade, he also underlined how far from peace the country remains.

“As we know, sadly, the number of terrorist groups has only grown since 9/11,” he said. “Of the 98 groups now designated globally, 20 are in this region, the Afpak region.”

(Reporting by Melissa Fares; Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington and James Mackenzie in Kabul; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Mary Milliken and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Tearful Nepal relatives of Kabul attack victims receive bodies

Family cries over Nepali soldiers killed in an attack

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) – Sobbing and weeping relatives of 12 Nepali nationals who were killed when a suicide bomber struck a minibus in Kabul received the bodies of their loved ones on Wednesday after they were flown from Afghanistan.

The victims were security guards working at the Canadian embassy in Kabul and came under attack on the way to work early on Monday. Two Indian nationals were also killed in the attack which left seven Nepalis wounded.

“This is the most difficult job for me to receive him dead,” said Sanjita Kumari, wife of Jitendra Singh Thapa, who came to the airport in Kathmandu with her 4-month-old son, to receive her husband’s body. “But there is no alternative and I must face it,” Kumari told Reuters, her baby pressed to the chest as tears streamed down her face.

Thapa, a former Indian army soldier, had served as a security guard in Iraq before going to war-torn Afghanistan in February this year with a promise to come back in November.

Relatives of the victims like Kumari heard of Monday’s attack in the media. She prayed for her husband until being told by the recruitment agency that he was dead.

“This came as a shock to me,” the 30-year-old said.

She said Thapa wanted their baby to serve in the British Army that has been recruiting Gurkha soldiers from the foothills of Nepal for 200 years.

Prime Minister K.P. Oli paid tributes to victims by placing marigold garlands on the wooden coffins which were then handed over to the relatives for funerals.

Monday’s attack in Kabul was the latest in a surge of violence that highlights the challenges faced by the government and its Western backers, as Washington considers whether to delay plans to reduce the number of its troops in Afghanistan.

At least 8,000 Nepali nationals are working in Afghanistan, according to the labor department, but actual numbers could be higher as many cross over to India, which shares an open border with Nepal, and then travel on to Afghanistan.

Nepal allows its citizens to work in Afghanistan as security guards at the UN, foreign embassies and their missions.

“The government will study the situation in which Nepalis were targeted after which we will decide whether to continue this,” Labor Minister Deepak Bohara told Reuters.

(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Douglas Busvine)

A year later, Charleston families still reeling from church shooting

Emanuel African Methodist Church

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – Many were surprised when Nadine Collier stood in a South Carolina courtroom a year ago and said she forgave the young white man who had just killed her mother and eight other black churchgoers in a racially motivated attack.

Collier’s sister, the Reverend Sharon Risher, recalls wondering how she could so readily absolve Dylann Roof, 22, the man accused of opening fire during a Bible study on June 17, 2015, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Ahead of the first anniversary on Friday, Risher and some others affected by the killings still cannot bring themselves to forgive. Roof will go on trial in November on federal hate crime charges that could result in a death sentence before facing state murder charges in January.

“I’m not bitter,” Risher, 57, said in a phone interview. “But I’m just not ready to forgive you if you don’t even act like you want to be forgiven.”

One year after that attack, the nation is again reeling from gun violence. The deaths of 49 people in Orlando this week in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history has left dozens more families blindsided by tragedy.

There will be no criminal proceedings for the Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, who died in a gunfight with police. And while the shooting inside the historic church led to the removal of the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina’s capitol, it remains to be seen whether the latest massacre will spur change.

Away from the spotlight, the stories of those personally touched by the violence in Charleston illustrate its lasting impact. It continues to affect their lives, they said, straining family relationships, shifting career paths and leaving voids in their lives that no form of justice can fill.

Risher left her emergency room chaplain job in Dallas this spring, finding its emotional demands to be too much as she grieves her mother, Ethel Lance.

Some members of her family have become estranged in the aftermath of the shooting, she said, as each person mourns differently and struggles to make sense of what happened.

Risher longs for the days when she used to lie in her mother’s king-sized bed and they talked until one of them fell asleep.

“Charleston does not hold the same magic for me anymore,” she said. “Now going back, it’s just a cloud that hangs over. Even though the sun is shining, to me I see the gray.”

‘WE’RE THROUGH WITH HIM’

The Reverend Anthony Thompson’s wife, Myra, was killed in the attack, but he said he began to heal when he offered forgiveness to Roof at the bond hearing two days after the shooting.

Thompson, 65, has not attended subsequent hearings, choosing instead to focus on his preaching and new work advocating against gun violence.

“Dylann is not a part of my life or the life of my children,” he said. “That’s why we forgave him so that we can move on. We’re through with him.”

Alana Simmons, 26, lost her grandfather, the Reverend Daniel Simmons Sr., in the shooting and her professional life changed course after that. The middle school music teacher moved from Virginia to South Carolina to run the Hate Won’t Win Movement, a non-profit organization that advocates for unity in a diverse society.

Focusing on the good to come from the tragedy helps her cope, she said.

“I don’t think that I could harbor hate in my heart and then go out and preach love,” she said.

Arthur Hurd, 46, remains angry. Angry at the church for keeping some of the more than $3 million in donations it received rather than distributing it all to the survivors and victims’ families. Angry that whether or not Roof gets the death penalty, it will not bring Hurd’s wife, Cynthia, back.

He has not returned to his job as a merchant mariner since her death. A grief counselor told him he is not ready, Hurd said.

“The only way I can jump for joy for the death penalty is if I am the one pulling the switch,” he said. “I have a hole in my chest, in my heart and my soul big enough that you could ride a freight train through it.”

(Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bill Trott)

World shows solidarity, tightens security after Paris attacks

LONDON (Reuters) – World leaders responded to Friday’s bloody attacks in Paris with outrage and defiant pledges of solidarity, but several countries said they would tighten security, especially at their borders, and a few urged their citizens not to travel to France.

Islamic State claimed responsibility on Saturday for the coordinated assault by gunmen and bombers that killed 127 people across Paris. President Francois Hollande said the attacks amounted to an act of war against France.

Several countries said they had stepped up their own security in response to the attacks, including Belgium and Switzerland, which border France. France’s neighbor to the south, Spain, said it was maintaining its state of alert at level 4 on a five-point scale.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the Netherlands would tighten security at its borders and airports, and said the Dutch were “at war” with Islamic State.

“Our values and our rule of law are stronger than their fanaticism,” he said.

Belgium imposed additional frontier controls on road, rail and air arrivals from France and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel asked Belgians on Saturday not to travel to Paris unless necessary. Hong Kong also issued a travel alert for France.

Bulgaria imposed additional frontier controls on road and transit traffic.

London Metropolitan Police Service’s assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told the BBC that policing across Britain would be strengthened but said there would be no change to the threat level which currently stood at the second-highest category.

New York, Boston and other cities in the United States bolstered security on Friday night, but law enforcement officials said the beefed-up police presence was precautionary rather than a response to any specific threats.

The United States and Russia, divided on many issues including the war in Syria that has fueled Islamist violence, voiced their support for the French people on Friday night.

“Once again we’ve seen an outrageous attempt to terrorize innocent civilians,” U.S. President Barack Obama said. “We stand prepared and ready to provide whatever assistance that the government and the people of France need.”

“Those who think that they can terrorize the people of France or the values that they stand for are wrong,” Obama said.

 

CONDOLENCES

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences to Hollande and all the people of France following the “horrible terrorist attacks in Paris”, the Kremlin said in a statement.

“Russia strongly condemns this inhumane killing and is ready to provide any and all assistance to investigate these terrorist crimes.”

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Egypt stood in solidarity with France and supported counter-terrorism efforts.

“Terrorism recognizes no boundaries or religion, and claims the lives of innocent people in different parts of the world,” a statement from the presidency’s office said.

Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body condemned the attacks as contrary to Islamic values.

“Terrorists are not sanctioned by Islam and these acts are contrary to values of mercy it brought to the world,” said a statement by the Council of Senior Scholars carried by the Saudi Press Agency on Saturday.

The Western defense alliance NATO said it stood with France, a founder member. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, “We stand strong and united in the fight against terrorism. Terrorism will never defeat democracy.”

In Brussels the leaders of European Union institutions, which have been trying to coordinate security responses since the Islamist attacks in Paris in January, joined the chorus of support.

“I am confident the authorities and the French people will overcome this new trial,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said.

But in a sign of potential divisions ahead, Poland’s European affairs minister designate said after the attacks in Paris, Warsaw would not be able to accept migrants under European Union quotas.

In September, Poland backed a European Union plan to share out 120,000 refugees, many of them fleeing the war in Syria, across the 28-nation bloc.

Now, “in the face of the tragic acts in Paris, we do not see the political possibilities to implement (this),” said Konrad Szymanski, who takes up his position on Monday as part of a government formed by last month’s election winner, the conservative and euroskeptic Law and Justice (PiS) party.

 

(Writing by Alastair Macdonald and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Giles Elgood)