Stubborn fire aboard U.S. Navy warship in San Diego injures 21 people

By Bing Guan

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – Flames raged for hours on Sunday aboard a U.S. warship docked at Naval Base San Diego, sending 21 people to the hospital with minor injuries and prompting a relocation of two other Navy vessels moored nearby, military and local fire officials said.

The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department reported an explosion in conjunction with the blaze, which broke out at about 8:30 a.m. local time (1530 GMT) aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault vessel in port for routine maintenance.

The blast was believed to have been triggered by the rapid initial release of heat from a confined space under pressure, as opposed to an explosion of fuel or ordnance, Rear Admiral Philip Sobeck told a news conference on Sunday evening.

While the precise source of the blaze was unknown, the fire originated in a lower cargo hold of the ship and spread into the decks above it, consuming materials that typically burn in an office or apartment fire, Sobeck said.

Navy spokesman Mike Raney told Reuters there was no immediate evidence of foul play.

Ammunition normally carried aboard warships at sea had already been unloaded as a standard safety precaution before the vessel was placed into maintenance, Navy officials said.

Roughly 1 million gallons of fuel remained isolated “well below where any heat source is,” and fire crews worked all day to “make sure that’s not affected,” the admiral said.

Palls of thick, acrid smoke visible for miles around the base engulfed much of the 844-foot (257 meter) warship for several hours, as about half a dozen firefighting boats in the harbor trained streams of water onto the burning vessel.

Seventeen sailors and four civilians were taken to local hospitals for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries, and all those who were aboard the warship – about 160 personnel – were accounted for, the Navy said in a statement.

Sobeck said the hospitalized sailors were all listed in stable condition. Navy officials said the injuries consisted mainly of smoke inhalation, heat exhaustion and minor burns. The vessel normally carries a crew of roughly 1,000.

NEARBY VESSELS MOVED

Two guided-missile destroyers docked nearby, the USS Fitzgerald and USS Russell, were moved to piers farther from the burning vessel early in the afternoon, the Navy said. Smoke from the fire appeared to begin dying around 3 p.m. local time.

The Bonhomme Richard, commissioned in 1998, is designed to carry U.S. Marine Corps attack helicopters and ground troops into battle. As a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, it ranks as the second-largest vessel type in the Navy’s fleet, surpassed only by aircraft carriers, and is one of only four of its kind in the Pacific, Raney said.

The stricken vessel has participated in several military operations and has appeared in a pair of Hollywood films – the 2012 sci-fi action movie “Battleship” and “Act of Valor,” which featured active-duty U.S. Navy SEALs, according to San Diego television station KGTV, an ABC News affiliate.

The ship was named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers and author of the influential “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” which he wrote under the pseudonym Poor Richard or Richard Saunders. It became a forerunner of the popular “Old Farmer’s Almanac.”

U.S. Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones originally gave the name to a frigate the French donated to America in 1779 during its war of independence from Britain.

(Reporting by Bing Guan in San Diego; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman and Gabriella Borter; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Diane Craft and Himani Sarkar)

Thousands flee fires in Australia, navy helps evacuate the stranded

Thousands flee fires in Australia, navy helps evacuate the stranded
By Jill Gralow and Sonali Paul

BATEMANS BAY, Australia/MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of holiday makers fled seaside towns on Australia’s east coast on Thursday as bushfires approached, and military ships and helicopters began rescuing thousands more trapped by the blazes.

Fuelled by searing temperatures and high winds, more than 200 fires are burning across the southeastern states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, threatening several towns.

The NSW state government declared a state of emergency, beginning on Friday, giving authorities the power to forcibly evacuate people and take control of services.

“It is hell on earth. It is the worst anybody’s ever seen,” Michelle Roberts said by telephone from the Croajingolong Cafe she owns in Mallacoota, a southeastern coastal town where 4,000 residents and visitors have been stranded on the beach since Monday night.

Roberts hoped to get her 18-year-old daughter onto a naval ship, which arrived off the town on Thursday, in order to escape the fires and thick smoke engulfing the town.

The HMAS Choules is expected to make two or three voyages over the coming days, state authorities said.

Elsewhere, long queues formed outside supermarkets and petrol stations as residents and tourists sought supplies to either bunker down or escape the fires, emptying shelves of staples like bread and milk.

More than 50,000 people were without power and some towns had no access to drinking water.

“Everyone’s just on edge,” said Shane Flanagan, a resident of Batemans Bay on the NSW coast.

Authorities urged a mass exodus from several towns on the southeast coast, an area popular with tourists during the summer holiday season, warning that extreme heat forecast for the weekend will further stoke the fires.

“The priority today is fighting fires and evacuating, getting people to safety,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Sydney. “There are parts of both Victoria and New South Wales which have been completely devastated, with a loss of power and communications.”

Eight people have been killed by wildfires in NSW and Victoria since Monday and 18 are missing, officials said on Thursday.

Temperatures are forecast to soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) along the south coast on Saturday, bringing the prospect of renewed firefronts to add to the around 200 current blazes.

“It is going to be a very dangerous day. It’s going to be a very difficult day,” NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Following are highlights of what is happening across Australia:

* Naval officials said they would open registration forevacuation on Thursday afternoon, with the HMAS Choules able tocarry up to 1,000 people on the first trip. * “It’s 16-17 hours to the closest boat port, then we’ve gotto come back,” HMAS Choules Commander Scott Houlihan said onThursday afternoon. He said that leaving by boat was the onlyway out of the town. * Thousands of people had already been evacuated from theadjoining region of East Gippsland in Victoria, one of thelargest such operations in the country since the northern cityof Darwin evacuated over 35,000 people in the aftermath ofcyclone Tracy in 1974. * Five military helicopters were en route to the south coastto back up firefighters and bring in supplies like water anddiesel, the Australian Defence Force said. The aircraft willalso be used to evacuate injured, elderly and young people. * A contingent of 39 firefighters from North America landedin Melbourne, bringing the number of U.S. and Canadian expertswho have flown in to help deal with the crisis to almost 100. * Traffic on the main highway out of Batemans Bay on the NSWcoast was bumper-to-bumper after authorities called for the townto be evacuated. Residents of the town reported there was nofuel, power or phone service, while supermarket shelves had beenstripped bare of staples. * NSW’s Kosciuszko National Park, home to the SnowyMountains, was closed and visitors were ordered to leave due toan extreme danger of fire. * Morrison urged those waiting for help and those stuck intraffic jams “to be patient … help will arrive.” * Morrison, forced to defend his government’s limited actionon climate change, blamed a three-year drought and lack ofhazard reduction for the unprecedented extent and duration ofthis year’s bushfires. * Bushfires so far this season have razed more than 4million hectares (10 million acres) of bushland and destroyedmore than 1,000 homes, including 381 homes destroyed on thesouth coast this week.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne and Jill Gralow in Batemans Bay; Editing by Jane Wardell, Neil Fullick and Mike Collett-White)

U.S. senators call for banning, prosecuting ‘slumlords’ of military housing

By M.B. Pell

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. senators on Tuesday demanded the Defense Department crack down on private landlords who provide substandard housing at military bases with criminal prosecutions or contract cancellations, citing Reuters reports of slum-like living conditions and falsified accounting.

The top civilian and military leaders of the Army, Navy and Air Force appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in the latest hearing addressing substandard military housing.

On Tuesday, senators were presented with a new report from the Government Accountability Office, a Congressional watchdog conducting a review of the housing program that was launched following the Reuters reports. Among the GAO’s core findings: Housing reports sent to Congress are often misleading, painting a falsely positive picture of housing conditions. The program also suffers from inaccurate landlord maintenance reports and lax military oversight, the GAO reported.

To read the GAO report, click: https://bit.ly/35UzZbC

Some senators asked whether the military’s two-decade-old program of having private landlords provide housing on U.S. military bases has failed.

“Are any of them not acting like slumlords at this point? Are any of them doing a good job?” asked Senator Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican and former U.S. Air Force combat pilot. “This pisses me off.”

For more than a year, Reuters has exposed lead, asbestos, mold and vermin contaminating homes where private landlords house thousands of military families on behalf of the Pentagon. More recently, the news agency disclosed how one major landlord doctored maintenance records at some of its bases to help it collect bonus incentive fees.

To read the coverage, click: https://reut.rs/2r1Bkim

Top Defense Department officials have long touted high occupancy rates and satisfaction scores on military family surveys as evidence the effort is generally successful, despite occasional hiccups. But Elizabeth A. Field, the GAO’s director of defense capabilities and management, told senators: “There’s clearly a problem here.”

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy defended the privatization effort, saying it allowed the military to tap private borrowing that would otherwise be unavailable.

“That doesn’t mean it’s worked out great,” added Acting Navy Secretary Thomas B. Modly. Some privatized housing is “fantastic,” he said, but other housing is not.

The secretaries cited reform steps already taken, including far-reaching inspections of military housing and a planned tenant bill of rights to empower military families.

Senators pressed the secretaries to do more to hold accountable military leaders and landlords.

Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett why she couldn’t “pull the plug” on Balfour Beatty Communities, one of the military’s largest landlords.

This year, Reuters quoted five former Balfour Beatty employees who said they filed false maintenance records at Air Force bases to help the company collect millions in bonus payments. Balfour Beatty, a unit of British infrastructure giant Balfour Beatty PLC <BALF.L>, has said that it is committed to improving its maintenance, and that it has tapped outside counsel and auditors to investigate.

Air Force Secretary Barrett said the Air Force has lost confidence in the company, but stopped short of committing to removing it from the program.

A company spokesman said Balfour Beatty plans this month to finish a “performance improvement plan” requested by the Air Force.

Democratic senators Richard Blumenthal, from Connecticut, and Mazie Hirono, from Hawaii, urged the military to refer instances of fraud for criminal prosecution.

“We probably need to make an example out of a couple of them,” said Senator Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican.

(Reporting by M.B. Pell in New York. Additional reporting by Joshua Schneyer. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

U.S. Navy chief fired over handling of SEAL saga involving Trump

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper fired the Navy’s top civilian on Sunday over his handling of the case of a Navy SEAL who was convicted of battlefield misconduct in Iraq and later won the support of President Donald Trump.

Esper also determined that the sailor in question, Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, should be allowed to retain his Trident pin designating him as a SEAL – effectively ending the Navy’s efforts to carry out a peer review that could have ousted him from the elite force.

Trump, who publicly opposed taking away Gallagher’s Trident pin and had intervened in the case to restore his rank, cheered the moves.

“Eddie will retire peacefully with all of the honors that he has earned, including his Trident Pin,” Trump said on Twitter.

The fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer last week suggested a possible split with Trump by telling Reuters that Gallagher should still face a peer review board.

The SEAL was acquitted by a military jury in July of murdering a captured and wounded Islamic State fighter in Iraq by stabbing him in the neck, but it convicted him of illegally posing with the detainee’s corpse. That had led to his rank being reduced.

The White House said in November that Trump had restored Gallagher’s rank and had pardoned two Army officers accused of war crimes in Afghanistan. Critics had said such actions would undermine military justice and send a message that battlefield atrocities will be tolerated.

In a letter acknowledging his termination, and seen by Reuters, Spencer took parting shots at Trump and defended the need to preserve “good order and discipline throughout the ranks” — something Navy officials had believed the peer review board would help ensure.

“The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries,” Spencer wrote.

“Unfortunately it has become apparent that in this respect, I no longer share the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me.”

Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, commended Spencer for “standing up to President Trump when he was wrong, something too many in this administration and the Republican Party are scared to do.”

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman offered a different version of events leading up to Spencer’s dismissal, saying Spencer also had a private line of communications with the White House.

“Secretary Spencer had previously and privately proposed to the White House – contrary to Spencer’s public position – to restore Gallagher’s rank and allow him to retire with his Trident pin,” Hoffman said.

Spencer never informed Esper of his private proposal, Hoffman said.

Esper decided to ask for Spencer’s resignation after “losing trust and confidence in him regarding his lack of candor over conversations with the White House,” Hoffman said.

Esper had favored letting the review process “play itself out objectively and deliberately, in fairness to all parties,” Hoffman said. But that now appeared impossible.

“At this point, given the events of the last few days, Secretary Esper has directed that Gallagher retain his Trident pin,” Hoffman said.

Trump said he would nominate the U.S. envoy to Norway, Ken Braithwaite, to replace Spencer as Navy Secretary.

In an appearance on Fox News Channel on Sunday, Gallagher indicated that he hoped to retire next Saturday, “without the board” convening to decide whether he could continue to be a SEAL, considered among the most elite of U.S. fighting forces.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle and Howard Schneider, additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Editing by Peter Cooney, Alistair Bell and Toby Chopra)

U.S. Navy SEAL reprimanded, demoted for posing with dead prisoner

U.S. Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher (R), with wife Andrea Gallagher, leaves court after being acquitted of most of the serious charges against him during his court-martial trial at Naval Base San Diego in San Diego, California , U.S., July 2, 2019. REUTERS/John Gastaldo

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy SEAL platoon commander acquitted of murdering a captured Islamic State fighter but convicted of unlawfully posing for photos with his dead body was sentenced on Wednesday to a demotion in rank and pay.

The penalty imposed by a seven-member jury of U.S. Marines and Navy personnel spared the defendant, Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, from any prison time beyond the nearly seven months he had already served in pre-trial custody.

The same jury found Gallagher not guilty on Tuesday of murder, attempted murder and other charges, including deliberately shooting at unarmed civilians and obstruction of justice. But he was found guilty of posing for unofficial pictures with a human casualty.

That offense, stemming from photos he and fellow SEAL members took with the corpse of the Iraqi prisoner whom Gallagher was acquitted of slaying, carries a maximum sentence of four months’ imprisonment.

Instead, he will receive a one-step demotion in his rank from chief petty officer to petty officer first class, presumably accompanied by a corresponding reduction in his pay. The sentence also carries a two-month forfeiture of his salary, a sum of nearly $5,400.

Still, the outcome of the court-martial, capped by a three-week trial on various war crimes charges, marked a significant legal victory for Gallagher, 40, who would have faced a possible life sentence had he been found guilty of murder or attempted murder.

(Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego, additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

While focus is on North Korea, China continues South China Sea buildup: think tank

While focus is on North Korea, China continues South China Sea buildup: think tank

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – While attention in Asia has been distracted by the North Korean nuclear crisis in the past year, China has continued to install high-frequency radar and other facilities that can be used for military purposes on its man-made islands in the South China Sea, a U.S. think tank said on Thursday.

Chinese activity has involved work on facilities covering 72 acres (29 hectares) of the Spratly and Paracel islands, territory contested with several other Asian nations, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. The report cited satellite images.

The United States and its allies oppose China’s building of artificial islands in the South China Sea and their militarization, given concerns Beijing plans to use them to deny access to strategic routes.

“It’s completely normal for China to conduct peaceful construction and build essential defense equipment on its own sovereign territory,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular press briefing on Friday, in response to a question about the report.

“We believe certain people who have ulterior motives are making mountains out of molehills and stirring up trouble.”

The report said that in the last several months China had constructed what appeared to be a new high-frequency radar array at the northern end of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys.

Subi Reef had seen tunnels completed that were likely for ammunition storage and another radar antenna array and radar domes, the report said.

Construction on Mischief Reef included underground storage for ammunition and hangars, missile shelters and radar arrays.

Smaller-scale work had continued in the Paracel Islands, including a new helipad and wind turbines on Tree Island and two large radar towers on Triton Island.

It said the latter were especially important as waters around Triton had been the scene of recent incidents between China and Vietnam and multiple U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations, which the U.S. navy has used to assert what it sees as its right to free passage in international waters.

Woody Island, China’s military and administrative headquarters in the South China Sea, saw two first-time air deployments “that hint at things to come at the three Spratly Island air bases farther south,” the report said.

At the end of October, the Chinese military released images showing J-11B fighters at Woody Island for exercises, while on Nov. 15, AMTI spotted what appeared to be Y-8 transport planes, a type that can be configured for electronic surveillance.

The Pentagon has conducted several patrols near Chinese-held South China Sea territory this year, even as it has sought China’s help in northeast Asia to press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated a call for a “freeze” in China’s island building and said it was unacceptable to continue their militarization.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Sue-Lin Wong in BEIJING; Editing by James Dalgleish)

South Korea, U.S. launch aerial drills amid North Korean warnings of nuclear war

The South Korean army's K-55 self-propelled artillery vehicles take part in a military exercise near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, November 29, 2017.

By Christine Kim and Philip Wen

SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States and South Korea went ahead with large-scale joint aerial drills on Monday, a move North Korea had said would push the Korean peninsula to “the brink of nuclear war”, ignoring calls from Russia and China to call them off.

The drills come a week after North Korea said it had tested its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States as part of a weapons program that it has conducted in defiance of international sanctions and condemnation.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said it was “regrettable” that all parties had not “grasped the window of opportunity” presented by two months of relative calm before the North’s most recent test.

China and Russia had proposed that the United States and South Korea stop major military exercises in exchange for North Korea halting its weapons programs. Beijing formally calls the idea the “dual suspension” proposal.

The annual U.S.-South Korean drill, called Vigilant Ace, will run until Friday, with six F-22 Raptor stealth fighters to be deployed among the more than 230 aircraft taking part.

North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country called U.S. President Donald Trump “insane” on Sunday and said the drills would “push the already acute situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of nuclear war”.

F-35 fighters will also join the drills, which will include the largest number of 5th generation fighters ever to have taken part, according to a South Korea-based U.S. Air Force spokesman.

Around 12,000 U.S. service members, including from the Marines and Navy, will join South Korean troops. Aircraft taking part will be flown from eight U.S. and South Korean military installations.

South Korean media reports said B-1B Lancer bombers could join the exercise this week. The U.S. Air Force spokesman could not confirm the reports.

Trump said last week that additional major sanctions would be imposed on North Korea after Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile test.

Earlier last month, Trump put North Korea back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that allows the United States to impose more sanctions.

Russia has accused the United States of trying to provoke North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into “flying off the handle” over his missile program to hand Washington a pretext to destroy his country.

Speaking at a news briefing in Beijing, Wang said China consistently opposed any behavior that elevated tensions.

“And measures that don’t abide by or are outside the UN Security Council resolutions lack basis in international law and damage the rights of United Nations members,” Wang said when asked about the prospect of further U.S. sanctions against North Korea.

China’s Air Force said on Monday that its surveillance aircraft had in recent days conducted drills in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea to “improve combat-readiness and safeguard the country’s strategic interests”.

The aircraft took a flight path not previously flown to regions they had never previously operated in, and coordinated with fighter jets, alert aircraft and guided missile forces, spokesman Shen Jinke said, according to a post on the Air Force’s official microblog.

The joint exercises between South Korea and United States are designed to enhance readiness and operational capability and to ensure peace and security on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. military had said before the drills began.

The North’s KCNA state news agency, citing a foreign ministry spokesman, said on Saturday the Trump administration was “begging for nuclear war by staging an extremely dangerous nuclear gamble on the Korean peninsula”.

North Korea regularly uses its state media to threaten the United States and its allies.

North Korea has tested dozens of ballistic missiles and conducted its sixth and largest nuclear bomb test in September, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

It has said its weapons programs are a necessary defense against U.S. plans to invade. The United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, denies any such intention.

 

 

(Reporting by Christine Kim in SEOUL and Philip Wen in BEIJING; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Nick Macfie)

 

Hope fades as search for Argentine submarine enters ninth day

By Walter Bianchi

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina (Reuters) – Hopes diminished that the 44 crew members on a Argentine submarine missing for nine days would be found alive after evidence pointed to the possibility that it had exploded and because it only had a seven-day supply of oxygen.

Crew members’ relatives who had been waiting for news at the submarine’s base in the city of Mar del Plata started going home late on Thursday, while the navy vowed to keep searching.

“At this point, the truth is I have no hope that they will come back,” Maria Villareal, mother of one crew member, told local television on Friday morning.

Some family members accused the navy of putting their loved ones at unnecessary risk by sending them out in a more than 30-year-old vessel that they suspected was not properly maintained, an accusation the navy has denied.

“They killed my brother,” a man leaving the base in a car shouted out to reporters. The older man driving the car was crying.

The submarine, called the San Juan, was launched in 1983 and underwent maintenance in 2008 in Argentina. The armed forces have had to face dwindling resources and lack of training since the end of a military dictatorship in the early 1980s.

“They did not tell us they were dead, but that is the logical conclusion,” Itati Leguizamon, wife of one of the missing crew members, told reporters.

A sound detected underwater on the morning of Nov. 15, around the time the San Juan sent its last signal and in the same area, was “consistent with an explosion,” navy spokesman Enrique Balbi said on Thursday.

The information about the possible explosion came from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization, an international body that runs a global network of listening posts designed to check for secret atomic blasts.

(Writing and additional reporting by Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

Search for missing Argentine submarine reaches ‘critical phase’

Search for missing Argentine submarine reaches 'critical phase'

By Walter Bianchi and Nicolás Misculin

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina/BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – The search for an Argentine navy submarine missing in the South Atlantic for one week reached a “critical phase” on Wednesday as the 44 crew on board could be running low on oxygen, a navy spokesman said.

Dozens of planes and boats were searching for the ARA San Juan. Favorable weather meant boats could cover a greater area after being hampered by strong winds and high waves for much of the past few days, although poor weather was expected to return on Thursday, navy spokesman Enrique Balbi said.

If the German-built submarine had sunk or was otherwise unable to rise to the surface since it gave its last location on Nov. 15, it would be using up the last of its seven-day oxygen supply.

“We are in the critical phase…particularly with respect to oxygen,” Balbi told reporters. “There has been no contact with anything that could be the San Juan submarine.”

Around 30 boats and planes and 4,000 people from Argentina, the United States, Britain, Chile and Brazil have joined the search for the submarine, which last transmitted its location about 300 miles (480 km) from the coast.

Planes have covered some 500,000 square kilometers (190,000 square miles) of the ocean surface, but much of the area has not yet been scoured by the boats.

Several possible signals, including sounds and flares, that have been detected have turned out to be false alarms. Overnight, a British ship reported observing three orange and white flares, but they did not come from the vessel, Balbi said.

The submarine was launched in 1983 and underwent maintenance in 2008 in Argentina. It was en route from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, to the coastal city of Mar del Plata, some 250 miles (400 km) south of Buenos Aires, when it reported an electrical malfunction shortly before disappearing last week.

Relatives of the crew members have been gathered at a naval base in Mar del Plata, where the search is being coordinated.

“We came today because we had hope that they had returned,” Elena Alfaro, the sister of crew member and radar expert Cristian Ibanez, told Reuters, in tears. “It is incomprehensible that so much time has passed. We are in pain.”

(Additional reporting by Juliana Castilla; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Mexico races to save 12-year-old girl as quake toll hits 237

Rescue workers and Mexican soldiers take part in a rescue operation at a collapsed building after an earthquake at the Obrera neighborhood in Mexico City, Mexico September 20, 2017.

By Daniel Trotta and Adriana Barrera

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Rescuers labored against the odds as dawn broke on Thursday to save a 12-year-old schoolgirl and other possible survivors trapped beneath crumpled buildings in central Mexico following the country’s deadliest earthquake in 32 years.

More than 50 survivors have been plucked from several disaster sites in Mexico City since Tuesday afternoon’s 7.1-magnitude quake, leading to impassioned choruses of “Yes we can!” from the first responders, volunteers and spectators gathered around the ruins.

At least 237 others have died and 1,900 were injured.

As the chance of survival diminished with each passing hour, officials vowed to continue with search-and-rescue efforts such as the one at a collapsed school in the south of the capital. At the site, Navy-led rescuers have communicated with the 12-year-old girl, but were still unable to dig her free.

Eleven other children were rescued from the Enrique Rebsamen School, where students are aged roughly six to 15. Twenty-one children and four adults there were killed.

Rescuers had earlier seen a hand protruding from the debris and the girl wiggled her fingers when asked if she was still alive, according to broadcaster Televisa, whose cameras had special access to the scene to provide nonstop live coverage.

But some 15 hours into the effort, Admiral Jose Luis Vergara said rescuers could not pinpoint the location of the girl, identified only as Frida Sofia.

“There’s a girl alive in there, we’re pretty sure of that, but we still don’t know how to get to her,” Vergara told Televisa.

“The hours that have passed complicate the chances of finding alive or in good health the person who might be trapped,” he said.

 

RESCUE EFFORT

As Vergara spoke, a human chain of hard-hatted rescuers removed a large chunk of concrete from the floodlit scene.

Rescuers periodically demanded silence from bystanders to allow them to hear any calls for help.

As with other disaster sites throughout central Mexico, officials have not employed heavy-lifting equipment for fear of crushing survivors. Some 52 buildings collapsed in Mexico City alone and more in the surrounding states.

Throughout the capital, crews were joined by volunteers and bystanders who used dogs, cameras, motion detectors and heat-seeking equipment to detect victims who may still be alive.

Thousands of people have donated food, water, medicine, blankets and other basic items to help relief efforts. Companies provided free services and restaurants delivered food to shelters where thousands of people have sought refuge after their homes were damaged.

“Faced with the force of nature, we are all vulnerable and that is why we all unite when it comes to saving a life or helping a victim,” said President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has declared three days of national mourning. “If anything distinguishes Mexicans, it is our generosity and fraternity.”

Pena Nieto said the priority was to reestablish basic services, conduct a census of damaged structures and rebuild.

The extensive damage to many buildings, some of them relatively new, has raised questions over construction standards that were supposed to have improved in the wake of a devastating 1985 quake.

Members of a rescue team hold a fellow rescuer from the Topos volunteer search and rescue group by his feet during the search for students at the Enrique Rebsamen school after an earthquake in Mexico City, Mexico, September 21, 2017.

Members of a rescue team hold a fellow rescuer from the Topos volunteer search and rescue group by his feet during the search for students at the Enrique Rebsamen school after an earthquake in Mexico City, Mexico, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

AID ARRIVES

The quake killed 102 people in Mexico City and the remaining 135 from five surrounding states, officials said on Wednesday.

At least nine Latin American countries pledged search-and-rescue teams or technical assistance, as did the United States, Spain, Japan and Israel, and crews from Panama and El Salvador were already on the job.

The Panamanian team of 32 rescue workers dressed in orange jumpsuits and helmets and two dogs arrived with seven days’ worth of food, water and supplies and prepared to work around the clock, said Cesar Lange, leader of the Panamanian Civil Protection unit.

Leading the volunteer rescue efforts were Mexico City’s own ‘mole’ rescue workers, a search group formed in the wake of the 1985 quake and renowned for their fearless tunneling into damaged buildings to save survivors in disasters around the globe.

Tuesday’s temblor came on the anniversary of the 1985 quake that killed thousands and still resonates in Mexico. Annual Sept. 19 earthquake drills were being held a few hours before the nation got rocked once again.

The quake struck around 150 km (90 miles) southeast of Mexico City on Tuesday afternoon, shattering glass, shearing off the sides of buildings and leaving others in dusty piles of destruction.

Its epicenter was a mere 31 km (32 miles) beneath the surface, sending major shockwaves through the metropolitan area of some 20 million people. Much of the capital is built on an ancient lake bed that trembles like jelly during a quake.

People accompany caskets, holding the bodies of victims who died in an earthquake, through the streets in Atzala, on the outskirts of Puebla, Mexico September 20, 2017.

People accompany caskets, holding the bodies of victims who died in an earthquake, through the streets in Atzala, on the outskirts of Puebla, Mexico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Imelda Medina

Some residents and volunteers voiced anger that emergency services and military were slow to arrive to poorer southern neighborhoods of the city, and that wealthier districts appeared prioritized.

Mexico was still recovering from another powerful quake less than two weeks ago that killed nearly 100 people in the south of the country.

Both Mexican earthquakes occurred along the Cocos tectonic plate, which skirts the western coast of Mexico and is slowly sliding beneath the North American plate.

 

 

 

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Bernadette Baum)