An unknown number of people have been killed and well over 100 injured in a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in the Texas town of West. The incident began with a smaller fire that ignited chemical tanks, causing an explosion that shot flames high into the air and leveled surrounding buildings for blocks in each direction. A police official estimated five to 15 people have died, but the casualty count is expected to rise as day breaks. One initial estimate put the death toll at between 60 to 70 people. Local officials say around a half dozen volunteer firefighters who first arrived on the scene are now missing. Toxic fumes rising from the rubble of the plant have raised health concerns, and about half the town has been evacuated, including a nursing home.
The Senate has sparked widespread outrage after defeating every major gun reform measure on the table. One by one, proposals unveiled since December’s Newtown shooting massacre failed to reach the 60-vote threshold in a Wednesday vote: a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, a bipartisan compromise on expanding background checks in gun purchases, and new penalties for illegal gun trafficking.
At the White House, President Obama stood with a group of gun violence victims and their families to denounce the senators — including some Democrats — who defeated the proposals.
President Obama: "The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill. A minority in the United States Senate decided it wasn’t worth it. They blocked commonsense gun reforms, even while these families looked on from the Senate gallery."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is expected to pull the overall gun-control bill from the Senate floor later today. Calling the vote a "shameful day" on Capitol Hill, President Obama vowed to redouble his efforts for gun reform.
President Obama: "This was a pretty shameful day for Washington. But this effort is not over. I want to make it clear to the American people we can still bring about meaningful changes that reduce gun violence, so long as the American people don’t give up on it. Even without Congress, my administration will keep doing everything it can to protect more of our communities."
Senators Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Mark Pryor of Arkansas were the Democrats to join with Republicans in blocking the gun-control proposals.
In a small victory for gun-control advocates, a Republican proposal that would have allowed gun users with concealed weapons permits in their home state to ignore the laws of other states was barely defeated after attracting 57 votes, three shy of the 60-vote hurdle.
A number of gun violence victims and family members watched the vote from the Senate gallery. As the gun-control measures were defeated, Virginia Tech mother Lori Haas and Tucson shooting survivor Patricia Maisch, shouted "shame on you."
Vice President Joe Biden: "Who yields time?"
Unidentified: "Mr. President —"
Patricia Maisch: "Shame on you!"
Vice President Joe Biden: "There’ll be order in the Senate."
Maisch was removed from the gallery. Maisch survived the 2011 Tucson attack, seizing a gun clip from the shooter when he tried to reload.
Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who suffered serious brain injuries in the Tucson shooting, was among the gun-control advocates to appear with President Obama at the White House. Writing in The New York Times, Giffords denounced the Senate opponents of gun reform, saying: "Our democracy’s history is littered with names we neither remember nor celebrate — people who stood in the way of progress while protecting the powerful. On Wednesday, a number of senators voted to join that list." She added: "I will not rest until we have righted the wrong these senators have done. ... We cannot allow the status quo — desperately protected by the gun lobby so that they can make more money by spreading fear and misinformation — to go on."
The FBI has arrested a Mississippi resident for allegedly sending ricin-laced letters to President Obama, Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and a local official. The suspect has been identified as Paul Kevin Curtis of Corinth, Mississippi. Both letters to Obama and Wicker went on the same day out of Memphis and contained identical phrases. Earlier in the day, authorities forced the partial evacuation of the Hart Senate and Russell Senate buildings on Capitol Hill over concerns about suspicious packages. The buildings were reopened after tests showed no dangers.
The Supreme Court has ruled foreign multinationals cannot be sued in U.S. courts for human rights abuses committed abroad. The landmark case centered on a lawsuit that accuses the oil giant Shell’s parent company, Royal Dutch Petroleum, of complicity in the murder and torture of Nigerian activists two decades ago. In 1995, nine Nigerian activists, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, were executed by the Nigerian military government for protesting Shell’s exploration and development in the Niger Delta. The families of the Nigerians killed were seeking to hold Shell liable under a 1789 U.S. law called the Alien Tort Statute. In a unanimous decision, justices ruled Wednesday that a New York federal court does not have jurisdiction to hear the case. The ruling will effectively keep lawsuits against foreign corporations for human rights abuses out of federal courts, although analysts say legal mechanisms may still exist for such suits to be brought in state courts. In a statement, the Center for Justice and Accountability said: "Today’s opinion was a missed opportunity to send a crystal clear message: the world’s torturers and war criminals are not above the law — and neither are their accomplices."
The wife of a jailed former Texas court official has reportedly confessed to helping her husband kill two prosecutors. Eric Williams, a former justice of the peace in Kaufman County, was detained Saturday for last month’s killings of District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia McLelland, as well as of Assistant Prosecutor Mark Hasse two months before. On Wednesday, police said Williams’ wife, Kim Lene Williams, had told them her husband committed the murders and that she provided assistance. She’s been charged with capital murder. Hasse and McLelland successfully prosecuted Eric Williams last year after he was caught stealing computer equipment. He remains behind bars, but has not been formally charged.
The Obama administration continues to stoke tensions with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro following Maduro’s narrow election victory. On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said he does not know if the United States will recognize Maduro’s defeat of opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski and renewed his call for a recount. Venezuela’s electoral council has rejected a recount, saying it is impossible the result was flawed. At a meeting with state governors, Maduro rejected Kerry’s comments.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro: "Who are you to talk about Venezuela with the many problems the United States has, economic, social and political problems that are overwhelming the people of the United States? Take your eyes off Venezuela. Stop with the scripted intervention. Close your eyes when listening to a U.S. government official, and you’re listening to any of these bourgeois leaders. The U.S. will not recognize the election result. We don’t care about recognition. We decided freely, and we will be free and independent, with or without you. We don’t care about your opinion."
Henrique Capriles formally submitted his recount request on Wednesday. He was quoted as saying in the weeks before the vote that Maduro shouldn’t remain in office even in victory. Capriles said: "Whatever the outcome, I don’t see how Nicolás Maduro has the capacity to stay for an extended time in government. He will have to resign, abandon (the presidency) if he’s able to win."
Protests were held across the Occupied Territories on Wednesday to mark the annual Prisoners Day, a solidarity action with the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails. Demonstrators clashed with Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank while thousands turned out for a march in the Gaza Strip.
A 14-year-old New Orleans-born Palestinian American has been sentenced to two weeks in prison and an $830 fine for throwing stones at Israeli military and settler vehicles in the occupied West Bank. Mohammed Khalek’s father said his son’s braces were broken from his teeth when he was detained in a night-time raid. After already spending nearly two weeks behind bars, Khalek is expected to be released on Sunday.
A military appeals court has rejected a lawsuit to challenge government secrecy in the trial of Army whistleblower Bradley Manning. Brought on behalf of a group of journalists, the lawsuit had sought open access to court documents, transcripts and judicial arguments. But in a three-to-two decision, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces rejected the challenge, citing a lack of jurisdiction until the trial is complete. In a statement, the Center for Constitutional Rights said: "Today’s decision flies in the face of decades of First Amendment rulings in the federal courts that hold ... that the accuracy of court proceedings depends on their being open. Bradley Manning’s trial will now take place under conditions where journalists and the public will be unable to follow what is going on in the courtroom."