Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Saguaro Graffiti Vandal Arrested, Despite Inept National Park Service

Saguaro National Park is notified that the Tucson cops have cracked the case.

I'm sure that the inept National Park Service rangers based at Saguaro National Park East in Tucson are hoping to salvage some credit today from news that the Tucson police department, which is an actual competent agency, has arrested a suspect in the ugly graffiti defacing of giant saguaro cactuses on the Douglas Spring trail at the park in mid-May.

We'll see to what extent the local media in Tucson let them get away with any hilarious claim by National Park rangers that they behaved in a professional, let alone competent, manner in this case.

Yesterday, the Tucson police arrested a 16-year-old with a history of graffiti vandalism in the city and charged him with felony counts in the National Park incident, in which about 15 saguaros and some rocks and signs were spray-painted with graffiti, including the tag "SOMA," which turns out to mean Society of Mexican Americans, according to the Tucson police officer who made the case, Abel Urzua.

Urzua told a Tucson TV station yesterday that he recognized the tag pattern way back in mid-May, when he saw the photos of the vandalized graffiti "in the paper."

That would be in the Arizona Daily Star, which ran big photos of the vandalism on its front page on May 13, the day after the vandalism was reported along the Douglas Spring trail by a volunteer park ranger. Photos that were taken by me, incidentally.

And therein lies a tale, told here previously.

I was the volunteer ranger who reported the vandalism on Sunday, May 12, when I was on duty at the Douglas Spring trailhead that morning and heard from hikers about the defaced saguaros starting at about a mile up the hilly trail.

I hiked up to investigate, and took photos of the vandalism. While on duty, I also made repeated attempts to alert park officials about the incident. There was no response. Following protocol, I also called 911, and a sheriff's deputy did respond, but told me he had no jurisdiction. Finally, as I was going off duty at noon, I did reach the ranger on duty, Steve Brolyard.

I told Brolyard about the incident, and said I had taken photos and detailed notes. He said he was aware that I had earlier made calls to the Park visitors center, but he expressed no interest in my report. Nor did he express interest in my offer to come by the visitor's center to give them my photos.

Photo by Joe Sharkey
So I told Brolyard that since he evidently wasn't interested, I would instead contact the local media when I went off-duty. He made no objection to that, incidentally.

So later in the afternoon, I sent the photos to the Arizona Daily Star, where I know a few people.  They also called me for a brief interview in which I simply stated the facts as I knew them. I also called a local TV station, KOLD, which sent a reporter and a cameraman out, and I led them up the trail and showed them where the vandalized cactuses were.

The TV report ran that night, and the next day the Star had the story prominently displayed, with my photos, on the front page. As far as I was concerned, I had done my duty as a citizen and as a journalist.

Ah, but as the old saying has it, no good deed goes unpunished! On Monday, park rangers reported to work at the visitors center and, seeing my photos in the paper, they made a poor choice. They went into a defensive crouch and a cover-up, blaming the messenger for publicizing the vandalism rather than doing the smart thing, which would have been to get ahead of the story that they were now a day behind on.

Missed opportunity! Even though they were a day late on the story (which they themselves publicized on Monday), it would have been a splendid opportunity for the Park Service rangers to discuss with the media the effects of budget cutbacks for staffing and maintenance at the National Park Service.

But no, they had to shoot the messenger instead, and decided to cover up the obvious fact that they dropped the ball on the first day. Their concern was: How dare a park volunteer "approach the media" without authorization, as it was put to me by the head ranger a few days later.

Huh? But I am the media, I replied. Over forty years with major news organizations, I said. I never agreed to be muzzled when I signed up as a volunteer, nor would I have considered any such agreement.  And, I pointed out, you guys expressed no interest whatsoever in my report on Sunday, before I did contact the local media.
Photo by Joe Sharkey
During the week, the defensive coverup was led by a ranger named Andy Fisher, who calls herself the "chief interpretation and outreach officer" at Saguaro National Park East, where she is actually the PR flack. So the National Park worthies went after me, instead of the graffiti vandal. The position of the rangers who confronted me during that week was that, one, I had no right to talk to the media; two, my doing so had somehow "impeded" their "investigation" -- an "investigation" that so far had consisted mainly of confronting me; and three, I had somehow failed to follow "procedures" in reporting the incident on Sunday -- even though I made a half dozen phone calls to various Park Service numbers, met with a deputy sheriff at the scene, and spoke personally to the ranger on duty, Brolyard!

Several days of this ridiculousness ensued, and finally I was asked to come in for a "meeting" at the Saguaro National Park East visitor center and staff headquarters on Thursday, with Fisher and with a ranger in charge named Paul Austin. Austin showed up in the conference room wearing a bulletproof vest that he made a ceremony of removing, presumably having determined that I was not a danger. That meeting, I quickly realized, was nothing more than a disciplinary hearing, at which I was expected to recant my actions and promise not to ever "approach the media" again.  After some back and forth on this, I finally walked out of this absurd session in disgust.

The next day, I got a phone call from Ranger Michelle Uhr, who runs the program in which I was proud to be a volunteer mounted ranger. She fired me. "We can't have you representing us as a volunteer anymore," said the hapless Uhr,  a normally pleasant woman who sounded as if she were speaking on the phone to me with a ranger boss glowering over her shoulder.

OK, that's all water under the bridge now -- though I would point out that since that incident, Saguaro National Park East is minus one dedicated volunteer, at a time when basic staffing is at a critical low.
PARK SERVICE FINALLY TAKES ACTION -- Right, they have now put up a stern sign warning future would-be graffiti vandals at the Douglas Spring trailhead. (Photo by Joe Sharkey) 

I do intend to file a Freedom of Information petition and follow up with a magazine article, and have informed "Chief Interpretation and Outreach Officer" Fisher that she is legally required to keep all records of the various encounters the Park Service had with me over this incident. She hasn't responded to that -- though she has falsely maintained in media interviews that I failed to follow some phantom "procedures."

Well, long story short: I'm glad the Tucson Police Department finally cracked the case.

Meanwhile, as the Daily Star reports today, "staffers are still trying to figure out the best way to clean the saguaros, said Andy Fisher, spokeswoman for Saguaro National Park."

Because, as the asinine way the Park Service handled this case shows, all the fatuous PR in the world won't erase a fundamental problem that you fail to address.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Badwater Ultramarathon: 135 Miles, Death Valley to Mt. Whitney

The fastest runners in the grueling Badwater Ultramarathon road race have been crossing the finish line all day in California, and I'm again astonished that any runner can do this. 

[Here's the update today on the Badwater Web site, which is loaded with information and the results of the 2013 race. The top three were Carlos Alberto Gomes De Sa, from Portugal, who finished in 24:38, followed by Grant Maughan of Australia (24:53 and Oswaldo Lopez of the U.S. (25:49) In all, 80 runners made it to the finish line, the last posting a time of 47:29. The fastest time record ever is 22:51 hours in the men's division and 26:16 in the women's.]

The race famously starts at in Death Valley National Park at Badwater, which is the lowest point in elevation in the western hemisphere. Runners cross the vast sunblasted valley and into the desert, chug over two mountain ranges and end up at the finish line, 135 miles away and 8,360 feet up Mt. Whitney in California, whose summit at 14,505 feet is the highest point in the contiguous United States. Here's some background on the Badwater race.

Of the 100 or so world-class hardcore runners who start the race, more than 80 percent typically finish. and at the finish line, some runners even continue upward on the path to the summit. 

After a recent visit to Death Valley, I spoke with Chris Kostman, the race director, about the Badwater Ultramarathon, which is also called the Badwater 135. The race is sometimes misunderstood, he said.

"It bothers me sometimes when you hear people say these people are insane or have some kind of death wish,” said Kostman, the chief adventure officer at Adventurecorps, a California-based organizer of ultra-endurance sports events that runs the Badwater 135 and many other extreme-challenge sports events. Kostman is himself an endurance athlete. He works as an archeologist, as well.

"Another thing people often think is these people must have a high tolerance for pain or be masochistic or something, but I try to consistently emphasize that people do things like this because they can. It’s like somebody who’s really great at anything, or just really into something."

Really into it, of course. A casual runner isn't going to show up at Death Valley on a 125-degree July day, lace up the sneakers and complete the Badwater 135. (Here's a walk-up article, so to speak, by Dean Karnazes in Runner's World magazine earlier this month.). Death Valley is the site of the highest air temperature ever recorded on earth, 134 degrees on July 10, 1913. Only two weeks ago, the temperature in Death Valley hit 130 degrees.

Before the race, Kostman said, "Ideally they will have spent quite a few weeks heat-training in the sauna
Some come to the Valley a few weeks early to prep, but most don’t have time for that. And then there are always those people who live in Scandinavia or England, who don’t heat train at all and they just fly over and do it."

Still, that doesn't mean casual runners, Kostman said. "The race is an invitational event, we don’t let just anybody in. They have to have completed at least three 100-mile races before you can even aply for our race.  It’s competitive just to get into the event. The people do get in really try hard to rise to the occasion and not blow the opportunity.
"That’s why even though it’s the world’s toughest footrace we still have an 80 percent finishing rate because people do take it seriously. They want to make the most of the event. Nobody wants to go down in history as the person who passed out at the Badwater 135," he said.

Weirdly, the Furnace Creek Ranch, the only lodging open all summer at Death Valley National Park, is thronged in July and August with tourists, many from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, who co9me there expressly to experience the extreme heat. Around the time of the Badwater race, the nearby Furnace Creek Resort also opens up for a week or two to handle the overflow from Badwater.

"We fill the place up," Kostman said. "We bring a lot of people to Death Valley, nearly 100 runners and about 500 crew-members and 50 or more on te race staff, and a few dozen journalists."

"It's July, and Death Valley is going to be very hot, up to 130 degrees.  But the race is 135 miles long. A lot of people focus on the Death Valley part, which is really just the first third of the race. There are three  mountain ranges they go up, including to Whitney portal. I’ve seen far too many articles where they refer to finishing at the foot of Mt. Whitney. But they really go uphill for 13 miles, and 5,600 feet at the end of that road, and 8,640 feet to the finish line. So during the race, there can be a temperature-range difference from the highest to the lowest of 90 degrees. The focus is on the heat. But I’m up at the finish line for every finisher for about 28 hours, and it can be like 30 degrees out up there. And it could have been 130 the day before.
The temperature range and the elevation gain and elevation range are all factored into the whole thing.
Anything can happen out there. We’ve had flash floods, we’ve had forest fires.  All kinds of things possible. So it's not just pavement and heat. It’s whatever nature has in store."

Kostman is a runner with wide experience. "I've done three 100-milers, through ironically they were all on showshoes in Alaska in the winter," he said.  I’ve also done a lot of lot of ultra-distance cycling in South America and stuff like that."

Who in the world is motivated enough to run the Badwater, I asked. People who enjoy the lifelong challenge of peak performance, he replied. "It's like when you're young and start paying chess and and you win a lot of games, and maybe then it just sort of becomes your thing in life because you got all that positive feedback from winning and you thrive in it, so you keep doing it better. That really describes most of our athletes. They enjoy running, they enjoy the environment, they like traveling -- so they can tie it all together by doing their best like this, where you can cover a lot of ground, see a lot of things in a part of the world you wouldn't otherwise see."

"Badwater is really celebration of life and the human spirit. That kind of gets lost in the shuffle where people think it’s just insane or they focus too much on the competition.  There’s 100 people in the race, and there’s basically four or five men and two or three women who are capable of being first in the male or female divisions. But just getting to the start line is a huge deal, and doing it and finishing is a pinnacle achievement for any ultra-runner. It's really not about the competition or even the winner. Winners don’t receive anything different than anyone else – they all get a belt buckle and a tee-shirt. Those just represent the culmination of years or training and preparation and development, not only as a runner but as a person."

Do they rest or sleep along the grueling 135-mile route?  Kostman: "The front-runners never sleep; they basically don’t even stop. Very few people sleep at all, and even the 48-hour finishers [toward the end of the race] probably don’t sleep more than an hour. But nobody who wants to be in the top 10 can ever stop for more than five minutes, ever. The pace is too high and it's too competitive. Basically they only stop to use the bathroom."

Still, what kind of a human being can do this? The truly motivated simply condition themselves for these astonishing physical extremes, Kostman said. "It's pretty remarkable what people can do. Acclimating to the heat is sort of like mountaineers getting use to the high altitude. In general, you can train your body to do a lot more than you think."


Funny Foreign Name Pranks: Oh, Just Chill ...

All this pious media handwringing over the "racist" nature of pranking some dumb TV station into reading phony names of the Asiana crash pilots aside ("Wi Tu Lo" and "Ho Lee Fuk" among them), there is an solid body of precedent for this silliness, beyond the aforementioned Bart Simpson calling Moe's Tavern and the Pakistani pranksters who tricked airport information announcers at Heathrow into reading hilariously silly-sounding names.

Like this hysterically funny Saturday Night Live skit with Robert DeNiro as a White House spokesman announcing a litany of names of Middle Eastern terrorists being sought, among them the notorious i-Bin Pharteen and M'Balz es-Hari.

And of course it's not just foreign names lend themselves to this silliness, as was pointed out by readers Ophelia Bush, Seymour Butz and Mike Rotch.

Asiana Airlines, which one would think might have other legal matters to worry about, ridiculously threatens to "sue" the Bay Area TV station that fell for the prank. The airline's legal counsel Wi Soo Yu was not available for comment.

Nor was the always quotable Heywood Jablome, who has been featured at least three times in recent years in the always susceptible New York Post.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

KTVU-TV: Some.Thing.Wrong

There is definitely some.thing.wrong with the lame explanation being trotted out by a Bay Area local television station for the roaring goatfuck of a fiasco yesterday, in which one of their anchors actually read those clearly ridiculous names (above) on the air as being the names of the pilots of the Asiana Airlines 777 that crashed in San Francisco last week. (This just in!)

Yes, she read them on the air, showing not a trace of cognizance that the names are obviously part of a hoax. The video has gone major viral. Here it is.

The television station, KTVU-TV,  a Fox affiliate in Oakland, Calif., has apologized for the idiotic gaff, but in the cheesiest way possible. Yes, the station worthies say, we made a big mistake. But part of the blame, says KTVU,  lies with the National Transportation Safety Board (N.T.S.B.), where "an N.T.S.B. official" actually confirmed the names to KTVU.

And, astonishingly, the N.T.S.B. has put out a statement admitting that "a summer intern" (hardly an "official," but more on that in a minute) did in fact erroneously and without having authority to do so confirm those names to the TV station. Here is that utterly remarkable statement.

Some of the mainstream media are gingerly reporting on this incident, without asking the right questions. Most of the mainstream media are prissily afraid to touch it, because doing so requires repeating the insensitive joke.

Now, of course, there is a tradition of pranks, including phone calls and absolutely hilarious prank airport announcements, that depend on the phonetic comic effects of hearing syllables in seemingly legitimate foreign names of many syllables. Some of these actually were recorded at Heathrow Airport, where pranksters posing as taxi drivers looking for their customers handed written names to an unsuspecting airport public-service announcement workers, who would then get on the loudspeakers and ask for people like the following to please contact airport information: "Arheddis Varkenjaab and Aywellbe Fayed." (Sound it out).

The prank genre also includes western names -- "I.P. Daily" being the earliest example I can think of, and I think I was maybe 11 years old when I first heard it. And Bart Simpson famously makes prank calls to Moe's Tavern, causing Moe to answer the phone and credulously call out to the customers things like "Hey, has anybody seen Mike Rotch?"

And more recently, the newspaper than nobody pays for, USA Today, printed an article in which a version in the the good old "Ophelia Bush" turned up. Not to mention the poor hapless New York Post, which had a run for several years of being pranked by young wiseguys quoted in routine stories who identified themselves as "Heywood Jablome."

So as admittedly insensitive as the Asiana prank was, considering that three people died and many were injured, the issue to me isn't "racism" as much as it is a certain brand of media and bureaucratic piety at work. That is, how did this prank actually occur, and why haven't the TV station and the N.T.S.B. been pressured into giving a cogent, honest explanation?  

Here are the questions they aren't asking and that should be asked:

1. How the holy crap did this prank get on the air on the newscast of a major local television station? And don't give me that, "Well, an N.T.S.B. official confirmed it." In which way, specifically, did that N.T.S.B. summer intern "confirm" the names? In a phone call?  By e-mail?

2. If in a phone call, did that not then require the names to be vocally read out to the "N.T.S.B. official?"

3. Aside from some so-far anonymous summer intern confirming them in some manner that hasn't been explained, how did KTVU come up with those names in the first place? This was a cognitive process. Someone in the KTVU newsroom had to get the names, look at them, and then make whatever minimal effort was required to "confirm" them with the N.T.S.B., by phone call or e-mail. In that contact with the N.T.S.B. intern, the names either had to be pronounced on the phone, or typed into an e-mail that was read by at least two parties. Then those names had to be physically typed onto that slide, or whatever they call it that card they show on the screen. Certainly, in the KTVU newsroom itself, at least one conversation had to occur about this "breaking news" event before it went out live, with the anchor woman credulously reading the joke names. 

4. At the N.T.S.B, the PR chief needs to be required explain how this got screwed up. The N.T.S.B. "apology" is unclear and inadequate. Who specifically did the confirming? How? If in an e-mail, what is the text of that correspondence? If a phone call, what specifically was said by both parties?

5. Are the media going to let this television station get away with claiming that an "N.T.S.B. official" confirmed these ridiculous names, without asking how that exchange actually went?

The Asian American Journalists Association asked a good question. In a statement, the group said, "... the names originated from somewhere — and we fail to understand how those obviously phony names could escape detection before appearing on the broadcast and were spoken by the news anchor."

Local TV news is a sad joke all across the country, but this screw-up at KTVU seriously ups the ante. How in the world did this happen? I'll bet the answer is even funnier than the prank itself.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Death Valley at 134 Degrees, July 10, 1913: A Meteorological Sleuthing Tale

I took this photo early one morning last month at Furnace Creek, the lodgings at Death Valley National Park, at the bulletin board in the parking lot where tourists (many of them from Europe, especially Germany) flock in the dead of summer to experience extreme heat and have their photos taken at the thermometer.

The hottest day so far this summer in Death Valley occurred about a week after I took that picture: 129 degrees on June 20. (Yesterday, the Death Valley high was 120 degrees.)

But the hottest ever was 134 degrees on July 10, 1913, 100 years ago yesterday. That was the highest temperature ever recorded on earth. And therein lies a tale, because Death Valley was awarded the record for the hottest temperature ever only last year, after languishing in second place for 90 years behind Al Azizia in Libya, where the claim had been that it hit 136.4 degrees Fahrenheit (58C), on Sept. 13, 1922.

Turns out the Libyan record was a clunker. In January 2012, after reviewing evidence disputing the Libyan record that had been collected by curious meteorologists from California to England to Libya, the World Meteorological Organization stripped Libya of the record and returned it to Death Valley, where the data were not in any dispute.

Here's how this particular egg got fried (and by the way, so many tourists are imitating that media hot-weather stunt of trying to fry an egg on a sidewalk that Furnace Creek officials had to issue a plea for them to stop it this week):

The account is from Christopher C. Burt, the weather historian at

In early 2010, an e mail look was making the rounds among some meteorologists around the world discussing some skepticism that had been raised about the 1922 Libyan records.on which the frecord-temperature claim had been based.

Piotr Djakow, a Polish weather researcher, "had produced a chart of the monthly temperature amplitudes at Azizia for each September from 1921-1940, and this chart raised an alarm" about the Linyan claim, Burt wrote on his blog. Khalid Ibrahim el Fadli, the director of the climate department at the Libyan National Meteorological Center in Tripoli, also weighed in expressing skepticism, says Bart, who then joined the sleuthing, seeking more data and finally posting a blog entry in October, disputing the Libyan record.

The World Meteorological Organization, which certifies global climate and temperature data, then got involved. In Libya, meanwhile, El Fadli uncovered a key colonial-era document, the handwritten log sheet from the Azizia station for September 1922. It showed major discrepancies and sloppy record-keeping, including the transposing of figures.

The Libyan revolution interrupted the investigation, and global meteorologists had to call a hiatus on the investigations when Libyan dictator Gaddafi began claiming that foreign conspirators were "using Libyan climate data to plan their assault on the country," writes Burt, who along with colleagues around the world then "thought El Fadli was a dead man."

But in August 2011, with Gaddafi's regime in rout, El Fadli again turned up in the e-mail loop. "With the investigation back on track, committee members made further progress in October and November," says Burt. Then, he adds, "Dr. David Parker of the U.K. Meteorological Office did a reanalysis of surface conditions across the Libyan region for September 1922." The case was soon closed. At Azizia in September 1922, an inexperienced colonial observer had simply got the numbers wrong in his observations.

Burt says: "With all of the pieces of the puzzle now falling into place, a vote was taken in January 2012 resulting in a unanimous decision by the WMO [World Meteorological Organization] committee members to disallow the Azizia record."

Burt's conclusion is important:

"The WMO committee added the following comment: 'An important aspect of this long investigation was that is isn't just climatologists and meteorologists changing their minds [as a result of evidence]. It goes beyond that. This investigation demonstrates that, because of continued improvements in meteorology and climatology, researchers can now reanalyze past weather records in much more detail and with greater precision than ever before. The end result is an even better set of data for analysis of important global and regional questions involving climate change. Additionally, it shows the effectiveness of truly global cooperation and analysis." And so, the WMO concluded that "the official highest recorded surface temperature of 56.7 degrees C (134F)" occurred on July 10, 1913, at Death Valley.

As they say, you could look it up.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Mourning in America

It seems every time I pass a flagpole in a public place these days, Old Glory is flying at half-staff for one reason or another.
Looking at our TV and print media constantly dishing up tearful memorials and tributes, someone from far away could be forgiven for assuming that we are a culture that spends an inordinate amount of time in collective mourning.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

N.T.S.B. To Media on San Francisco Crash: Just the Facts, Please

The speculation on the San Francisco crash from instant media experts continues in this infernal 24-hour all-news-till-you-wanna-holler-uncle culture.

All of a sudden, some media dilettantes are tossing around words like "stick shaker activation" and "glide slope" as they pose as expert investigators. Back in 1979, I was one of the reporters out of Philadelphia who covered the Three Mile Island nuclear plant partial meltdown, and I remember being amazed then at how some fellow reporters who couldn't do the math to make change from bus fare had become instant experts in nuclear physics.

Anyway, I think it's useful to have a look at a press conference today in San Francisco run by Deborah Hersman, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, a federal agency that is universally respected. Here's the link from the N.T.S.B. web site.

"I would ask for to make sure you report the facts," Ms. Hersman said after she had carefully laid out what was factually known about the crash up to that minute, less than a day after N.T.S.B. investigators arrived on the scene. "We will not speculate. We are telling you what we know to be true," she added.

And in her 32-minute briefing, she did in fact discuss a good amount of factual information that is now on the record. Most importantly, data from the flight indicate that the plane was flying well under the designated speed for the landing, and that the pilots had an automated cockpit warning seven seconds before the crash to increase speed, followed by another warning that a stall was imminent, whereupon the pilots decided that they needed to do a "go-around" --- that is, abort the landing, step on the gas, and go around for another approach -- less than two seconds before impact, she said. Which was too late, of course. 

That's factual, based on observable evidence. But let's hope that the warning about speculation gets through to some of the more excitable media bloviators, the ones who are blathering on based on pure speculation, just to fill their infernal air time. Please, just the facts.

Below are some photos the N.T.S.B. released today of the cabin wreckage and the plane wreckage. Some clown on Twitter furiously objected to the N.T.S.B. releasing photos of a "crime scene," and had to be set straight by the N.T.S.B. that this is accident investigation, not a criminal one. Which reminds me of my personal experience in the Brazil mid-air collision in 2006, when the Brazilian authorities and Brazilian media kept insisting that the crash was a criminal matter. And we know how well that folly turned out, as air traffic controllers and others with important knowledge of the foul-up that had put two planes on a collision course over the Amazon went silent and refused to talk. Air traffic in Brazil was tied in knots for months, and not even 10 months after the Amazon mid-air crash, which killed 154, a worse crash occurred at the Sao Paulo airport, which killed 199.


Saturday, July 06, 2013

Asiana 777 Crashes at SFO; 2 Dead But Most Survive

Asiana Airlines Flight 214, a Boeing 777 inbound from Seoul, crashed on landing at San Francisco International Airport around 11.30 a.m. Pacific time today.

Photos posted on Twitter of the plane, which lost its tail section, evidently on impact, show many passengers walking away from the crash. More than 40 serious injuries are being reported. Two are reported dead. In all, there were 291 passengers and 16 crew on the plane.

Video taken from a helicopter by a local TV station shows the plane on its belly, its tail section missing and the top of its fuselage open and burned when sections of the plane burst into flames on impact. That video depicts a horrific scene. Somehow, evidently, nearly all passengers got out.

The airport suspended flights for several hours and planes scheduled to arrive at San Francisco were being diverted to Oakland, San Jose and Sacramento. [UPDATE: The airport resumed operations around 4 p.m.]

[UPDATE: Here's just-the-known facts reporting, on the aviation incident Web site Aviation Herald. That report says in part:  "... ATC recordings show the aircraft was on a normal approach and was cleared to land on runway 28L; no emergency services were lined up; all traffic was running normally. During a transmission of tower, shouting in the back of the tower is heard, emergency services began to respond, all aircraft on approach were instructed to go around. The airport was closed. United flight 885, waiting for departure at the hold short line threshold 28L, reported people were walking around both runways, there were a number of people near the numbers of runway 28R, obviously survivors. An observer on the ground reported that the approach of the aircraft looked normal at first, about 5 seconds prior to impact the aircraft began to look low and then impacted the sea wall ahead of the runway..."

Here's a live update link to the San Francisco Chronicle. However, in a true bush-league stunt,  the Chronicle is keeping its main online report behind a pay wall, evidently hoping you'll use the horrible occasion to subscribe. So here's a link to the live reports on the aviation news service Avweb.

Better yet, here's a link to, which is always reliable (and where the comments are usually from informed people).

And here's a Youtube audio of the tower transmissions, indicating that the San Francisco air traffic controllers performed magnificently in handling this emergency and diverting approaching planes.

Meanwhile, some of the usual suspects in the media, like that CNN twit and of course the ever-breathless and invincibly excitable Matt Drudge, are already engaging in that reckless pursuit: Speculating on the cause of the crash before even the basic facts are clear. Speculating on the cause of a crash is  exactly what caused Brazilian media and authorities to make international horses' asses of themselves in the 2006 mid-air collision over the Amazon that killed 154 (I was one of seven who survived), when they rushed to blame the American pilots and criminalize the accident. Speculating and rushing to assign blame in an air crash before facts are known is not only foolish, it's dangerous because it impedes the investigation and works against the interests of aviation safety. Air crashes almost always have multiple causes, some of which may not be apparent or clear for days or weeks after the incident.


Wednesday, July 03, 2013

State Department Travel Warning on Egypt

Here's the updated State Department warning on travel to Egypt:


July 3, 2013

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer travel to Egypt and U.S. citizens living in Egypt to depart at this time because of the continuing political and social unrest. This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning issued on June 28, 2013.  

On July 3, 2013, the Department of State ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel and family members from Egypt due to the ongoing political and social unrest.

Political unrest, which intensified prior to the constitutional referendum in December 2012 and the anniversary in 2013 of Egypt's 25th January Revolution, is likely to worsen in the near future due to unrest focused on the first anniversary of the President’s assumption of office. Demonstrations have, on occasion, degenerated into violent clashes between police and protesters, and between protesters supporting different factions, resulting in deaths, injuries, and extensive property damage.

Participants have thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails and security forces have used tear gas and other crowd control measures against demonstrators. There are numerous reports of the use of firearms as well. While violent protests have occurred in major metropolitan areas, including downtown Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said, the security situation in most tourist centers, including Luxor, Aswan, and Red Sea resorts such as Sharm el Sheikh, continues to be calm. Of specific concern is a rise in gender-based violence in and around protest areas where women have been the specific targets of sexual assault.

On June 28, a U.S. citizen was killed during a demonstration in Alexandria. On May 9, a private U.S. citizen was attacked with a knife outside of the U.S. Embassy after being asked whether he was an American.  Additionally, Westerners and U.S. citizens have occasionally been caught in the middle of clashes and demonstrations. U.S. citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to be vigilant regarding their personal security by knowing the locations of police and fire stations, hospitals, and the U.S. Embassy.

If you wish to depart Egypt, you should make plans and depart as soon as possible. The airport is open and commercial flights are still operating, although cancellations may occur. Travelers should check with their airlines prior to their planned travel to verify the flight schedule. There are no plans for charter flights or other U.S. government-sponsored evacuations. U.S. citizens seeking to depart Egypt are responsible for making their own travel arrangements.

The U.S. Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all demonstrations in Egypt, as even peaceful ones can quickly become violent, and a foreigner could become a target of harassment or worse. Because of the proximity of the U.S. Embassy to Tahrir Square in Cairo, the U.S. Embassy has sometimes been closed to the public on short notice due to violent protests. The Embassy will notify U.S. citizens as quickly as possible of any closing and the types of emergency consular services that will be available. Should security forces block off the area around the U.S. Embassy during demonstrations, U.S. citizens should contact the American Citizens Services section before attempting to come to the U.S. Embassy during that time. U.S. citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to carry identification and, if moving about alone, a cell phone or other means of communication that works in Egypt.

The U.S. Embassy restricts its employees and their family members from traveling to specific areas listed in the Country Specific Information Sheet and advises all U.S. citizens to do the same. We continue to urge U.S. citizens to stay current with media coverage of local events and be aware of their surroundings at all times. Please check our Country Specific Information Sheet for further security guidance.

Unless otherwise indicated in a public announcement, the U.S. Embassy is open for all routine American Citizens Services by appointment. U.S. citizens needing emergency assistance do not need an appointment. Visit the Embassy website to check the latest changes to Embassy hours or services. U.S. citizens with routine phone inquiries may call the Embassy's American Citizens Services section at 2797-2301, Sunday to Thursday from 9:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. For emergencies after business hours and on weekends and holidays, U.S. citizens can contact the Embassy Duty Officer via the Embassy switchboard on 2797-3300. The U.S. Embassy is closed on U.S. federal holidays. U.S. citizens in Egypt are encouraged to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). By enrolling, U.S. citizens make it easier for the Embassy to contact them in case of emergency.
For the latest security information, U.S. citizens traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department of State's Internet website at where the Worldwide Caution, Country Specific Information for Egypt, Travel Warnings, and Travel Alerts can be found. Follow us on Twitter and the Bureau of Consular Affairs page on Facebook as well. Download our free Smart Traveler app, available through iTunes or Google Play, to have travel information at your fingertips.
Up-to-date information on security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the United States and Canada, or, for callers outside the United States and Canada, a regular toll line at  1-202-501-4444. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays). The U.S. Department of State can receive information about U.S. citizens who are in Egypt and may be in need of assistance through email at

The U.S. Embassy in Egypt is located at 5 Tawfik Diab Street (formerly known as Latin America Street), Garden City, Cairo.


Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Some Questions for Smokey Bear

Many of us grew up with a familiar image of that avuncular cartoon bear with Smokey on his ranger hat, who made the famous admonition: "Remember, only you can prevent forest fires."

Revisionism has since shown fairly clearly that good old Smokey was really a stooge for the logging industry and its handmaiden, the U.S. Forest Service, peddling a line that basically allowed our forest-management and wildfire-fighting budgets to be commandeered in the service of industry.

Logging aside, the main question at hand this summer is, to what extent do our wildfire management efforts actually help create the conditions that lead, for example, to the horror just seen in Yarnell, Arizona, where a voracious sudden wildfire killed 19 firefighters over the weekend, in the worst tragedy for firefighters since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

  We'll return to this anon, but immediately, the media ought to be asking a few pertinent questions. But the media are not, of course, because feelings are what drive media disaster and heinous crime coverage these days. Feelings, not rationality. Hence the questions are not even being asked:

Here are a few just off the top of my head:

--The tragically doomed Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew were unusual in that they were "municipally funded," we are told by reporters who don't seem to be curious enough to ask the obvious question: Where did this funding come from to form a municipal crew? Surely, a small town budget can't accommodate this kind of effort. Oh, wait a minute! Can we hear from our old pals at F.E.M.A.?  See here.

Is anybody watching over F.E.M.A. these days?

While we're at it, how much of that municipal funding also might have been channeled from the copious flow of federal Homeland Security money that has, for example, turned some small-city police departments into quasi commando units complete with tanks and S.W.A.T. teams that are turned out for the kind of piddling disturbances that two town cops and a squad car used to handle? How good is the training, and who supplies it?

--Overall, ss this a justifiable use of federal emergency funding? Who is watching over the budgets and how the dough is actually spent? (Certainly not the media)

--Whatever the funding, given its clear municipal, small-town oversight, how much training did this brave  crew have? How good was that training? Who supervised the training, and was there qualified oversight? Who supplied the training? In other words, who made money from supplying this training? Who are they, specifically, and what is their game?

--Federally, what about the Forest Service budget? A large portion of the money that used to be spent on sensible Forest Service work such as maintenance and culling has disappeared, at the same time as we're spending breathtaking sums on Homeland Security and on, say, doubling the number of agents in the already wildly overstaffed Border Patrol and sending $40 billion or so more to the military contractors who are lined up with their tin cups to filled by their benefactors in Congress piously talking about building secure hjgh-tech fences, which, who would have guessed it, the military contractors just happen to wish to supply! So let's have a good look at the Forest service budget and where it's actually going -- and always, as the district attorney says, cui bono?

--Are we crazy enough to continue a policy that says, during a forest fire, all structures in the area -- that is, homes and businesses -- must be protected at all costs? The media love to breathlessly report on the number of "structures" damaged or destroyed in wildfires, as if that's the absolute priority. But all over the wildfire-prone West, these "structures" were heedlessly placed in fire-prone areas. That is, areas where the tendency is for sections of forests to occasionally burn, as a natural sequence that actually regenerates growth in a natural process. To what extent should our intrepid firefighters be placed in mortal peril, because some people want to live or do business in places where the likelihood of an eventual forest fire is very, very strong?

--Will the media ever smarten up on this and start looking at the money?  Or will feelings and emotions continue to prevail over science and common sense?

UPDATE: High Country News, the excellent magazine of the West, is starting to ask the right questions.