The sky never goes dark while the Amazon burns

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Jake Spring

HUMAITA, Brazil (Reuters) – There are no lights in sight but the night sky glows a dusky yellow, for the Amazon is burning.

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil, Brazil August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The smell is of barbecue, of wood charcoal up in flames. During the day the sun, usually so fierce in these parts, is obscured by thick gray smoke.

For the last seven days Reuters has repeatedly driven a 30-kilometer (18.6 miles) stretch from Humaita towards Labrea along the Trans-Amazonian highway, watching a fire eat its way through the jungle.

At first, on Wednesday of last week the raging fire stood just a few yards (meters) off the roadway, the yellow flames engulfing trees and lighting up the sky. By the weekend the fire had receded into the distance but cast an orange glow several stories high.

The fire is just one of thousands currently decimating the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest and a bulwark against climate change.

Wildfires have surged 83% so far this year when compared to the same period in 2018, according to Brazil’s space research agency INPE.

The government agency has registered 72,843 fires, the highest number since records began in 2013. More than 9,500 have been spotted by satellites since last Thursday alone.

On Wednesday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro enraged environmentalists by making unfounded claims that non-governmental organizations were starting the fires out of anger after he cut their funding.

Global outrage has torn through social media, with #PrayforAmazonas the world’s top trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday.

Reuters observed plumes of smoke billowing from the forest, reaching hundreds of feet (dozens of meters) into the air, during a weeklong trip to southern Amazonas and northern Rondonia states.

“All you can see is smoke,” said Thiago Parintintin, who lives in an indigenous reserve just off the Trans-Amazonian highway, pointing to the horizon.

A yellow truck bearing the logo of Brazil’s forest firefighters had just rushed past.

“It didn’t use to be like this,” Parintintin added.

A 22-year-old trained indigenous environmental agent, Parintintin blames the increasing development of the Amazon for bringing agriculture and deforestation, resulting in rising temperatures during the dry season.

Fires start in the underbrush that has been drying over the dry season. Smoke envelopes still lush patches of fronds and palm trees, as the understory smolders before the upper tiers of vegetation catch fire.

Environmentalists also say farmers set the forest alight to clear land for cattle grazing.

The smoke from the resulting fires hangs at the horizon like a fog.

Gabriel Albuquerque, a pilot in Rondonia state’s capital city of Porto Velho, said that in four years of flying his small propeller plane it has never been this bad.

“It is the first time that I’ve ever seen it like this,” he said, as he prepared to go up.

From the sky, the fires ranged from small pockets to those bigger than a football field, with the smoke making it impossible to see behind the front line of flames to discern the full extent of the blaze.

Sometimes the smoke was so thick the forest itself appeared to have disappeared.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Plane used to carry U.S. troops catches fire at Irish airport

Emergency vehicles respond after an Omni Air International Boeing 767-300 (not pictured) caught fire at Shannon Airport, Ireland August 15, 2019 in this image obtained from social media. Charles Pereira via REUTERS

DUBLIN (Reuters) – A plane that regularly carries U.S. troops through Ireland’s Shannon Airport caught fire shortly before it was due to take off on Thursday, forcing a five-hour suspension of flights at Shannon and cancellation of some trips.

Shannon Airport temporarily suspended operations at 0537 GMT after the incident involving an Omni Air International Boeing 767-300 due to depart for the Middle East. All 145 passengers and 14 crew disembarked after emergency services were called.

Air traffic controllers noticed a fire and smoke coming from the aircraft as it taxied along the runway after having to abort its take-off for technical reasons, according to Niall Maloney, operations director at Shannon Airport.

“The problem with an aborted take-off is you can probably get things like hot brakes and when the aircraft went around again to come back on the apron, a flame was spotted,” Maloney told Irish national broadcaster RTE.

Omni Air International is a civilian airline that says it transports U.S. and foreign military troops and military family members around the world.

In a Twitter post, Omni Air said it was participating in an investigation of the incident after the aircraft “rejected take-off” and was safely evacuated. Initial reports indicated no serious injuries to passengers or crew, it added.

Ireland provides landing and refueling facilities to the U.S. military at Shannon, the country’s second busiest airport, particularly for transatlantic flights.

An average of around 300 U.S. troops passed through Shannon Airport each day in the first three months of the year, according to Ireland’s Transport Ministry.

The incident forced the cancellation of 10 flights including eight to and from Britain operated by IAG’s Aer Lingus, and an American Airlines aircraft that was due to arrive from Philadelphia before it returned to the U.S. city.

The airport reopened just before 1030 GMT.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Fire resurges on Greece’s Evia, challenges firefighters

A firefighting plane makes a water drop as a wildfire burns near the village of Stavros on the island of Evia, Greece, August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

ATHENS (Reuters) – Aircraft and firefighters on the ground fought a blaze that burned large tracts of pristine pine forest on the Greek island of Evia on Wednesday as the wildfire flared up again at different spots.

A state of emergency has been declared in regions of the densely forested island east of Athens, after the blaze broke out on Tuesday, fanned by strong winds and high temperatures.

The wildfire had prompted the evacuation of villages and spurred an appeal for help from elsewhere in Europe.

Italy sent two aircraft after an appeal for airborne firefighting equipment from Greek authorities. Although conditions had improved by Wednesday morning, new blazes continued to challenge firefighting efforts.

Water dumping by specially equipped aircraft started at first light. “It is a difficult fire, that’s the reality … there is no danger to human life and that is what is important,” Kostas Bakoyannis, the regional governor for central Greece, told Skai TV.

Fire officials said four villages and hundreds of people were evacuated as a precaution on Tuesday and one firefighter was hospitalized after suffering burns.

“The situation in Evia was very difficult and remains difficult,” Christos Stylianides, the European Union’s aid commissioner, said after meeting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Drawing upon his experience from other forest fires around Europe, Stylianides said he was impressed at the coordination shown among authorities dealing with the emergency, calling firefighters heroes.

“We managed to protect lives and to save people’s property,” Civil Protection Minister Michalis Chrysohoidis said.

Greece has bitter memories of a horrific blaze that tore through the seaside town of Mati near Athens in July 2018, killing 102 people in a matter of hours. Authorities were accused then of poor coordination and a slow response.

Mitsotakis, a conservative elected last month, interrupted his holiday on Crete to return to Athens where he was briefed on the situation.

Television images showed flames and plumes of black smoke on mountainsides carpeted in pine. State television said about 28,000 hectares of pine forest was turned to ashes. The smoke was also captured by Copernicus EU satellite imagery.

Copernicus, the European Union’s eyes on earth with two Sentinel-3 satellites in orbit, said it had activated its emergency management service to assist in tracking the wildfire.

Greece often faces wildfires during its dry summer months, and authorities have warned of the high risk of blazes this week. Environmental campaigners see an increasing number of wildfires around the world as a symptom of climate change.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas and George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Larry King and Stephen Powell)

Death toll in Brazil prison massacre rises to 57 with over a dozen decapitated

Relatives of prisoners wait for news after a prison riot, in front of a prison in the city of Altamira, Brazil, July 29, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Santos

SAO PAULO/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – A bloody clash between two prison gangs on Monday left at least 57 inmates dead with 16 of them decapitated, authorities in the state of Para said, the latest deadly clash as Brazil’s government struggles to control the country’s overcrowded jails.

State authorities said the riot began around 7 a.m. local time (1000 GMT) at a prison in the northern city of Altamira and involved rival gangs.

Prisoners belonging to the Comando Classe A gang set fire to a cell containing inmates from the rival Comando Vermelho, or Red Command, gang, Para’s state government said in a statement.

Most of the dead died in the fire, they said, while two guards were taken hostage, but later released.

“It was a targeted act,” state prison director Jarbas Vasconcelos said in the statement, adding there was no prior intelligence that suggested an attack would take place.

“The aim was to show that it was a settling of accounts between the two gangs.”

Videos circulating online showed inmates at the prison celebrating as they kicked decapitated heads across the floor. Reuters was unable, however, to independently verify the footage.

Elected on a tough-on-crime message, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has benefited from a sharp drop in homicides so far this year. Nonetheless, endemic prison violence has been a stubborn public security challenge in one of the world’s most violent countries.

In May, at least 55 inmates died during prison attacks in the northern state of Amazonas. Weeks of violence in Amazonas in 2017 resulted in 150 prison deaths as local gangs backed by Brazil’s two largest drug factions went to war.

Brazil’s justice ministry said in a statement that it was working with Para authorities to identify those behind the latest attack, adding it had opened some space in the federal prison system where those gang leaders would be transferred.

Brazil’s incarcerated population has surged eight-fold in three decades to around 750,000 inmates, the world’s third-highest tally. Prison gangs originally formed to protect inmates and advocate for better conditions, but have come to wield vast power that reaches far beyond prison walls.

The gangs have been linked to bank heists, drug trafficking and gun-running, with jailed kingpins presiding over criminal empires via smuggled cellphones.

In the country’s violent northeast, prison gangs have grown powerful by moving cocaine from Colombia and Peru along the Amazon’s waterways to the Atlantic coast, where it heads to Africa and Europe. Murderous disputes often arise as they clash over territorial control.

The Red Command hails from Rio de Janeiro, but has expanded deep into northern Brazil as it seeks to diversify its income. That expansion has often led to confrontations with Brazil’s largest and most powerful gang, the First Capital Command, headquartered in Sao Paulo.

The Comando Classe A gang is seen as a relatively small gang, and is little known outside Para. Its high-profile attack against the Red Command could give it a nationwide reputation.

Bolsonaro’s government has proposed moving powerful incarcerated drug lords to federal lockups, and building more prisons at the state level. But with the vast majority of prisons run by Brazil’s overstretched state governments, Bolsonaro is likely limited in terms of what he can achieve from Brasilia.

In February, Justice Minister Sergio Moro unveiled his signature crime-fighting bill, including proposals to toughen prison sentences and isolate gang leaders in maximum-security lockups.

That bill has since struggled in Congress, with the government giving its pension reform legislation priority.

(Reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun and Eduardo Simoes; editing by Gabriel Stargardter, Christian Plumb, Dan Grebler, David Gregorio and G Crosse)

Suspected Japanese arsonist is ex-convict who believed studio stole his novel: media

A man placed flowers near the torced Kyoto Animation building to mourn the victims of the arson attack, in Kyoto, Japan, July 19, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Tim Kelly

KYOTO, Japan (Reuters) – A man suspected of torching an animation studio and killing 33 people in Japan’s worst mass killing in two decades had been convicted of robbery and carried out the attack because he believed his novel had been plagiarized, media said on Friday.

Public broadcaster NHK, which identified the 41-year-old man as Shinji Aoba, citing police, said he served time in prison for robbing a convenience store east of Tokyo in 2012 and, after his release, lived in facilities for former convicts. He had also received care for mental illness, NHK said.

The attack on Thursday in the ancient capital of Kyoto, targeting the well-known animation studio, Kyoto Animation, killed 33 people and 10 were in critical condition, authorities said. Most of the dead were killed by carbon dioxide inhalation, NHK said.

It was the worst mass killing in a country with one of the world’s lowest crime rates since a suspected arson attack in Tokyo killed 44 people in 2001.

Aoba wheeled a trolley carrying at least one bucket of petrol to the entrance of the building before dousing the area, shouting “die” and setting it ablaze on Thursday, broadcaster Nippon TV said, citing police.

“I did it,” Aoba told police when he was detained, Kyodo news said, adding that he had started the fire because he believed the studio had stolen his novel.

Police declined to comment. Aoba was under anesthesia because of burns he suffered and police were unable to question him, Nippon TV said.

He “seemed to be discontented, he seemed to get angry, shouting something about how he had been plagiarized”, a woman who saw him being detained told reporters.

“I imagine many of the people who died were in their twenties,” said 71-year-old Kozo Tsujii, fighting back tears after laying flowers near the studio in the rain. He said he drives by the studio on his daily commute.

“I’m just very, very sad that these people who are so much younger than me passed away so prematurely,” he said.

The studio had about 160 employees with an average age of 33, according to its website. That makes it a relatively young company in rapidly graying Japan.

Tributes to the victims lit up social media, with world leaders and Apple Inc’s <AAPL.O> chief executive offering condolences.

‘I’LL KILL YOU’

Aoba, a resident of the Tokyo suburb of Saitama, some 480 km (300 miles) east of the ancient capital of Kyoto, was believed to have bought two 20-liter cans at a hardware store and prepared the petrol in a park near the studio, Nippon TV said.

He traveled to the area by train, the broadcaster said.

NHK showed footage of him lying on his back as he spoke to a police officer at the time of his detention, shoeless and with apparent burns on his right leg below the knee.

He had no connection with Kyoto Animation, NHK said.

None of the victims’ identities had been disclosed as of Friday. There were 74 people inside the building when the fire started, Kyodo said.

Last month, Aoba had a confrontation when he complained to a neighbor about noise in the apartment building, the Mainichi newspaper reported.

When the neighbor said the noise was coming from another apartment, Aoba grabbed the neighbor’s shirt and said: “Shut up, I’ll kill you,” the newspaper said.

BODIES PILED UP

The fire that tore through the building spread so fast not only because it was fueled by petrol, but because it was funneled up a spiral staircase and there were no sprinklers to douse it, experts said.

Nineteen of the 33 who died were found on a staircase leading up to the roof from the third floor, bodies piled on top of each other, Kyodo said, citing authorities.

Firefighters arriving soon after the fire began found the door to the roof was shut but could be opened from the outside, Kyodo said.

The victims may have rushed up the stairs to escape the blaze and found themselves unable to open the door, it added.

The fire wasn’t put out until early on Friday.

Police investigators searched the smoldering shell of the building for evidence in an investigation that Kyodo said covered suspected arson, murder and attempted murder.

Two petrol cans, a rucksack and a trolley were found near the site, and television images showed what appeared to be five long knives laid out by police as possible evidence outside the three-story building.

Kyoto Animation, in a quiet suburb about 20 minutes by train from the center of Kyoto, produces popular “anime” series such as the “Sound! Euphonium”.

Its “Free! Road to the World – The Dream” movie is due for release this month.

“I love fighting games, all things about Japan,” said Blake Henderson, a 26-year-old Alabama native and fan of the anime studio who had come to the scene of the blaze to pay his respects.

“I love Japan so much and this one incident won’t change my entire perspective on Japan. But it still hurts.”

(Reporting by Tim Kelly in KYOTO and Chang-Ran Kim, Linda Sieg, William Mallard, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Elaine Lies in TOKYO; Writing by William Mallard and David Dolan; Editing by Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)

Russia nuclear sub fire could have caused catastrophe: report cites navy official

A mourner touches a photograph at the grave of Captain third rank Vladimir Sukhinichev during the funeral of Russian sailors, who were recently killed in a fire on a secret nuclear research submarine in the area of the Barents Sea, at Serafimovskoye cemetery in Saint Petersburg, Russia July 6, 2019. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A fire aboard a top-secret Russian nuclear submarine could have led to a “catastrophe of global proportions” if not for the selfless actions of the crew, a senior navy official was cited by a Russian media outlet as saying.

Fourteen submariners were killed on July 1 during a fire in a deep-water research submersible that was surveying the sea floor near the Arctic, according to Russia’s Defence Ministry.

Russian officials have faced accusations of trying to cover up the full details of the incident on the top secret vessel. President Vladimir Putin only acknowledged publicly there had been a nuclear reactor on board three days after it happened.

The sailors were buried on Saturday in St Petersburg at a funeral ceremony that was closed to the public.

“They all shared one and the same fate – to save the lives of their comrades, to save their vessel and to prevent a catastrophe of global proportions at the cost of their own lives,” Sergei Pavlov, an aide to the Russian navy’s commander, was quoted as saying at the funeral by St Petersburg media outlet Fontanka on Saturday.

In the comments from Pavlov quoted in Russian media, there was no explanation of how the fire could have resulted in a global catastrophe. Russian officials have said the crew contained the fire and isolated the submarine’s nuclear reaction.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on a conference call he was unaware of the comments made by officials at the funeral and was therefore unable to comment.

Putin last week bestowed Russia’s highest state award – the title of Hero of Russia – on four of the men and granted another top state award — the Order of Courage — to the 10 others.

Putin has said that the submarine was manned by an elite and senior crew, two of whom already held the Hero of Russia title before their final mission.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Alison Williams)

Putin, after three days, says fire-hit Russian submarine was nuclear-powered

Russia's President Vladimir Putin meets with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to discuss a recent incident with a Russian deep-sea submersible, which caught fire in the area of the Barents Sea, in Moscow, Russia July 4, 2019. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn and Andrey Kuzmin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin disclosed on Thursday for the first time that a secret military submarine hit by a fatal fire three days ago was nuclear-powered, prompting the defense minister to assure him its reactor had been safely contained.

Russian officials have faced accusations of trying to cover up the full details of the accident that killed 14 sailors as they were carrying out what the defense ministry called a survey of the sea floor near the Arctic.

Moscow’s slow release of information about the incident has drawn comparisons with the opaque way the Soviet Union handled the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster, and another deadly submarine accident — the 2000 sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk, which claimed 118 lives.

Russia, which says the details of the submarine involved in the latest accident are classified, said the fire took place on Monday, though it was only officially disclosed late on Tuesday.

Until Thursday there was also no official word on whether the vessel had a nuclear reactor, despite strong interest from neighboring Norway.

Putin revealed that the submarine had been nuclear-powered by asking Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu during a Kremlin meeting about the reactor’s condition after the fire.

“The nuclear reactor on the vessel is completely isolated,” Shoigu told Putin, according to a Kremlin transcript. “All the necessary measures were taken by the crew to protect the reactor, which is in complete working order.”

The fire erupted in the submarine’s battery compartment, Shoigu added, and later spread.

Although the Kremlin publicized the meeting on Thursday morning, it was not immediately clear when the men had met.

“There has not been any formal communication from Russia to us about this,” Per Strand, a director at the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, told Reuters when asked if it had been informed that the submarine was nuclear-powered.

“We understand they brought the situation under control quickly, under difficult conditions, and there was, as such, no nuclear incident that they were obligated to tell us about.

“Still, we would have been happy to have been informed of such incidents,” he added.

TOP-SECRET SUBMARINE

Russian servicemen attended a memorial service on Thursday in the port city of Kronstadt near St Petersburg in honor of the 14 dead submariners.

Held in the hulking Russian Orthodox Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas, sailors cradled lit candles and looked on as priests read out prayers and a choir chanted in the background.

Shoigu, a close Putin ally, told the president that the submarine, which authorities said had been operating in the Barents Sea area, would be fully repaired.

“Right now, we are assessing how long it will take, how much work there is, and how we can carry it out,” he said.

Shoigu’s ministry has released photographs of the deceased sailors, hailing them as “real patriots of the Motherland”.

Separately, a photograph of a tribute to them circulated on social media which appeared to have been hung on the wall of a Russian military facility. Reuters could not immediately confirm its authenticity, but it said the men had served on board a deep-sea submersible known by the designation AS-31.

Russian media have previously reported, without official confirmation, that the vessel was designated as either AS-31 or AS-12 and is designed to carry out special operations at depths where regular submarines cannot operate.

The submarine is made up of a series of inter-connected spheres that allow it to resist water pressure at great depths. Western military experts have suggested it is capable of probing and possibly even severing undersea communications cables.

Putin ordered Shoigu to prepare posthumous state awards for the dead submariners. An official investigation into the accident, likely to be shrouded in secrecy, is already underway.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Gabrielle Ttrault-Farber in Moscow and by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Jon Boyle and Gareth Jones)

Russia accused of cover-up over lethal submarine fire

Russian navy ships and a submarine take part in a naval parade at the port of Severomorsk, Russia July 31, 2016. Picture taken July 31, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian commentators have challenged officials for not releasing full details about an accident on board a military submarine that killed 14 sailors.

The incident took place on Monday, according to the Defence Ministry, but was not officially disclosed until late on Tuesday. Nearly two days on, there was still no word on whether the submarine was nuclear-powered.

Some Russian media accused officials of starving the public of details and drew parallels with the dearth of official information during the meltdown of a Soviet nuclear reactor in Chernobyl in 1986.

The ministry said on Tuesday the sailors had been killed in a fire on what it described as a deep-water research submarine surveying the seabed near the Arctic.

The type of vessel was not specified and there were few details of the circumstances beyond the fact that it had been in Russian territorial waters and the fire had been extinguished.

“Absolutely nothing is known at the moment – who, what… I don’t understand one thing: why did a day go by and only then did they make the statement about the deceased?” said Yevgeny Buntman, an anchor for the Ekho Moskvy radio station. “Why don’t we know their names? Is this normal?”

The Bell, a news site often critical of the government, wrote: “Nearly a day without information about the accident in a nuclear facility and the need to look out for Norwegian statements about the level of radiation should have given a shudder to those who remember the Chernobyl nuclear power station.”

A view shows Russian navy ships at the port of Severomorsk, Russia July 27, 2016. Picture taken July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

A view shows Russian navy ships at the port of Severomorsk, Russia July 27, 2016. Picture taken July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

SECRET SUB

Norway’s authorities said on Tuesday they had not detected any abnormal radiation.

Asked on Wednesday if the vessel had a nuclear reactor on board, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred the question to the defense ministry.

He told reporters in a conference call that details of the submarine were classified, but that information had been provided in good time.

The media outlet RBC cited an unnamed military source on Tuesday as saying the submarine was an AS-12, which is powered by a nuclear reactor and designed to carry out special operations at extreme depths.

That vessel, nicknamed the “Losharik”, was launched in 2003 and is one of the most secret submarines in the Russian fleet.

Several hours before the official statement, blogger Yevgeny Karpov reported a fire on a vessel belonging to the Northern Fleet, but he then took down the report at the fleet’s request, he told the Meduza news site.

The fire is one of the deadliest submarine accidents since August 2000, when the nuclear-powered Kursk sank to the floor of Barents Sea, killing all 118 men aboard.

Authorities then, and in particular President Vladimir Putin, who was at the beginning of now almost two decades as president or prime minister, came under fire for their slow response and shortcomings in the rescue operation.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Christian Lowe; additional reporting by Anastasia Teterevleva; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Philadelphia refinery workers plan for uncertain future after jobs go up in smoke

FILE PHOTO: A worker leaves the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery carrying personal items, after employees were told the complex would shut down following a recent fire that caused significant damage, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Laila Kearney/File Photo

By Jarrett Renshaw and Laila Kearney

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – At Erin Pub, a classic Irish neighborhood bar in Norwood, Pennsylvania, dozens of Philadelphia Energy Solutions Inc’s unionized employees crammed around the bar on Wednesday night, toasting to their friendships after learning that day of plans to close the refinery permanently after a devastating fire less than a week earlier.

They were openly worried about what the job loss would mean for their lives and their families. The refinery, the biggest on the East Coast, employed more than 1,000 people, including more than 600 unionized workers. Most were told their jobs would end by mid-July, while others would stay for two weeks beyond that.

“I have a kid I’m about to put through college, and I have no idea how I’m going to do that now,” said one worker, who had been with the refinery for more than a decade and who asked not to be identified.

The workers, both union and non-union, are not expected to get severance packages or health benefits, dumping them into a shrinking energy workforce without a parachute. In the months leading up the closure, the company saved cash by laying off a number of salaried employees, all who received standard severance packages, two sources familiar with the company told Reuters.

“We have some people who have spent their whole careers in the refinery. It’s not just a workplace, it’s a culture,” said Ryan O’Callaghan, president of the local United Steelworkers union and an operator at the refinery.

Many had been through the plant’s ups and downs, from good years earlier this decade to a bankruptcy process last year, but the fire has left them jobless in a region that only employs about 2,000 workers in the refining industry.

“These jobs are hard to duplicate. It’s not like there are a lot of refineries around here anymore, so it’s going to be a challenge,” said Steve Bussone, 54, a union lab technician with 23 years at the refinery.

He was hoping to retire in about ten years, but the closure may delay those plans. He was not preparing to start over at his age and said the potential lack of a severance package makes the whole process that more daunting.

The June 21 fire started in a butane vat and was followed by a series of explosions that ripped through the 335,000 barrel-per-day plant, the oldest on the East Coast, which destroyed at least one key unit and threw fragments onto nearby highways.

Just four days later, Chief Executive Mark Smith said the plant would close indefinitely. The company is planning a sale, but that process, and a subsequent reopening is not likely to happen for years, if at all.

“We cannot commit that (a restart) will occur,” Smith said in a letter to the union. “As such, all layoffs are expected to be permanent.”

For some, Wednesday’s official announcement was a confirmation of what they knew was inevitable after the massive fire.

The plant banked big profits in 2013 and 2014 as it used trains to bring crude oil in from the burgeoning shale business in North Dakota. However, after a 40-year-ban on crude oil exports was ended in 2015, oil drillers found it more profitable to ship crude to U.S. Gulf-area refiners by pipeline and to export destinations.

Since then, the refinery has struggled, even after reducing its credit obligations through a 2018 bankruptcy process and having slashed worker benefits and pensions. Its cash balance had dwindled by 40% to $87.7 million in just three months, leaving it in a precarious position before the fire.

Still, the decision came as a bitter blow, as previous owner Carlyle Group paid itself out nearly $600 million in dividend-style distributions, many taken through loans against the plant’s assets, since taking over the refinery in 2012.

Rich Francis, 28, a gasoline trader at the company, was one of the 150 or so non-union employees fired on Wednesday as the company seeks to shut the refinery.

Like the others, Francis got no severance package and his family’s health benefits run out at the end of July – which will hit hard, as his wife recently had a kidney transplant that requires expensive medication daily.

“They have given me so little runway here. It’s real disappointing in how the company handled this,” Francis said.

The United Steelworkers president said the union is expecting to negotiate severance packages and benefits for union members – but also pushing to rebuild the unit so the refinery can keep running.

“That’s what we’re fighting for,” said O’Callaghan, who started with PES in 2007. “The entire refinery runs without all units on all the time.”

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw and Laila Kearney; additional reporting by Stephanie Kelly; writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Notre Dame fire may have been caused by power fault or cigarette: prosecutors

The Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral is pictured after the first mass since the devastating fire in April, in Paris, France, June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

PARIS (Reuters) – An electrical fault or a burning cigarette may have been responsible for the fire that gutted Notre-Dame Cathedral, French authorities investigating the cause of April’s blaze said on Wednesday.

Paris prosecutors said that, while they were investigating the possibility of negligence, they currently had no reason to believe the fire was started deliberately.

It ripped through the medieval cathedral on April 15, destroying the roof, toppling the spire and almost bringing down the main bell towers and outer walls before firefighters brought it under control.

“If certain failings, which may explain the scale of the fire, have been brought to light, the investigations carried out to this date have not yet been able to determine the causes of the fire,” said a statement from Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz.

“For now, there are no indications of a criminal origin,” he added. However, nothing had been ruled out, with an electrical fault and a cigarette that was not properly extinguished two of several possible causes being investigated, he said.

President Emmanuel Macron has set a target of five years for restoring Notre-Dame, which dates back to the 12th century and is one of Europe’s most iconic landmarks.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta; Editing by Geert de Clercq and John Stonestreet)