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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Visible from space: The massive Californian wildfires encircling Los Angeles

By Mail Foreign Service

Crews battling the massive wildfire north of Los Angeles have received major assistance from the weather, allowing them to build lines around a quarter of the blaze, but the fight is far from over.

Fire officials fear the winds could kick up later today, as flames creep closer to homes and a historic observatory.

More humid weather and a slight break in the blazing heat helped the brush resist burning, but crews were bracing for the possibility of thunderstorms, dry lightning and wind this afternoon.

A vast plume of smoke rises of the hills in the distance as LA

A vast plume of smoke rises of the hills in the distance as LA braces for another day battling the fires

A fire burns near homes during the Station Fire in La Crescent
A fire burns near homes during the Station Fire in La Crescent

A fire burns near homes during the Station Fire in La Crescent in LA

U.S. Forest Service incident commander Mike Dietrich was not willing to say a corner had been turned.

'Right now if I were in a boxing match, I'd think we're even today,' Dietrich said.

Firefighters on Tuesday lit backfires and hand crews and bulldozers combed the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, cutting broad and winding fire lines, raising containment to 22 percent.

Since erupting on August 26th the blaze has destroyed more than 60 homes, scorched 199 square miles of tinder-dry brush and forced some 12,000 people to flee their homes.

Officials on Tuesday lifted evacuation orders in wide areas of La Canada Flintridge and La Crescenta, but about 6,000 people remain out of their homes.

Burned out cars in the Tujunga area of Los Angeles,

Burned out cars in the Tujunga area of Los Angeles, California where the so-called Station Fire has charred 127,000 acres (51,000 hectares), an area nearly the size of Chicago. Pools of melted metal from the cars shows the pierce heat of the blaze

In a hillside neighborhood of Glendale, Frank Virgallito stood in a group anxiously watching a controlled burn edge toward their neighborhood.

Virgallito said he and his neighbors had been on high alert since Friday but ignored a voluntary evacuation.

'You don't sleep well,' Virgallito said. 'I get up every hour and a half or two hours to get a good view of where the fire is. For four days we've been a little sleep-deprived. It's unnerving.'

The fire has scorched 164 square miles of tinder-dry brush, destroyed 53 homes, and threatened more than 12,000 others. But firefighters have had one stroke of luck: with no wind blowing, they have so far been able to beat the fire back far enough to protect the suburbs of Los Angeles.

Columns of smoke billowed high into the air before dispersing into a gauzy white haze that burned eyes and prompted warnings of unhealthy air throughout the Los Angeles area. Smoke could be seen billowing around the fabled Hollywood sign.

The original Nasa image

Devastation: A image released by Nasa yesterday shows a satellite view of the Station Fire burning out of control in Southern California, with the places marked below

'It's burning everywhere,' U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Dianne Cahir said. 'When it gets into canyons that haven't burned in numerous years, it takes off. If you have any insight into the good Lord upstairs, put in a request.'

The exact number of people injured or threatened by the fire was still not clear.

Among those evacuated were Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal and his wife from their home in La Canada Flintridge. Furcal was given the day off for Monday's home game against Arizona.

Over the weekend, three people who refused to evacuate were burned when they were overrun by flames, including a couple who had sought refuge in a hot tub, authorities said.

An image released by Nasa yesterday shows a satellite view of the Station Fire burning out of control in Southern California, taken by Nasa's Terra Satellite on Sunday aftrernoon

An image released by Nasa yesterday shows a satellite view of the Station Fire burning out of control in Southern California near Los Angeles, one of the eight fires across the state taken by Nasa's Terra Satellite on Sunday aftrernoon

Authorities said five men and one woman refused several orders to evacuate a remote ranch in a canyon near a place called Gold Creek.

'When we tried to get them out, they said they're fine, no problem, they didn't want to leave,' said fire spokesman Larry Marinas.

Fire crews set backfires and sprayed fire retardant at Mount Wilson, home to at least 20 television transmission towers, radio and cell phone antennas, and the century-old Mount Wilson Observatory.

The observatory also houses two giant telescopes and several multimillion-dollar university programs. It is both a landmark for its historic discoveries and a thriving modern centre for astronomy.

If the flames hit the mountain, mobile phone service and TV and radio transmissions would be disrupted, but the extent was unclear.

The blaze killed two firefighters who died when their truck drove off the side of a road with flames all around them.

The victims were fire Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino County, and firefighter Specialist Arnaldo 'Arnie' Quinones, 35, of Palmdale. Hall was a 26-year veteran, and Quinones had been a county firefighter for eight years.

LA under threat: The deadly Station Fire roars in the foothills above Los Angeles yesterday

LA under threat: The deadly Station Fire roars in the foothills above Los Angeles yesterday

Quinones' wife is expecting and due to give birth to their first child in the next few weeks.

Hall and his wife have two boys, ages 20 and 21, and was described as a family man who loved riding motorcycles.

They died fighting a fire that showed no signs of subsiding yesterday. People who fled returned to find their homes gone.

Beth Halaas knew her creekside home in Big Tujunga Canyon was gone when she saw her favorite Norwegian dishware on television news.

'It's just stuff,' she murmured, as her five-year-old son Robert kicked at a deflated soccer ball in his sandbox. She raked ceramic cups from the ashes.

T.J. Lynch and his wife, Maggie, left for an evacuation center late Monday after the eerie orange glow on the horizon turned into flames cresting the hill near their Tujunga home.

Enlarge The hills of Acton, California are dotted with flames at the Station Fire's northern front on Sunday

The hills of Acton, California are dotted with flames at the Station Fire's northern front on Sunday

'It's pretty surreal, pretty humbling, how your life is represented in these objects that you collect and then you have to whittle them down,' he said, describing the difficulty of choosing what to bring with them.

Bert Voorhees looked through the empty shelves of a CD rack and his vanished vinyl collection at the seasonal stream that trickled through his property in Big Tujunga Canyon.

'Every single book I've ever read and all the music I've ever owned is gone. But it's the place that we can't replace. The aesthetics are lost,' he said. 'We used to sit on our patio and drink wine, wave to our neighbours on the road. It was a good 15 years.'

'It's the worst roller coaster of my life, and I hate roller coasters,' said Adi Ellad, who lost his home in Big Tujunga Canyon over the weekend. 'One second I'm crying, one second I'm guilty, the next moment I'm angry, and then I just want to drink tequila and forget.'

Ellad left behind a family heirloom Persian rug and a photo album he put together after his father died. 'I'm going to have to figure out a new philosophy: how to live without loving stuff,' he said.

The blaze in the Los Angeles foothills is the biggest but not most destructive of California's wildfires. Northeast of Sacramento, a wind-driven fire destroyed 60 structures over the weekend, many of them homes in the town of Auburn.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger views a statewide fire map

Can't terminate this one: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger views a statewide fire map

The 275-acre (110-hectare) blaze was 50 per cent contained yesterday afternoon and full containment was expected by today. It wiped out an entire cul-de-sac, leaving only smouldering ruins, a handful of chimneys and burned cars.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the Auburn area, where only charred remnants of homes remained yesterday. At some houses, the only things left on the foundation are metal cabinets and washers and dryers.

'It was embers travelling in the wind, landing on the roofs, landing on attics, getting into that home and burning the home on fire,' said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Some mandatory evacuation orders were lifted, but most residents are still being told to stay away while crews work to restore electricity and hose down embers.

Enlarge A firefighter battles the Station Fire, burning in the hills above La Crescenta, which is inching closer to Los Angeles

A firefighter battles the Station Fire, burning in the hills above La Crescenta, which is inching closer to Los Angeles

East of Los Angeles, a 1,000-acre (400-hectare) fire threatened 2,000 homes and forced the evacuation of a scenic community of apple orchards in an oak-studded area of San Bernardino County. Brush in the area had not burned for a century, fire officials said. A few miles away a 300-acre (120-hectare) wildfire that erupted on the edge of Yucaipa forced the evacuation of 200 homes.

With highs topping 100 degrees (38 Celsius) in some areas and humidity remaining low, the National Weather Service extended a weekend warning of extreme fire conditions in the central and Southern California mountains.

Winds were light, which prevented the flames from roaring at furious speed into towns. In 2003, a wind-whipped blaze tore through neighbourhoods in San Diego County, killing 15 people and destroying more than 2,400 homes. That fire burned 273,000 acres (110,500 hectares) - the largest in state history.

Overall, more than 2,500 firefighters were on the line. A fleet of helicopters and air tankers dumped water and retardant over the flames during the day.

Enlarge The deadly wildfires rage on Mount Wilson, inching closer to Los Angeles. A key telecommunications base on the mountainside is also being threatened by the flames

The deadly wildfires rage on Mount Wilson, inching closer to Los Angeles. A key telecommunications base on the mountainside is also being threatened by the flames

In La Crescenta, where the San Gabriel Mountains descend steeply into the bedroom suburb a dozen miles from downtown Los Angeles, 57-year-old Mary Wilson was experiencing her first wildfire after nine years of living in a canyon.

Her family was evacuated twice in the past five days, she said.

'We saw the flames. My daughter got really scared,' she said. But she was philosophical: 'You have to surrender to the natural forces when you choose to live up here. It's about nature doing its thing.'

Also in La Crescenta, dispatchers accidentally activated a system that sent a late-night recorded evacuation warning to people.

Whaling, the L.A. County fire captain, says the message applied to only a small number of residents closest to the fire but instead a large number got the sleep-shattering calls. He said he does not know how many people were involved in the call.

'They pushed the wrong button,' he said.

A large mushroom cloud from the Station Fire is seen above Angeles National Forest as the blaze marches westward yesterday

A large mushroom cloud from the Station Fire is seen above Angeles National Forest as the blaze marches westward yesterday

Enlarge An Evergreen 747 Supertanker drops flame retardant over the fire yesterday

An Evergreen 747 Supertanker drops flame retardant over the fire yesterday

Terry Crews, an actor promoting the new movie 'Gamer' on KTLA-TV, talked about being forced to flee two days ago from his home in Altadena, in the foothills above Pasadena. He saw 40-foot (12-metre) flames, grabbed his dog and fled.

'I've never seen anything like it,' he said. 'I'm from Michigan. I'm used to tornadoes ... but to see this thing, you feel helpless.'

'This is like 'The Ten Commandments,"' he said, referring to the film. 'You go, 'holy God, the end of the world."'

An animal sanctuary called the Roar Foundation Shambala Preserve, six miles (10 kilometres) east of Acton, was in the mandatory evacuation zone, but fire officials decided removing the animals would be 'a logistical nightmare,' said Chris Gallucci, vice president of operations.

'We have 64 big cats, leopards, lions, tigers, cougars. ... The animals are just walking around, not being affected by this at all,' Gallucci said. 'But if we panic, they panic. But we are not in panic mode yet.'

8 of the Most Dangerous Places (To Live) on the Planet

It’s hurricane season, a time of year when residents in vulnerable areas—like New Orleans—need to hunker down, stock up and prepare for the unforeseen. But there are other places in the world where the dangers are so great that it’s hard to believe anyone is willing to stay put and fight it out with Mother Nature. Here, we have canvassed the globe for 10 places that require fortitude, resourcefulness and a great faith in one’s DIY skills to make it through the year alive.

The Cold Pole

Verkhoyansk, Russia
The Cold Pole
A monument reading "Polyus Cholada," Russian for "Pole of Cold," stands at the entrance to the city of Verkhoyansk.

On the frigid taiga, 3000 miles east of Moscow, deep in the heart of Siberia, sits Verkhoyansk, the oldest city above the Arctic Circle. For more than three centuries, Russians have continuously resided here, braving endless winters on the banks of the Yana River, which is frozen solid for nine months of the year. Today, approximately 1500 people live here.

Verkhoyansk lays claim to the title of coldest city in the world, the so-called Cold Pole. It's hard to dispute the designation, when you consider that from September to March the city averages fewer than 5 hours of sunlight each day. (In December and January, there is nearly no sunlight.) Winter temperatures there typically fall between minus 60 and minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The low, recorded in the late 19th century, was minus 90.

Nowadays, the city is attempting to attract "extreme tourists," who are drawn by the intense cold. For much of its history, however, Verkhoyansk was a preferred exile destination, used first by the czars, then later by the Soviets. In the 20th century, Verkoyansk's population peaked at 2500 residents.

The Mountain of Fire

Mount Merapi, Indonesia
The Mountain of Fire
A woman pushes a cart as the Mount Merapi volcano emits smoke. (Photograph by Tarko Sudiarno/AFP/Getty Images)

Even during its most tranquil periods, Mount Merapi, on the island of Java, smolders. Smoke ominously floats from its mouth, 10,000 feet in the sky. "Fire Mountain," as its name translates to English, has erupted about 60 times in the past five centuries, most recently in 2006. Before that, a 1994 eruption sent forth a lethal cloud of scalding hot gas, which burned 60 people to death. In 1930, more than 1000 people died when Merapi spewed lava over 8 square miles around its base, the high death toll being the result of too many people living too close.

In spite of this volatile history, approximately 200,000 villagers reside within 4 miles of the volcano. But Merapi is just one example of Javans tempting fate in the proximity of active volcanoes—it's estimated that 120 million of the island's residents live at the foot of 22 active volcanoes.

Haiti's Perfect Storms

Gonaïves, Haiti
Haiti's Perfect Storms
Debris litters a street in Gonaïves in the aftermath of hurricanes Hannah and Ike. (Photograph by Roosewelt Pinheiro/Agencia Brasil)

First came tropical storm Fay on August 16. A week later, Hurricane Gustav blew through. Following in quick succession were Hurricanes Hanna and Ike. In the span of just one month, the coastal city of Gonaïves, one of Haiti's five largest cities, found itself on the receiving end of four devastating tropical cyclones. When the last storm passed, Gonaïves had practically been washed out to sea. Much of the city was buried under mud, or submerged in filthy water that stood 12 feet deep in some places. The death toll ran close to 500.

But the storms of August to September 2008 weren't the most deadly in Gonaïves' recent history. In 2004, the city of 104,000 took a severe beating from Hurricane Jeanne. Three thousand Haitians died when the Category 3 storm hit and leveled large swaths of the city.

What makes Gonaïves so susceptible to destruction by hurricane? Aside from its coastal location on the Gulf of Gonâve, smack-dab in the cyclone-inclined Caribbean, Gonaïves rests on a flood plain prone to washing out when inland rivers swell. Furthermore, Haitians rely on wood to make charcoal, their primary source of fuel, and this has led to massive deforestation of the hillsides surrounding the city. As a result, when the rains come, the hills around Gonaïves melt away and mudslides nearly bury the city.

The African Lake of Death

Lake Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo/Rwanda
The African Lake of Death
Steam rises from Lake Kivu as lava from a nearby volcano spills into the water. (Photograph by Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

Lake Kivu, located along the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, is one of Africa's Great Lakes. Deep below the surface of this lake's 2700 square miles, there are 2.3 trillion cubic feet of methane gas, along with 60 cubic miles of carbon dioxide trapped beneath the lake under the pressure of the water and earth. If released from the depths, these gases could spread a cloud of death over the 2 million Africans who make their home in the Lake Kivu basin.

The precedent for this concern stems from a pair of events that occurred in the 1980s at two other African lakes with similar chemical compositions. In 1984, 37 people died around Cameroon's Lake Monoun in a limnic eruption. Three years later, at Lake Nyos, also in Cameroon, 80 cubic meters of CO2 were released from the water. Subsequently, 1700 people died from exposure to the toxic gas. These incidents were apparently caused by volcanic activity below the lakes, which triggered the release of the gas. Similar activity is believed to occur beneath Lake Kivu, causing many to worry that this area is next. A report from the United Nations' Environmental Program went so far as to call the three bodies "Africa's Killer Lakes," and said Lake Kivu was cause for "serious concern."

The Ephemeral Isles

The Maldives
The Ephemeral Isles
A Maldivian man looks at the sea in Male. (Photograph by Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

The Maldives are such a dangerous place that Muhammed Nasheed, upon taking office in 2008, made it one his first items of business as the Maldives' first democratically elected president to announce a plan to create a fund for financing the relocation of the entire population.

The Maldives is a confederation of 1190 islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean. Its highest point of elevation is little more than 6 feet, and, sometime in the not-too-distant future, it is likely to be swallowed whole by rising sea levels. A 2005 assessment by the United States Geological Survey, conducted after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, called the Maldives one of the Earth's youngest land masses, adding that they're not long for life above water. According to the report, the islands "should be considered ephemeral features over geologic time."

By President Nasheed's reckoning, the people of the Maldives would be well-served to find someplace else—India or Sri Lanka were floated as potential refuges—lest they too become ephemeral. Recent events support his decision to invest money earned through tourism in a relocation fund: The 2004 tsunami, which occurred at low tide, swept over the island, leaving 10 percent of the country uninhabitable. Of the Maldives' 300,000 citizens, one-third were left homeless, and more than 80 people died. In 1987, during so-called "king tides," the capital of Malé, an island city covering 1 square mile, was completely inundated. The effects of these disasters were compounded by the mining of the coral reefs that surround the islands, which has made them highly susceptible to sea erosion.

Hurricane Capital of the World

Grand Cayman
Hurricane Capital of the World
The MODIS instrument aboard NASA's Aqua satellite captured this true-color image of Hurricane Ivan as the eye passed of Grand Cayman on September 13, 2004. (Photograph by NASA)

The Cayman Islands, a British territory situated 150 miles south of Cuba, are best known as a tropical playground for the champagne and caviar set, who come to the islands for pristine Caribbean beaches, world-class diving, and lax banking regulations. Less alluring is the islands' other reputation as "hurricane capital of the world." According to the tropical-storm-tracking website, Grand Cayman, the largest of the three Cayman isles, is hit or brushed by at least one hurricane every 2.16 years, more than any other locale in the Atlantic basin. Since 1871, 64 storms have battered the low-lying limestone formation, often with catastrophic results.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan, a Category 5 storm with wind speeds approaching 150 miles per hour, dumped a foot of rain on Grand Cayman. A 10-foot storm surge followed, submerging a quarter of the island. An estimated 70 percent of the island's buildings were destroyed, and its 40,000 inhabitants were left without power or clean water for days.

The I-44 Tornado Corridor

Oklahoma City/Tulsa, Oklahoma
The I-44 Tornado Corridor
A girl sits with her dog at a motel damaged by a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. (Photograph by David McNeese/Getty Images)

More than 1 million people reside along the Interstate 44 corridor that runs between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the Sooner State's two most populous metropolitan areas. Each spring, as the cool, dry air from the Rocky Mountains glides across the lower plains, and the warm, wet air of the Gulf Coast comes north to meet it, the residents of this precarious stretch, locally called Tornado Alley, settle in for twister season.

Since 1890, more than 120 tornados have struck Oklahoma City and the surrounding area, which currently has a population of approximately 700,000. On May 3, 1999, an outbreak of 70 tornados stretched across Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. Several of the most destructive storms swept through Oklahoma City, destroying 1700 homes and damaging another 6500. Even with modern prediction capabilities and early-warning systems, 40 people died when an F-5 twister tore through Oklahoma City. In addition to the loss of life, this display of natural devastation caused more than $1 billion in damage. Since 1950, the longest the area has gone without a tornado is five years—from 1992 to 1998. (As if making up for lost time, in the 11 months that followed that record lull, 11 tornados hit.) For only three other periods during the last half-century has Oklahoma City gone more than two years without a tornado.

Northeast of Oklahoma City, along the same track that most tornado-producing storms travel, sits Tulsa, which has experienced its own share of devastation at the hands of Tornado Alley's storms. Between 1950 and 2006, 69 tornados spun across Tulsa County—population 590,000—though none proved as deadly as the 1999 storm that hit Oklahoma City. But because of its geography—the city lies along the banks of the Arkansas River and is built atop an extensive series of creeks and their flood plains—Tulsa is particularly vulnerable to the rain that accompanies Oklahoma's severe weather. Major floods in 1974, 1976 and 1984 caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage.

China's Creeping Sandbox

Minquin County, China
China's Creeping Sandbox
A man wipes his forehead while trying to work in a sand storm on a street in Minqin County, Gansu province, China. (Photograph by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

Trapped between two creeping deserts, the once fertile oasis of Minqin County, in northwest Gansu province, lives on borrowed time. The double whammy of a decade-long drought and the upriver diversion of water from its lifeline, the Shiyang River, have left Minqin to wither into the Tengger desert, which approaches from the southeast, and the Badain Jaran, closing in from the northwest. In total, since 1950, the deserts have swallowed up more than 100 square miles. During that same period, the population there has risen from 860,000 to more than 2 million.

As of 2004, the deserts were approaching at a rate of 10 meters per year. With more than 130 days of wind and dust each year, that rate is unlikely to slow. Faced with rapid desertification, the Chinese government has begun relocating displaced farmers, as arable land has decreased from 360 square miles to fewer than 60.

Donor says he got thousands for his kidney

By Drew Griffin and David Fitzpatrick
CNN Special Investigations Unit

Editor's note: Since the FBI arrested a Brooklyn businessman in late July on federal charges of organ trafficking, CNN has been conducting a worldwide investigation into the sale of kidneys using willing donors and willing recipients from China to Israel to the United States.

Nick Rosen says he got $20,000 to donate his kidney and lied to the hospital's transplant team.

Nick Rosen says he got $20,000 to donate his kidney and lied to the hospital's transplant team.

TEL AVIV, Israel (CNN) -- Four years ago, a young, cash-starved Israeli answered an ad in a newspaper for a kidney donor.

"I decided I wanted to make a positive change in my life and do something different," Nick Rosen told CNN. "So I saw an ad in the paper and it said, 'Kidney Donor Wanted.' And called the ad in the paper, and they asked me my blood type."

Ultimately, Rosen flew to New York and underwent surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center to remove one of his two healthy kidneys.

"Let's say I donated a kidney and received compensation," he said.

Rosen's story is one of several that have come to light in recent weeks as part of a worldwide CNN investigation into what appears to be a widespread black market in human organs currently under scrutiny by authorities in the United States and Israel.

Rosen says he was paid $20,000 for his kidney -- something he admits he lied about in interviews with the hospital's transplant team.

Video Watch Rosen explain how he sold his kidney »

'Secret Harvest'
A stunning "AC360" investigation. "Secret Harvest," the illegal trade in body parts.
10 ET tonight

What Rosen did -- and what the man who received the kidney did -- violated a 1994 U.S. federal law that forbids the selling or purchase of live organs for cash. He not only got his money, but made an 11-minute documentary film he called "Kidney Beans" to show how easy it was to sell an organ. A portion of the documentary shows him lying on a bed, covered in cash he says he was paid.

In a written statement, Mount Sinai told CNN: "The pre-transplant evaluation may not detect premeditated and skillful attempts to subvert and defraud the evaluation process."

"Mount Sinai's transplant screening process is rigorous and comprehensive, and assesses each donor's motivation," the hospital said.

A hospital medical source put it more bluntly: "We were duped."

According to kidney transplant doctors, the process of pre-screening, blood-type matching and other related medical issues normally takes two months before any surgery. During that time, both recipient and doctor have to make several visits to a team of doctors, social workers and perhaps even ethicists before a final decision is made.

Hospitals often ask donors to sign documents which ask whether they have received any compensation for donating a kidney or other organ. But no documentation is required to prove a family connection.

The chief of nephrology at Mount Sinai later said hospitals and doctors are primarily concerned with medicine. "We're not detectives. We're not the FBI," Dr. Barbara Murphy said. "People can, on occasion, deceive us."

But what Rosen did was not unique, according to the World Health Organization, which says 10 percent of kidney transplants worldwide are believed to be illicit.

Dr. Eli A. Friedman, a leading kidney specialist, teacher and researcher at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, said the United States leads the world in kidney transplants. About 16,000 of them are performed every year, he said.

"That would mean that somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 transplants in the United States might fall in the categorization of being illegal," Friedman said.

He added, "I have had several experiences with patients with data that says they got a kidney from their brother, their sister or from their parent when they don't have a brother or a sister, " Dr. Friedman told CNN. " The transplant was performed under false circumstances."

And Friedman said he's been offered bribes of $5,000 to $10,000 by kidney brokers.

"Of course I was very happy to see them leave the office very rapidly," he said.

The extent of the underground network came to the surface in late July, when FBI agents arrested a Brooklyn businessman on charges of organ trafficking. A federal complaint against Itzhak-Levy Rosenbaum said he had offered to provide a new kidney for a relative of an undercover FBI agent for about $160,000.

According to the complaint, Rosenbaum told the agent he could buy the kidney for about $5,000 and gave instructions on exact procedures and methods to avoid detection. The complaint quoted Rosenbaum as bragging: "So far, I've never had a failure."

Ronald Kleinberg, the attorney for Rosenbaum, told CNN he could not comment on the FBI complaint "because I have not had enough time to assess the information." He said CNN's "assertions are incorrect," and that law enforcement's account of Rosenbaum's network was inaccurate.

But law enforcement sources said Rosenbaum had been the centerpiece of a kidney-for-sale operation, which he called "United Lifeline," that operated extensively for nearly a decade.

The donors and patients in this network were linked by one common theme -- they were Jewish. Investigators say the donors usually came from Eastern Europe, were mostly poor and willing to sell their kidneys to U.S. and Israeli patients.

According to one expert on organ trafficking, the FBI had been alerted to Rosenbaum's activities years ago.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley and founder of a newsletter called "Organs Watch," said she had told the FBI about Rosenbaum and her suspicions about him seven years ago.

"I think they thought it was a very few bad apples," Scheper-Hughes said.

The FBI said would not officially comment on her assertions, but an FBI source later said, "We developed our own leads."

According to Scheper-Hughes, the same day she spoke to CNN, she had learned of another illegal transplant surgery taking place at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. The donor, she said, was a young Korean national who had received more than $25,000 for one of his kidneys.

"This is a kid that does not speak much English, who is terrified and shaken," she said. "And he thought, 'Maybe I've made a mistake to do this, but $25,000 is a good amount of cash.'"

Scheper-Hughes said the cash had been handed over in two increments, with the second paid to a relative in a hospital bathroom.

In a statement, Cedars-Sinai spokeswoman Sally Stewart said living donors "must state they are not receiving payment for their kidney."

"If at any time during the evaluation process, the transplant team suspects the donor is inappropriately being paid for a kidney, the transplant is canceled," she said. But a hospital source later told CNN, "We do not give lie-detector tests to our patients."

According to Scheper-Hughes, who is in the final stages of writing a book on organ trafficking, much of the world's illicit traffic in kidneys can be traced to Israel.

"Israel is the top," she said. "It has tentacles reaching out worldwide."

Until March 2008, Israeli law allowed Israeli citizens to go abroad for live organ transplants from non-related donors. But there was no way for Israeli authorities to keep track of how many of those cases involved money changing hands, the country's Health Ministry said.

Israeli investigators are looking intensively at illegal organ trafficking under the new law, the ministry said. And prosecutors in the West Bank town of Nazareth sent nine Israelis to jail in 2007 after uncovering a black-market ring that was buying and selling organs.

Gilad Ehrlick, the assistant district attorney for Israel's Northern District, said he was shocked by the case. Secretly recorded conversations showed that Arab and Russian newspapers were targeting low-income Israelis and Palestinians with ads saying there would be payment in exchange for providing a kidney.

"The idea was the people were calling out of despair, out of urgent need who needed a quick way to make money," he said.

All About Organ Donation

Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr. making 'Cowboys & Aliens'

By Jay A. Fernandez and Borys Kit

Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. are bringing their iron-clad collaboration to another comic-book property: "Cowboys & Aliens."

44176-favreau_downey_jr_341x182 Downey has been attached to the DreamWorks/Universal project since last summer, when "Iron Man" co-screenwriters Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby were working on the adaptation of the Platinum Studios Comics graphic novel written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley.

In the fall, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who are executive producers on the project, took over scripting, along with "Lost" exec producer Damon Lindelof.

Now Favreau has come on to make "Cowboys" his next directing gig.

The sci-fi Western explores what would happen if the traditional Old West enemies -- cowboys and Native Americans -- found the prairie attacked by aliens in mid-1800s Arizona. Long in development, the "Aliens" project originally was set up at Universal and DreamWorks in 1997 with Steve Oedekerk writing and directing. It later moved to Columbia, with "Sahara" scribes Joshua Oppenheimer and Thomas Donnelly writing.

The Favreau-Downey-Kurtzman-Orci-Lindelof nexus represents the current nucleus of geek-genre pop culture. Kurtzman and Orci recently delivered the sci-fi megahits "Star Trek" and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," Lindelof maintains his control over the "Lost" mind screw, and Favreau and Downey will serve up another highly anticipated "Iron Man" saga next year.

For DreamWorks, the property represents an essential tentpole to help elevate its newly independent status now that the studio's first round of financing is complete. DreamWorks included "Cowboys" among the 17 projects it bought from Paramount upon leaving last fall.

As part of that exit arrangement, Paramount has an option to co-distribute the film with new DreamWorks distributor Disney, an opportunity it presumably will engage given Favreau's $585 million worldwide success on the Paramount-distributed "Iron Man."

Cowboys_aliens_180 Imagine Entertainment principals Brian Grazer and Ron Howard -- the latter once a possibility to direct -- are producing with Platinum topper Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Universal, where Imagine is housed, co-developed and is co-financing the project.

As it ramps up production for the next few years' slates, DreamWorks likely would anchor its 2011 summer to "Cowboys." DreamWorks and Kurtzman and Orci also are developing the Platinum property "Atlantis Rising," another big-budget sci-fi hybrid, with director Len Wiseman and writer Joby Harold.

The CAA-repped Favreau is in postproduction on Paramount/Marvel's "Iron Man 2," slated for a May release. As a writer and actor, he will next appear in the Oct. 9 Universal comedy "Couples Retreat." He is also providing a voice to the MGM comedy "The Zookeeper."

Albino otter spotted by photographer

A rare albino otter has been captured on camera by an amateur wildlife photographer in the north of Scotland.

A rare albino otter has been spotted in Moray, Scotland. The Otter was captured by an amateur wildlife photographer.
A rare albino otter has been spotted in Moray, Scotland. The Otter was captured by an amateur wildlife photographer.

Karen Jack said the sight of the white animal eating a fish on rocks in Moray was "surreal".

Grace Yoxon, of the Skye-based International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF) said the otter was "extremely rare". She said there were no figures for the number of albino otters, but it was unaware of there being any others reported in the UK.

Ms Jack had to wait for the animal to reappear from the sea after catching a brief glimpse of it earlier.

She said: "I have been into photography for about three years as a hobby and love photographing wildlife, landscapes and my two cats.

"But it was just an amazing and surreal view of the albino otter, and for it to sit there and eat while we watched on was mind-blowing."

Mrs Yoxon said: "It is extremely rare to see albino animals in the wild and to be able to get such wonderful photos is exceptional.

"Karen was extremely lucky to have her camera with her - I am very envious."

In March, IOSF took into its care an otter that latched on to two teenagers who were sledging, then followed them home.

The cub was spotted in snow under a bush at Windygates, Fife, in February. He was nicknamed Dylan because one of the youngsters was playing a harmonica, an instrument synonymous with singer Bob Dylan.

Besides an obviously inappropriate crush on Smurfette and an obsession with the ColecoVision video game, I had little to no interest in the Smurf franchise as a kid. If I was gonna roll with some odd little forest creatures in a fantastical universe, I was rolling with the Gummi Bears. And I'm not even sure that today's generation of kids are even all that aware of who or what a Smurf is. But that's all about to change as next year Sony is releasing the animated film THE SMURFS in 3D. I'm sure a teaser trailer of some sort will be attached to CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS (the next film from Sony Pictures Animation) in a few weeks but for now we get a look at the teaser poster. It first ran in a magazine and was scanned by Smurf fansite (ahem...) PVC Blue. Check it out below...

Extra Tidbit: Smurfette was originally created by Gargamel as an evil Smurf. When she turned good her hair went from black to blonde.

New Japanese Watermelon Comes from the Heart

It may be filled with soft and pink fleshy bits but this Japanese invention is by far the strangest representation of love we have seen in some time.

An enterprising farmer and his wife in Kumamoto, Japan have created a heart-shaped watermelon.

watermelon heart New Japanese Watermelon Comes from the Heart picture

It was an act of love for the couple where they wanted the fruit of their labor to symbolize their feelings for each other … and for their profession. Who says you can’t be too attached to your work?

The endeavor took three years to perfect and thereby, does show profound dedication to their work. Of course this is hardly a surprise given that the country is famous for producing creatively-shaped fruits and vegetables.

The couple managed to cultivate 20 watermelons in time for Mother’s day and sent off a few of them to be displayed at the Iwataya Department Store.

People say that perfect love always comes with a price and this is certainly true for these watermelons. Each fruit was tagged at a hefty 15,750 yen ($160).

Link (1 2)

By shinigami on 01-09-2009

Fox sets 'Fantastic' reboot

Akiva Goldsman has been set as producer

While Disney lays down a $4 billion bet on the future of Marvel's superheroes, 20th Century Fox has already begun overhauling one of its big Marvel franchises, "Fantastic Four," to take the property beyond the two films already made.

Akiva Goldsman has been hired to oversee the reboot as producer. Michael Green, the co-exec producer of TV's "Heroes" who co-wrote "Green Lantern," will write the script for the new "Fantastic Four."

Fox wouldn't comment on its plans, but the moves are evidence that Marvel franchises do have enduring lifespans.

As "Spider-Man 4" moves toward an early 2010 production start, Columbia Pictures recently hired James Vanderbilt to write a fifth and sixth installment with the understanding that one or both of those films would give the franchise a makeover with a new director and cast (Daily Variety, Aug. 16).

The 2005 "Fantastic Four" and 2007 sequel "Rise of the Silver Surfer" were directed by Tim Story and starred Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis. Since the deals for the reboot are just getting made, it is unclear if any of them will return.

Though Marvel Entertainment owns and finances properties like "Iron Man" and "Thor," Fox controls "Fantastic Four" in perpetuity -- as long as it continues making the films. Fox has the same arrangement on Marvel Comics properties "X-Men," "Daredevil" and "Silver Surfer." Marvel is a producer and financial participant through a licensing agreement.

Though the related Silver Surfer character soared in the "Fantastic Four" sequel, that iconic personality has remained a priority project for his own film at the studio.

Fox has so far done one "X-Men" spinoff in "Wolverine." The studio is working on a sequel to that film and has scripts for "X-Men Origins: First Class," and "X-Men Origins: Magneto." Potential spinoffs for the Gambit and Deadpool characters have also been discussed.

As producer, Goldsman is involved with several DC Comics transfers, including "Jonah Hex," "The Losers" and "Teen Titans." He was also producer of the Will Smith-Charlize Theron superhero film "Hancock," for which a sequel is being developed.

Thor: rolling skillz

A Radical Solution to End the Drug War: Legalize Everything

One cop straight out of The Wire crunches the numbers with's political columnist to discover that America's prohibition of narcotics may be costing more lives than Mexico's — and nearly enough dollars for universal health care. So why not repeal our drug laws? Because cops are making money off them, too.

By John H. Richardson

Neill Franklin

C. David Freitag

We've heard a lot about the terrible death toll Mexico has suffered during the drug war — over 11,000 souls so far. This helps to account for the startling lack of controversy that greeted last week's news that Mexico had suddenly decriminalized drugs — not just marijuana but also cocaine, LSD, and heroin. In place of the outrage and threats that U.S. officials expressed when Mexico tried to decriminalize in 2006 was a mild statement, from our new drug czar, that we are going to take a "wait and see" approach.

Still, we've heard nothing about the American death toll. Isn't that strange? So far as I can tell, nobody has even tried to come up with a number.

Until now. I've done some rough math, and this is what I found:


To repeat, that's 6,487 dead Americans. Throw in overdoses and the cost of this country's paralyzing drug laws is closer to 15,000 lives.

I'm basing these numbers on an interview with a high-ranking former narcotics officer named Neill Franklin. A member of the Maryland State Police for 32 years, Franklin eventually rose to the position of commander in Maryland's Bureau of Drug Enforcement. As he puts it, he was a classic "good soldier" in the drug war.

Franklin's turning point came in October of 2000. "I lost a very, very close friend of mine, a narcotics agent for Maryland State Police," he says. "His name was Ed Toatley. He was assassinated outside of Washington, D.C., trying to make a drug deal in a park. He had a wife, he had three kids. I had just spoken to him a couple of weeks prior to him getting assigned to this particular deal — he was finally going to bring this guy down, and lo and behold the guy kills him."

That got Franklin thinking. "I started doing the research and asking the questions: What progress are we making on this thing? And it turns out that not only are we losing kids who are in the game, but we are losing communities and fellow cops. We had lost a number of police officers in Baltimore alone."

Another turning point was 2002, when Angela Dawson and her five kids were murdered in East Baltimore by drug dealers she had been tying to keep from doing business in front of her house. "They fire-bombed the house late one night and the whole family perished," Franklin remembers.

So he started brooding on the drug war's body count. "Baltimore is a city of just a hair over 600,000 people. Our annual homicide rate was fluctuating between 240 and 300 every year for decades. Think about that: 240 to 300 homicides annually, and 75 percent to 80 percent are drug related. It's either gangs that are using drugs to support operations, or territorial disputes among drug dealers, or people just getting caught in the line of fire. And Baltimore is a small city compared to others," Franklin notes. "So we're not talking a handful of homicides; we're talking about the majority of the homicides in any city in the U.S. So if you add those cities up — just lowball it, take just 50 percent — I guarantee you, you'll find the numbers are quite similar to what they have in Mexico."

I took his advice. In 2007, the last year for which hard numbers are available, 16,425 people were murdered. Since our most recent Census said that 79 percent of the country is urban, I cut out the rural Americans — although there's plenty of drug use there, too — and came up with 12,975 urban homicides. Low-balling that number at 50 percent, I arrived at a rough estimate of 6,487 drug deaths. Using 75 percent, the toll rises to 9,731.

"And now we've got the cartel gangs coming up from Mexico," Franklin reminds me. "They're in over 130 cities in the U.S. already, and it's not going to get better."

Why Regulating Legal Drugs Fixes the Dead-Body Problem

Neill Franklin's solution is radical: "You have to take the money out of it. Many people talk about legalization and decriminalize — it's still illegal, but you're just not sending as many people to jail, especially for the nonviolent offenses. However, the money is still being made in the illegal sales, so you still have the drug wars. It's prohibition that's killing our people. That's why people are dying."

"So," I ask, "you want to legalize everything?"

"Yes. But I like to put it like this: I want regulation of everything. Because right now, I think they're confusing prohibition with regulation. What I'm talking about is applying standards — quality control, just like alcohol. We should have learned our lesson during alcohol prohibitions — we repealed the Eighteenth Amendment and applied standards of sale and manufacture, so it has to be a certain quality and you can't sell it to just anybody, and you still go to jail if you sell it to the wrong people. So, among other things, you'll also reduce overdoses — the majority of the overdoses we have is people who don't know what they're getting or buying because the purity level fluctuates. In addition, people are afraid to get help because they don't want to go jail, so they let their friends die."

So let's add overdoses to our death toll. In 2005, recent Senate testimony shows, 22,400 Americans died of drug overdoses. Leaving aside prescription drugs and counting only the 39 percent of overdoses attributed to cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines, I count another 8,736 deaths.

That brings us to 15,223 Americans dead from the drug war.

But what about the argument that drugs will spread like wildfire if we don't keep bringing down the hammer?

"First, there's no concrete study to support such a belief — it's all completely speculation," Franklin insists. "So in my left hand I have all this speculation about what may happen to addiction rates, and then I look at my other hand and I see all these dead bodies that are actually fact, not speculation. And you're going to ask me to weigh the two? Second, if the addiction rate does go up, I'm going to have a lot of live addicts that I can cure. The direction we're going in now, I've got a lot of dead bodies."

I told Franklin I was surprised to hear a cop express so much sympathy for drug addicts. Even pro-drug types don't do that much. "I do have sympathy," he says. "What they're dealing with is a health issue, not a criminal issue. And as long as you treat it as a criminal issue, we're treating the symptom and not the cause."

Why Cleaning Up the Justice System Solves the Wasted-Money Problem

Last year, Franklin went public with his conclusions by joining a group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Since then he's made it his business to talk to other cops about the subject, and he's been surprised by another discovery: "I find that 95 percent of my law-enforcement friends agree that we have to take a different direction, but they're not sure what direction that is — and probably 60 percent to 65 percent agree that we should legalize."

And why, exactly, don't we hear about a possibly overwhelming majority of police wanting to legalize — not just decriminalize, but legalize — major narcotics?

"Selfish reasons," he says. "There is a lot of money to be made in law enforcement. If we were to legalize, you could get rid of one third of every law-enforcement agency in this country."

Really? One third?

"And give back all the federal funds too. That's why very seldom will you see a police chief step forward and say, 'Yeah, we need to do this.'"

I made a stab at crunching those numbers, too. In 2003, America's local police budgets (PDF) were $43 billion dollars. A third of that: $12.9 billion. Add another $9 billion in domestic and international law enforcement (PDF) and the number rises to $21.9 billion.

Then consider America's prisons, the problems with which we've discussed here time and again. "The prison population is off the hook in this country," Franklin says. "In 1993, at the height of apartheid in South Africa, the incarceration of black males was 870 per 100,000. In 2004 in the U.S., for every 100,000 people we are sending 4,919 black males to prison. And the majority of those are for nonviolent drug offenses. But we'd rather send people to prison than give them information and treatment."

So... our federal prison budget in 2007 was $6.3 billion, and 55 percent of the prisoners were there for drug offenses. The total state-prison budget for the U.S. in 2007 was $49 billion, according to this study from the Pew Foundation, which found that "at least" 44 states had gone into the red to incarcerate their citizens. Using the same 55 percent number — which is probably low — we arrive at a rough total of the prison expenses associated with the drug war: $30.4 billion.

"I know jails are a big business and keep lot of people employed," Franklin says, "but it doesn't make it right."

To review, using what seem to be very conservative numbers, our first unofficial tally of the drug war in the United States is staggering:

15,223 dead and $52.3 billion spent each year — which is, incidentally, almost enough to pay for universal health care.

"We've got serious constitutional issues involved, too," Franklin adds. "Improper search and seizure is occurring every day..."

But I'll save that for another column.

Correction appended: An earlier version of this column estimated an incorrect fraction of America's local police budgets.

Sound off on the drug war! Click here to e-mail John H. Richardson about his weekly political column at

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