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News Wrap: Bay Area transit workers go on strike, causing clogged commute

October 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL:  The Supreme Court will consider how states decide who is mentally fit to face the death penalty. The justices accepted the case of a condemned killer in Florida. His IQ is just over the level classified as mentally disabled under state law. In 2002, the court barred executions of mentally disabled defendants, but left it to the states to judge who meets the criteria.

New Jersey today officially joined the ranks of states where gay marriage is legal. Same-sex weddings began under a state judge’s ruling issued last month. And Gov. Chris Christie decided to drop further legal challenges. More on this later in the program.

The San Francisco region began the week hobbled by a transit strike that shut down the nation’s fifth largest commuter rail system.

We have a report narrated by NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: Headaches and delays greeted commuters this morning with the Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system closed until further notice.

EMILY LUHRS, commuter: So I’m trying out things I haven’t tried before. So, we will see what happens, but, hopefully, I can work from home the rest of the week if this continues.

KWAME HOLMAN: More than 2,000 unionized employees walked off the job early Friday over pay raises and workplace rules. Contract talks made little progress over the weekend, leaving BART’s average daily ridership of 400,000 to find other ways to work.

Heavy traffic clogged toll plazas and snarled major roadways and commuters formed long lines for ferries, charter buses and even car pools.

JEAN HAMILTON, commuter: I’m sitting here, as opposed to going to BART, and it’s probably going to be another hour an 30 minutes before I actually get to my office, which means less productivity for me and everyone who is there with me. I wish I had the benefits these people get. I’m all for labor, but these guys are living in the ’90s.

KWAME HOLMAN: Strikers, including mechanic Gregory Gray, said they had no choice.

GREGORY GRAY, striking union member: I don’t want to be out here on the line. I would just rather be at work. I’m not getting paid today. I mean, I work to get a paycheck. So — and I know it’s really bad for commuters.

KWAME HOLMAN: Amid the strikes, two transit employees were killed over the weekend by an out-of-service train. The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation. It was unclear whether the work stoppage or BART’s use of non-striking workers played a role.

GWEN IFILL: Later, the transit agency and unions announced they would resume talks on ending the strike.

The French government called on the American ambassador today to explain the latest revelation involving the U.S. National Security Agency. The French newspaper Le Monde said the NSA collected more than 70 million French phone records in a 30-day period. The s evening, the White House said President Obama spoke to French President Hollande and acknowledged there are legitimate questions to address.

In Iraq, seven policemen were killed today when gunmen and a suicide bomber attacked a police headquarters in Fallujah, a former al-Qaida stronghold. The assault followed a bloody weekend. On Sunday, a suicide bomber killed at least 38 people outside a cafe in a mainly Shiite district of Baghdad. Nearly 400 Iraqis have died in the violence this month alone.

Fire crews in Australia are still struggling against scores of wildfires in the face of hot, windy weather. The huge blazes have already destroyed more than 200 homes outside Sydney and killed at least one person.

We have a report narrated by John Sparks of Independent Television News.

JOHN SPARKS: From a distance, giant plums of smoke filled the sky. Up close, however, it looked like an inferno, balls of fire moving quickly through the bushland of New South Wales. And the people who run this state are worried. They have called it an unparalleled emergency, with the suburbs of the country’s largest city, Sydney, now under threat.

SHANE FITZSIMMONS, New South Wales Rural Fire: We have looked at best case, worst case, and in-between scenarios. And no matter which scenario you look at, there is going to be a significant amount of fire activity.

JOHN SPARKS: Bushfires are common in Australia. But the winter months brought little rain and the fires have come early. Fanned by strong winds, they have raced through communities of Sydney’s outskirts.

A state of emergency has been declared, giving officials the power to order evacuations. And with temperatures and wind speeds expected to rise, they will probably have to use it. Residents in the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney are particularly vulnerable.

MARGARET KRIWANEK, resident: So many people are praying for us. I think anything can happen to it. I’m hoping that it will be all right.

JOHN SPARKS: For many, it’s too late. Their homes have been reduced to ash. But the fires are random. Other properties are left unscathed.

These pictures taken by a firefighter on his way home — the dangers are immense. If multiple bushfires merge, the authorities may have what is known as a mega-fire to deal with.

GWEN IFILL: People in Harbin, China, faced a blanket of toxic smog today that set new records. Authorities shut down schools and grounded flights, after air pollution levels soared to 40 times the international standard. The region has entered its high smog season, as more coal is being burned for heating. We will have more on this later in the program.

Evacuees who lived near Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant could wait three more years before they go home. The Environment Ministry said today they’re delaying clean-up for six of the 11 affected villages, as they determine where to store and dispose of contaminated waste. An earthquake and tsunami triggered a meltdown of three reactors at the plant in March 2011.

Wall Street had a quiet day to begin the week. The Dow Jones industrial average lost seven points to close at 15,392. The Nasdaq rose five points to close at 3,920.