Friday, December 08, 2006
Surviving in the snowy wilderness
CNN Correspondent Rick Sanchez burrows into a makeshift shelter in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
I took a blow-dryer to my feet last night. It was one of those super-duper ones that painters use to dry their canvasses. No matter how close I put it to the underside of my feet, I didn't feel any heat, not a bit.
My feet were frozen from trekking through the Rocky Mountains. I was out there for an hour-and-a-half. I maybe walked a mile. James Kim walked between seven and ten miles during his ordeal in the Oregon wilderness.
I was wearing a jacket, boots not fit for the snow, gloves and a hat. No mountaineering gear of any kind. Just the kind of stuff someone might wear while driving. James Kim was wearing sneakers, a couple of shirts and a jacket, but he reportedly had no hat.
Last night in the wilderness, I found out firsthand just how dangerous extreme conditions can be. The temperature was in the teens; our elevation was 8,500 feet.
At the suggestion of survival experts, we tried different techniques to see what works in those conditions and what doesn't. We tried making a shelter of last resort by literally burrowing four feet into the snow (see picture above). We tried using a candle to keep our car heated.
One thing we learned is how important it is to be prepared, because as I found out, when one is 8,500 feet up in the Rocky Mountains and the temperature is dropping into the teens, it is too late to look for the kinds of items that could save your life.
Here are a few things that Ken Brinks, a ranger with the Colorado State Parks, suggests keeping in the car at all times:
- Fluorescent tape (even just one piece of orange tape can be spotted by a helicopter)
- Couple of candy bars (but not chocolate -- chocolate can dehydrate you and so can, say, salted nuts)
- Coffee can to hold the candle (and melted water)
- CD to use as a reflector in case you see a helicopter
But the most important thing you can do, Ken says, is to tell somebody where you are going and when you expect to get there. If nobody knows where you are going, nobody knows where to look for you. Just like a pilot would, you gotta file a flight plan.
Midwest power outage sparks angry questions
Does it seem like public utilities and other energy companies are getting better ... or worse ... at serving the public?
In Illinois right now, thousands of people who lost electricity in an ice storm last week may well say "worse." That's because some of them are still without power.
The storm was admittedly a whopper. More than a half million customers of the Ameren company lost electricity, and the company says it has been working relentlessly ever since to restore full service. But the fact remains, tens of thousands of customers were driven from their homes by the cold and darkness while the repair effort went on.
The blackout in New York, the brownouts on the West Coast, and of course, the lingering problems on the Gulf Coast following Katrina, have raised alarms about the vulnerability of the nation's power grid.
In Illinois, where people waited longest for their power to be restored after the recent storm, state officials are asking questions: Did Ameren have enough repair crews standing by? Did it do enough to prevent damage by, for example, trimming tree branches near power lines aggressively? Some officials in Illinois and neighboring Missouri are calling for an investigation.
Ameren says it welcomes these questions. It says it has done an excellent job maintaining its infrastructure, responding to its customers, and mitigating the impact of a terrible storm.
My question is this: In the wake of Katrina and all the delays that followed in restoration of even basic services, are you more ... or less ... inclined to believe that the "powers that be" are watching over your home's power supply?
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Thursday, December 07, 2006
Wilderness survival: The rule of threes
A SWAT officer is lowered by helicopter to the remote spot where James Kim's body was found.
Probably every one of us who has seen the tragic story
out of Oregon has wondered what they would do if faced with same situation as James Kim and his family. I'm no different.
I've discussed it with my colleagues. I've discussed it with my wife. So now I'm heading into the Rocky Mountains to find out what it is really like to be in the kinds of unbelievable conditions James and his family faced -- the freezing cold, the snow, the wilderness.
To prepare for this story, I've been interviewing experts about how to survive brutally cold conditions. They've told me about something call the rule of threes:
- You can survive for three hours without shelter
- You can survive for three days without water
- You can survive for three weeks without food
So now I know. And now the rest of us know. If you have to make a choice between food, water and shelter from the cold, then shelter wins out in a big way.
But what happens when you become desperate? When you look into your wife's or kids' eyes and see desperation equal to or greater than your own?
The last thing I want to do is judge James Kim's actions. After all, none of us could ever imagine what must have been going through his mind after being in caught with his family in the Oregon snow, with nothing but wilderness around and seemingly no hope for rescue.
I now know he should have stayed. Tonight, in my report, as I trek into the Rocky Mountains and meet with some survival experts, I hope to show what we're all supposed to do if faced with similar conditions.
Hot Links: Oregon father's effort 'superhuman'
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Hamilton: U.S. running out of time to save Iraq
Here are some excerpts from Anderson Cooper's interview with Lee Hamilton and James Baker, co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group:
COOPER: Secretary Baker, you called the situation in Iraq "grave and deteriorating." How much time do you think the U.S. has? How much of a window of opportunity is there?
BAKER: Well, I don't think you can measure it exactly. But we firmly believe in the assessment which we put in the report, which is a very tough assessment, very bleak assessment. But one thing I can tell you for sure -- that is all 10 members of our commission, Democrats and Republicans alike, think we ought to implement the recommendations of this report if there's any chance for success
COOPER: "Grave and deteriorating," though. Does that mean we are losing?
BAKER: Well, I don't think that you can say that we are losing or winning. I'll give you General Pace's definition: We're in the midst of a war, and if we don't adopt these recommendations, we run serious risk of losing.
COOPER: Do you (Hamilton) believe we are winning?
HAMILTON: I don't think we're losing; I don't think we're winning. I just think we're engaged right in the middle of war. I think there are a lot of steps we can take to enhance our prospects of winning and we'd better take them very soon. You ask how much time we've got. The answer is not very much. We don't measure this in terms of months. You measure it in terms of weeks and maybe days in which we have to act.
COOPER: How much of this insurgency right now is motivated by al Qaeda? President Bush seemed to be indicating that al Qaeda is behind most of the violence. There are criminal gangs, there are, as you talk about in the report, death squads, nationalist insurgents....
HAMILTON: We think chief violence today is sectarian, not al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is present, al Qaeda is part of the violence, particularly in certain areas, but it is not the chief source of violence today. There are a number of different sources of violence, including just plain old criminality. Al Qaeda is a factor, but not the chief source. The American casualties are coming from the sectarian violence largely.
COOPER: Is it possible that getting U.S. troops out will lessen the violence? It will at least take away the motivation of nationalist insurgents.
BAKER: Many people have argued that to us. Many people in Iraq have made that case.
COOPER: Do you buy it?
BAKER: Yes, I think there's some validity to it. Absolutely. Then we're no longer seen to be the occupiers. We're still going to have a very robust force presence in Iraq and in the region for quite a number of years after this thing sorts itself out, whichever way it sorts itself out. We have to do that because we have vital national interests in that region. We have the problem of al Qaeda. We cannot leave the country to be a Taliban-like base for al Qaeda. So we're going to maintain. Even after we do what we said here, there's still going to be a lot of force protection combat capability, a lot of training, equipping and supporting, and there will be rapid reaction teams and special ops forces to chase al Qaeda.
COOPER: Based inside Iraq?
BAKER: Based inside Iraq.
HAMILTON: As you draw down American forces, at whatever rate or level, we have to acknowledge that you create some risks. When you embed American forces with Iraqi forces, that creates a situation of some risks. We want to minimize those risks as much as we possibly can.
COOPER: You have both met with President Bush in the last couple of days, and his spokespeople have indicated, "Look, there are other groups looking into this. The Joint Chiefs of Staff is going to issue a report." He (Bush) says he's willing to listen and read the recommendations. What's your sense of his willingness to act on your recommendations?
HAMILTON: Look, the president is getting a lot of advice from people other than ourselves and he should be, and we don't object to that. We don't have all the truth here. There's one very, very big difference. The only source of bipartisan advice is from the Iraq Study Group. You've got a country today that is badly split, a government that is badly split, executive, legislative, split within administration, split all over the place on Capitol Hill.
If you're going to have an effective policy in this country in the next two years, we've got to come together. And the only way to come together is for the president and the leaders in the Congress to reach out to one another in bipartisan effort. What we did in the report was put together realizable goals -- goals that could be achieved given the political environment in Washington and political environment in Iraq. It's very easy to sit anywhere and shoot off a lot of recommendations to solve the problem of Iraq. They won't work unless you have bipartisan report. That's what our report brings to this whole effort -- a bipartisan solution.
BAKER: That, no other report is going to bring. And the American people desperately want this.
Baker/Hamilton interview begins shortly
Anderson is interviewing Iraq Study Group co-chairmen James Baker and Lee Hamilton any moment now. We will post excerpts here as soon as they are available.
Does the Iraq report matter?
"Must be something going on in Washington today."
That's what one of the TSA screeners said to me as I walked through the metal detector at LaGuardia Airport.
"Brian Williams just came through," the screener continued. Sure enough, there he was in the back of the packed plane to Washington, D.C.
I'm now at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington waiting for a press conference. Details of the Iraq Study Group's report have been leaking for the past week, and now the main points are well known.
I'm scheduled to interview James Baker and Lee Hamilton, the study group's co-chairs, in a couple hours. All of us who are interviewing them will gather and wait together, and then one-by-one go in to talk to them.
Tonight, I'll also be discussing the report with Barack Obama, Kay Bailey Hutchison and others.
Critics are already saying the ISG report is essentially proposing the status quo approach in Iraq -- there is no timetable for troop withdrawal; everything depends on the situation on the ground. Every year, the Bush Administration has talked about drawing down the number of troops, and every year, the facts on the ground have made that impossible in their assessment.
The question, of course, is: How much of a say could a group like the ISG really have at this point about what happens in Iraq? Are events so beyond our control, moving so fast, that whatever recommendations this panel could come up with would be beside the point?
Finally, what do you think of the ISG's recommendations?
Hot Links: Iraq Study Group findings
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
A very brief history of poison
The poisoning of the former Russian spy in London has all of us thinking about other famous poisonings. So I took a look, and wow, what a history.
The use of poison to kill or maim stretches back millennia, but it really took off in the 8th century, when an Arab chemist turned arsenic into an odorless, tasteless, undetectable powder, making it an attractive murder weapon. By the Renaissance, people were selling poison rings, knives, letters, and even poison lipstick.
Today, poisoning is the method of choice for many killers. The United States saw more than 147,000 poison-related deaths from 2001 to 2004, according to the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Of these, 434 were considered homicides. Were there more? Nobody knows, because poisoning deaths often resemble natural deaths.
See if you remember any of these:
The "CandyMan," otherwise known as Ronald Clark O'Bryan. He poisoned his 8-year-old son with cyanide-laced pixie sticks back in 1974.
How about the "Gatorade Murder?" James Keown is charged with slipping antifreeze into his wife's Gatorade, killing her. He's pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
One of the more mysterious cases involves a Bulgarian defector who was struck by a ricin-laced dart investigators believe was shot from an umbrella. The case is still unsolved.
A poison expert I talked with told me that poison is considered a "white man's weapon," even though plenty of women poison too. He said most poisoners are serial killers and that they tend to be greedy and manipulative.
Do you remember any famous or mysterious poisoning cases you want to share?
Spy's downfall was fearlessness, friend says
Sipping coffee at his home in the quiet suburbs of London, Oleg Gordievsky speaks of his friendship with Alexander Litvinenko. He tells me that Litvinenko firmly believed the current Russian government would one day fail and that he would return home to help rebuild a counterintelligence service free of corruption. Gordievsky, himself a KGB defector, says he was instrumental in convincing the British government to offer Litvinenko political asylum from Russia.
Passion and conviction apparently came easy to Litvinenko. He seemed utterly fearless. Gordievsky suggests to me that this might have been his friend's downfall. Even Litvinenko, who knew how powerful his enemies could be, did not believe a hit would be attempted against him as long as he stayed in London.
A great deal of attention is being paid to the meeting Litvinenko had over tea with two Russians at a London hotel the day he became ill. If this proves to be where Litvinenko was poisoned, Gordievsky theorizes the killer or killers knew his habits well.
Gordievsky told me his friend was a man without vices. He didn't smoke nor did he drink. He always tried to meet with people he was unsure of in upscale and busy public places. Gordievsky believes the only way such a potent dose of radioactive poison could be administered was to slip it into Litvinenko's tea during a casual meeting. I emphasize that this is just a theory -- one of hundreds. And it comes from just one figure in a tightly-knit Russian expatriate community that is more than just a little shaken right now.
There are also theories that Litvinenko was collecting information for personal gain. The British newspaper, the Observer, printed a series of interviews with a Russian academic. The article suggests Litvinenko may have turned to blackmail, selling damaging information involving powerful Russian oil interests. But neither his friends nor his family believe that the man who was so set against corruption and took such great personal risks to expose it would ever compromise
It's hard to pin down just how many Russian ex-pats have taken up residence in London, but there seems to be a lot. Prominent members of the community offer guesses that there could be anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000 in the United Kingdom, but they don't know for sure. Most keep a low profile, content to find a safe place to live and a job that provides a decent living. A few however, like Alexander Litvinenko, don't disappear into the crowd and live a simple 9-to-5 life.
Litvinenko's friends say he could not rest or stay quiet as long as long as he believed he could bring about change to a Russian government that he viewed as rife with corruption and violence. They say that in life, Litvinenko was a star among the Russian expatriates who want to see an end to the government of Vladimir Putin. In death, they say, his star seems to be shining brighter than ever.
Hot Links: Stories we're following
Monday, December 04, 2006
Poison that killed spy lurks in most everyone
Thanks for all of your comments and questions in response to David Doss' post
previewing tonight's special report on the murder of the former Russian spy. We've spent the past few days researching the medical angle of this story. Here is some of what we've found:
First off, polonium-210 can be found in harmless trace amounts everywhere. It naturally occurs in the earth's crust -- in rocks and minerals, even in our own bodies. If any of us took an alpha radiation detector and put it right next to our skin or if we took a urine test, we would most likely test positive for trace amounts of polonium-210. It's that common in our environment. That may sound frightening, but it's important to remember that in order to make it dangerous, you'd need a large amount.
As Dr. Robert Whitcomb, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health physicist told us: "In the toxicology world, dose makes the poison."
So, how much was used? Well, far more than what naturally occurs in the environment, but an amount still invisible to the naked eye. We're talking micrograms here. To best see it, you'd need a very powerful microscope.
"We can't see it, feel it, sense it," Whitcomb says.
You could make polonium-210 a few different ways: By extracting it from rocks containing radioactive uranium or by chemically separating it from radium-226. But, in order to get an amount that would be lethal, you'd have to produce it in a nuclear reactor laboratory. Hence, there are only a handful of people and places in the world capable of making polonium-210 such that it could poison someone.
What kind of threat does polonium-210 pose to the general public? The good news is that it poses very little danger. In fact, our skin provides natural protection from polonium-210. You'd have to sniff it or eat it in order for it to pose a health danger. You see, polonium-210 is an alpha emitter, the weakest form of radiation. Alpha radiation waves can be stopped by a piece of paper.
What kind of danger did the assassin face? The fact is the assassin risked very little by carrying the poison. The person could have carried polonium-210 wrapped in plastic or in a vial and been completely safe.
Why use it as poison? How long did it take doctors to determine it was polonium-210? These are just a few of the additional questions we'll try to answer in tonight's report. Please keep your questions and your comments coming. It's a medical mystery in the truest sense.
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