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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

What began in the pre-dawn hours yesterday as a rescue mission has now become a recovery mission.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Six people are presumed dead after a cargo ship struck Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge and it collapsed into the Patapsco River. Two survived, and a major East Coast transit route and a key shipping port are shut down.

FADEL: NPR's Andrew Limbong is in Baltimore covering this story. Hi, Andrew.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So why did the Coast Guard suspend rescue operations last night?

LIMBONG: Yeah, well, a couple of reasons. I mean, first, you know, just given the length of time since the bridge collapsed, you know, and secondly, you know, there's the temperature and the changing conditions of the water. It just wouldn't have been safe to continue diving operations, especially considering the forecast called for rain. So now officials say all they can do is recover the bodies, which will still be extremely difficult. Here's Colonel Roland Butler of the Maryland State Police.

ROLAND BUTLER: If we look at how challenging it is at a simple motor vehicle crash to extract an individual, I'm sure we can all imagine how much harder it is to do it in inclement weather when it's cold under the water, with very limited to no visibility.

LIMBONG: And he said he intended to give the families, you know, their best effort to help find as much closure as possible.

FADEL: These families waiting for the bodies of their loved ones. And now, when the bridge collapsed, authorities had already shut it down after the ship's crew sent a mayday signal. But the six people, presumed dead, were from a construction crew that didn't make it off that bridge. What do we know about them?

LIMBONG: So there were construction workers filling potholes. You know, it was by all means a regular day for them. A man named Jesus Ocampo (ph) spoke with member station WYPR, who said these were his coworkers, you know, and he said that these were all Hispanic - Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan, Salvadoran - and all of them between 30 and 45 years old. And there's been other reports that they lived in the Dundalk and Highlandtown neighborhoods of Baltimore, which are on the east side of the town, pretty close to the base of the bridge. And Maryland Governor Wes Moore said he'd been in touch with the families.

FADEL: And what have we learned so far about the cargo ship?

LIMBONG: It's a Singapore container ship known as the Dali, it's nearly 1,000 feet long, and officials yesterday said it appears to have lost power right before it crashed into the bridge. The Maryland governor said the crew's mayday signal prevented, you know, who knows how many more deaths by, you know, stopping cars from getting on the bridge. But National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said that they are leading the investigation and have been in touch with Singaporean officials who are on their way to the U.S. to help figure out exactly what happened. I just want to add that at this time, Maryland officials believe, you know, it was an accident. There is no evidence of foul play.

FADEL: Do we know much more about what went wrong on that ship and whether a crash like this should cause a bridge to just collapse like we saw?

LIMBONG: Not really.

FADEL: OK.

LIMBONG: At the press conference yesterday, Homendy said the NTSB couldn't confirm a lot of details, you know, including who exactly was on the ship, who was in the pilothouse and what went wrong there. The NTSB is also looking at the bridge itself. Here's Homendy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER HOMENDY: Part of our investigation will be how was this bridge constructed? It will look at the structure itself. Should there be any sort of safety improvements? All that will be part of our investigation.

LIMBONG: I just want to say, like, it might be a bit before we get any answers. Homendy pointed to a bridge that collapsed in Pittsburgh in January 2022, and the NTSB pretty much just came out with its final report on that last month.

FADEL: More than two years later. NPR's Andrew Limbong in Baltimore. Thank you, Andrew.

LIMBONG: Thanks, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: In Gaza, mass hunger is spreading and people living under bombardments are desperate for aid. But when that aid drops from the sky, it can be just as dangerous.

ELLIOTT: Retrieving it can be deadly. This week, a crowd of people waded into the sea to try to get to boxes of aid floating after airdrops. Gaza authorities say 12 people drowned. The United States calls it a tragedy but says airdrops are still needed.

FADEL: NPR's Jane Arraf joins me now from Beirut to talk about this. Good morning, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Jane, tell us why aid is being dropped into the sea from the sky when there are land routes into Gaza.

ARRAF: Well, first, after almost six months of war between Israel and the militant Palestinian group Hamas, there is still a lot of restrictions. Israel, with Egypt's cooperation, controls Gaza's main border crossing, and it's limited the number of aid trucks coming in. And we have to remember Gaza has more than 2 million people. Children are literally starving to death, according to the U.N. So because so few trucks are allowed, the U.S. and other countries have resorted to dropping aid by plane. Some of these pallets with parachutes attached are deliberately dropped over the sea to drift to shore.

FADEL: OK.

ARRAF: Here's deputy Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh.

SABRINA SINGH: These humanitarian aid drops occur over water, and the wind causes the bundles to drift over to land. In the event of a parachute malfunction, the bundles land in the water.

ARRAF: So Singh said in an airdrop Monday, three of 80 packages dropped by U.S. cargo planes had malfunctioning parachutes, and those packages landed in the sea. In other cases, pallets have been dropped over land, and the wind has blown them off shore.

FADEL: Now, the airdrops - obviously not enough to feed Gaza's population. What does the U.S. want to happen going forward?

ARRAF: Well, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters yesterday the airdrops were never meant to substitute for food going in by land. He said the U.S. was, as he put it, encouraging Israel to allow in more trucks. Israel says it needs to limit the flow of aid to check for smuggled weapons, but European Union and U.N. officials have accused Israel of using starvation as a weapon of war.

FADEL: Now, we know President Biden has also announced the U.S. will build a temporary pier off the coast of Gaza to send food by ship. How is that going?

ARRAF: Well, that's going to take weeks. And again, it's not a substitute for Israel allowing in aid trucks that can distribute food throughout Gaza. And further limiting that aid, Israel recently told the U.N. agency for refugees it's banning it from bringing food to the north of Gaza, where there's the most urgent need. The U.S.-based organization World Food Kitchen has brought in barges of food by sea lately. And while that food could prevent some from starving, the amount and the speed of those deliveries barely makes a dent in the widespread famine that officials are predicting.

FADEL: And on top of that, we're seeing people die trying to get this life-saving aid dropped from the sky, as you've talked about today. And yesterday - or this week - wasn't the first time this has happened, right?

ARRAF: Sadly, no. This month, Gaza health official said five people were killed and more injured when a parachute on an airdropped pallet failed to open and landed on a house. Regarding the drownings, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller called them a tragedy amid the ongoing tragedy of the war itself, and Hamas yesterday called for an end to airdrop, saying the roads needed to be opened immediately to allow trucks into Gaza. While the U.S. says those shipments have increased recently to as many as 200 trucks a day, it's still much less, Leila, than the roughly 500 trucks of aid that aid officials say are desperately needed. A Jordanian official says 30,000 trucks are backed up at the main border crossing with Egypt, waiting for Israeli approval to enter. He says some of Jordan's own aid trucks have been waiting in line for two months there.

FADEL: NPR's Jane Arraf in Beirut. Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: First, there were lawsuits accusing Sean "Diddy" Combs of physical abuse, sexual assault and sex trafficking. Now federal agents have raided two of his homes in Los Angeles and Miami.

ELLIOTT: This is a big deal because Combs is more than just a hip-hop star. He's an enormous power figure in the music industry and in fashion as well. In a statement to NPR, Combs' attorneys say he's innocent, that the accusations are meritless and that officers used excessive force while executing search warrants.

FADEL: Reporter Meghann Cuniff, also known on social media as Meghann Thee Reporter, is following the story and joins us now. Hi, Meghann.

MEGHANN CUNIFF: Hi. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: Thanks for being here. The agents from the Department of Homeland Security raided these homes earlier this week. What do we know about why and what they found?

CUNIFF: We don't know a lot from the agents themselves...

FADEL: OK.

CUNIFF: ...About what they were doing there. But we have had confirmation through various law enforcement sources and reporters that this is connected to the lawsuits that we've seen against Diddy in the last few months, with some pretty serious allegations about sex trafficking in there.

FADEL: In what way are they linked?

CUNIFF: We've heard that investigators have interviewed some of the people who are also mentioned in those complaints. And the Department of Homeland Security, which is heading this operation, does take the lead on human trafficking investigations, which this would entail.

FADEL: And just remind people who aren't familiar with these lawsuits what is at the heart of the accusations here.

CUNIFF: It started with his former longtime girlfriend, Cassie, who's a well-known R&B singer, suing him and unveiling a complaint that had some pretty - years' worth of damning allegations against him, allegations of forced prostitution, sexual assault going back years, and that led to some other lawsuits. We've seen a number of lawsuits filed since then, even one just recently from a former producer that has a lot of these same allegations.

FADEL: Now, Meghann, the feds must have known these raids would make huge headlines. I know there shouldn't be a difference legally, but is there a higher bar for executing warrants like these on high-profile people like Combs?

CUNIFF: You have to imagine that within the Department of Justice when they're deciding what to do, that there is a public relations aspect to this that might go beyond the probable cause that they need to get any search warrant. They have to consider the implications of executing a huge search like this and what is the likelihood that they're going to have another step after this like criminal indictment.

FADEL: The raids happened Monday. Combs' attorneys put out a statement a day later. We heard Debbie share some of that. Combs is accusing the agents of excessive use of force. What's behind that accusation?

CUNIFF: That's an accusation we hear a lot from people who get their homes raided in federal searches, that the federal agents don't go there and knock on the door and say, hey, can we please search the place? They have authorization from a judge to go in there, and especially in a high-profile situation with a large property like that, I would expect to see a show of force. And just from the aerial footage that we've seen from the place, it does look like there were a number of federal agents there.

FADEL: Journalist Meghann Cuniff, who, by the way, again, is also known as Meghann Thee Reporter. Thanks, Meghann.

CUNIFF: Thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: And a final note on a story we previewed on yesterday's episode, the Supreme Court oral arguments in a case about abortion pills.

FADEL: The case is widely seen as a threat not just to the increased accessibility to abortion pills, but to the FDA's entire structure of regulating pharmaceuticals.

ELLIOTT: A majority of justices, both conservative and liberal, did not seem inclined to block the FDA's existing rules for prescribing and dispensing the abortion pill mifepristone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.