NEW YORK - On Saturday just past noon, Leonard Shoulders strolled up to a bus stop in the Belmont neighbourhood of the Bronx. A handful of people stood around, waiting for their rides or looking down at their phones - an unremarkable scene.
But then a hole suddenly opened up on the sidewalk and Shoulders, 33, plunged into it. Stunned bystanders who rushed to the edge of the chasm faced a ghastly sight: Shoulders had dropped 3.6 to 4.5m into an underground vault teeming with rats.
"Rats crawling on him, he can't move," his brother, Greg White, told reporters. "He didn't want to yell because he was afraid there were going to be rats inside his mouth."
For about 30 minutes, Shoulders remained in the vault as firefighters tried to pull him out of the hole. Videos of the scene show him eventually being wheeled away on a stretcher by emergency workers. He suffered injuries to his head and arm, White said.
On Thursday, White and other relatives of Shoulders declined to talk about Shoulders' fall, saying that he was considering legal action and directing questions to a lawyer, Nicolas Bagley.
Bagley did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Cindy White, Shoulders' mother, told reporters: "He's traumatised. He said he went straight down, and he was falling, falling, but the debris was falling and hitting him in the head."
A spokesman for St Barnabas Hospital, where Shoulders was taken on Saturday, said he remained hospitalised on Thursday in stable condition.
The episode brought together two sources of perpetual anxiety for many New York City pedestrians: the general danger posed by malfunctioning infrastructure and the city's robust rat population.
People have tried poisoning, trapping and even drowning New York City rats. Still, some scientists have said that rats may have become more aggressive during the pandemic.
And it was not the first time a sidewalk collapsed into a vault underneath it, and storage space under sidewalks is common in the city. Since July 2019, the city has received at least 35 reports of sidewalk cave-ins, according to a review of 311 data.
As news of Shoulders's plight spread this week, many people on social media found the bizarre and terrifying episode to be an almost poetic representation of the severe hardships posed by the year 2020.
For others, including local community leaders, it was yet another reminder that public officials should do more to improve local infrastructure.
"We need to be inspecting our sidewalks," said John Sanchez, district manager for Community Board 6 in the Bronx, who lives close to the bus stop where Shoulders fell. "What happened was unacceptable."
Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the Department of Buildings, said inspectors found that a portion of the sidewalk had collapsed into a vault below, which was "in a state of disrepair." He said inspectors were trying to figure out who owned the vault to determine who should be legally responsible for its maintenance.
The vault was next to a five-storey building at the corner of Third Avenue and 183rd Street in Belmont. The building was mostly empty except for a dentist's office on the ground floor.
Rudansky said the department ordered the building be vacated after the incident because of the danger posed by the sidewalk.
The department also ordered the building owner to set up a fence around the area and to hire an engineer to determine the stability of the vault, he said.
The company listed on city records as the owner of the building, Eh & Hd 183rd Realty, did not respond to requests for comment.
White said the family was still stunned by what happened to him, but relieved he was recovering.
"It was like a one out of million chance of that happening," White told reporters. "I was shocked. I was surprised. But you know, he's breathing."
MINNEAPOLIS - Mr Thomas Waltower, a computer coding trainer in Minneapolis, had hoped that outrage over the killing of African American George Floyd in the city in May would force an overhaul of the police.
But "it started off with a big push; and now it's quiet," he said, as political parties fight shy of the issue ahead of Tuesday's (Nov 3) presidential election.
Mr Floyd suffocated under the knee of a white policeman. His death, captured on phone video, triggered huge protests throughout the country and put police reform high on the national agenda.
There were calls for comprehensive change - ranging from better training to a controversial campaign to "defund the police," with the strongest move coming from the city itself.
In June, the Minneapolis City Council announced its intention to "dismantle" its police force and "reimagine a new model of public safety."
Several council members wanted the proposal to be on the ballot on Nov 3, when local referendums can also be voted on. But the plan was vetoed by an unelected commission.
Elsewhere in the United States, calls for ambitious police reforms to tackle racism and misconduct have also been toned down as the election nears.
"We don't hear anything about what they want to change," said Mr Waltower, who trains girls in coding in Minneapolis' poor and predominantly Black northern neighborhoods.
"It's out of sight, out of mind, but as African Americans, we feel it every day," he said, referring to racial prejudices he's seen from police, including often being stopped in his car.
POLICE NUMBERS SHRINK
The focus has instead shifted to a spike in crime.
Since the beginning of the year, the city has already recorded 65 homicides, up from 49 in all of 2019, and an upsurge in shootings.
We had a "horrific summer," Mr Waltower told AFP. Students from the high school where he works were caught up in exchanges of gunfire.
For him, the reason is simple: there are fewer officers on the ground, which sends a "green light" to criminals.
Since Mr Floyd's death and the violent riots and looting that followed, the city's police force has shrunk sharply.
At least 175 out of about 850 officers have resigned or gone on sick leave, according to a lawyer who represents many of them.
"The Floyd incident, the riots, the unrest, the total lack of support... has resulted in them just simply saying, 'I can't continue'," explained attorney Ron Meuser.
But Mr Stuart Schrader, a sociology researcher at Johns Hopkins University, cautioned against simple explanations.
For him, the pandemic and its economic impact may have played a bigger role in the increase in crime, also seen in New York or Chicago.
Like many of the protesters, he believes that part of the law enforcement budget could be usefully redirected to social programs to combat inequality.
POLITICS AT PLAY
But the calls by Black Lives Matter activists to "defund the police" have been leapt on by President Donald Trump, who accuses the group of trying to plunge the country into "chaos and anarchy."
Mr Trump, who is keen to be seen as the "law-and-order" candidate in the election, has accused his Democratic rival Joe Biden of supporting the defund movement.
But Mr Biden has been careful to distance himself from them as he seeks to woo moderates.
In the run-up to voting day, "the demand to defund the police is probably not being as widely expressed... but I don't think that that means it's gone away," Mr Schrader said.
Ms Nichole Buehler, who runs a neighbourhood association in north Minneapolis, said crime was getting worse but "I still don't believe that more police are going to solve that. Basically, the police show up after the fact."
For her, the best strategy would be to invest in better housing and well-paid jobs.
"The uptick in crime doesn't change my perspective," she insisted.
If Mr Biden wins the election, the issue will quickly return to the table "with pressure from the left to push for new types of reforms," Mr Schrader predicted.
And if Mr Trump is re-elected, "there will be social pressure from reform but also a strong reaction" from Republicans.
Ex-food deliveryman jailed for telling e-scooter users last year to start a riot after LTA announced ban
SINGAPORE - While working as a Foodpanda deliveryman, a man sent messages to his colleagues in two chat groups, rallying personal mobility device (PMD) users to gather at Punggol Park, arm themselves with weapons and cause injury to others.
Benny Mok Swee Tian committed the offence on Dec 30 last year, in the wake of the Land Transport Authority's (LTA) announcement prohibiting e-scooters on footpaths.
The 35-year-old Singaporean was sentenced on Friday (Oct 30) to eight weeks' jail and a fine of $500.
He had pleaded guilty earlier to creating an electronic record containing an incitement to commit acts of violence and an unrelated theft charge involving five comic books worth nearly $37 in total.
The court heard that Mok, who switched to becoming a social media marketing executive, had sent the messages one day before the end of an advisory period LTA gave to e-scooter users.
The advisory period, between Nov 5 and Dec 31 last year, was for e-scooter users to adjust to the new rule.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Chong Yong said that the first chat group had over 2,000 members and the second had more than 4,000.
One of Mok's colleagues saw the offender's message at 3.09pm in one chat group. In it, Mok proposed a "PMD riot" at Punggol Park to take place at 9pm on Dec 31 last year.
Somebody later forwarded to it to the other group, the court heard.
Mok, who was a member of both chat groups, responded at 3.22pm saying: "Bring parang. See (people) just bang and slice."
The colleague then alerted the police, as he was worried that the messages could incite acts of violence.
After an investigation, officers arrested Mok at the loading and unloading bay of Hougang Mall.
DPP Chong said that police resources were deployed to Punggol Park on Dec 31 last year but no violent incidents linked to the messages took place there that day.
In the other incident, the court heard that Mok stole five comic books from Books Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City shopping mall on Aug 22 last year.
He was caught after a security officer spotted him behaving suspiciously in the store.
On Friday, defence lawyer James Ow Yong told the court that his client is a "simple-minded individual" who did not realise the seriousness of his messages.
For making an electronic record containing an incitement to commit violence, Mok could have been jailed for up to five years and fined.
Offenders convicted of theft can be jailed for up to three years and fined.
SINGAPORE - About three weeks before a tragic event on Thursday (Oct 29) ended with a 35-year-old mother falling from a Housing Board block with her five-week-old daughter, a resident living in the same block noticed the woman looking sad.
Madam Low, who is in her 80s, said: "She looked very pale, and her baby kept crying loudly in the lift.
"I am not familiar with her or her family, but I thought she was a very quiet and reserved young woman," added Madam Low in Cantonese. She declined to give her full name.
Police are investigating the incident as a case of unnatural deaths.
The woman and her infant daughter were pronounced dead at 5.47pm on Thursday, after their bodies were found at the foot of Block 81 Bedok North Road.
Reporters understands the pair had lived in the same block. Nobody was home when reporters visited the unit, but there was a bag of food and a note left at the door.
The woman was married.
The presence of a green scooter and a dark-blue mini bicycle outside the flat suggested a young child may also be residing at the unit.
At the void deck, relatives and friends were helping to ready a wake.
Ms Janie Teoh, who lives nearby in Block 78, said that she saw the bodies lying about 2m apart when she happened to walk past the area.
Undergraduate Goh Yuchien, 24, who lives in Block 81, said he arrived home at around 7pm on Thursday and saw a police blue tent at the scene.
Said Madam Low: "It is so tragic that such a young life is lost. No problems are too difficult to resolve."
SINGAPORE - A man who sold mobile phones has become the first person in Singapore to be charged with failing to register the goods and services tax (GST) for online sales.
Edwin Pang Chung Jie used to own two firms - Edmobile and Moggi - through which he sold mobile phones and accessories on platforms such as Lazada, Shopee and Carousell.
The 40-year-old Singaporean was also charged on Friday (Oct 30) with two counts of submitting incorrect income tax returns without reasonable excuse, as well as two counts of failing to keep proper records of the invoices he received linked to his businesses.
In a statement, the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (Iras) said that the total amount of tax undercharged and tax due is $129,411.
On Oct 30, 2013, Pang allegedly failed to notify the Comptroller of GST of his liability to be registered for the tax.
This is said to have resulted in $118,023.23 in tax due for the period between Dec 1, 2013, and Sept 30, 2015.
Pang is accused of making an incorrect return by understating his income on April 16, 2014, resulting in income tax undercharged totalling $8,792.87.
On April 16, 2018, he is said to have understated his income tax return by $26,336.27.
This allegedly led to $2,595.74 in income tax undercharged.
Pang is also accused of failing to keep proper records of the invoices on multiple occasions between Jan 1, 2013, and July 17, 2018.
Iras said in its statement that between 2015 and last year, it recovered more than $3.8 million in taxes and penalties from 65 audit cases on taxpayers who operate online businesses.
It added that like with regular bricks-and-mortar businesses, "all income from online and e-commerce businesses in Singapore must be reported for tax purposes".
"To ensure that they pay the right amount of taxes, businesses should practise good record keeping by maintaining a full and complete physical or digital record of income and expenses such as invoices, receipts, vouchers, bank and credit card statements, bills, cheques, proof of payments and other documentary evidence," Iras said.
The court heard that Pang intends to admit to his offences.
His bail was set at $40,000 and he will be back in court on Nov 27.
Failing to register for GST is an offence and errant businesses may have to pay 10 per cent of GST due as a penalty, and may incur a fine of up to $10,000.
SINGAPORE - A section of power cable that burnt through and a faulty circuit breaker along the Tuas West Extension were the primary cause of a massive disruption on Oct 14 that affected three MRT lines.
The Land Transport Authority (LTA) on Wednesday (Oct 28) released a report of its findings on the three-hour, 36-minute incident, which affected 123,000 commuters.
Of these, 6,500 commuters were on 12 stalled trains along the North-South and East-West Lines while 275 were on three stalled Circle Line (CCL) trains.
Here is a timeline of events on Oct 14:
6.58pm: Concurrent faults along the Tuas West Extension cause a power outage. The burnt section of 22 kilovolt (kV) cables between Tuas Link station and Tuas West Road station had triggered a power fault, which activated circuit breakers nearby. But one failed to trip and isolate the power fault as designed due to a melted trip coil.
The circuit breaker failure caused a secondary protection system to trip, cutting off power supply from the Tuas Depot substation. This affected a larger zone of stations along the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL).
Train service was shut down between Woodlands and Jurong East stations on the North-South Line and between Queenstown and Gul Circle stations on the East-West Line.
The outage caused 12 trains to stall on the tracks. It also affected in-train lighting and air-conditioning. The backup battery on affected trains kicked in to provide emergency lighting and ventilation.
Operator SMRT subsequently decided to draw power from the Buona Vista substation, which supplies power to the CCL.
An SMRT staff member and supervisor misread equipment at the substation and wrongly assumed the fault in Tuas had been isolated.
7.34pm: Failure to isolate the fault before drawing power led to a voltage dip at the Buona Vista substation, causing a power trip and a second outage that affects service between HarbourFront and Serangoon stations on the CCL. Three trains stall as a result.
7.38pm: SMRT decides to detrain passengers on the stalled trains as it could not restore power supply quickly. As a safety measure, electrical protection devices are installed to guard against accidental turning on of traction power. SMRT staff walk along the tracks to reach the stalled trains and help commuters.
7.53pm: Detrainment of NSEWL passengers begins.
7.59pm: Detrainment of CCL passengers begins.
8pm: Power supply is restored for CCL, but SMRT does not restore traction power along sectors where detrainment is taking place for safety reasons.
8.17pm: All stranded CCL passengers reach the nearest stations.
8.42pm: Commuters from 11 stalled trains on NSEWL reach the nearest stations.
8.43pm: Train service along CCL progressively resumes.
8.44pm: Detrainment of the last train near Bukit Batok station is temporarily halted due to rain and lightning risk, with 78 commuters still on board.
9.43pm: The 78 commuters alight at Bukit Batok station.
10.34pm: Train services are progressively restored on the NSEWL.
SINGAPORE - He was only 13 years old, and she was nine, but that did not stop him from sexually abusing his cousin over three years from 2014.
It only ended when the victim feared that she may be pregnant and the girl's teacher was alerted.
The offender, now 20, was sentenced on Thursday (Oct 29) to at least a year's reformative training
He will be detained at a centre and made to follow a strict regimen that includes foot drills and counselling. The youth cannot be named to due to a gag order to protect his cousin's identity.
He was waiting to enlist in National Service when he pleaded guilty earlier this year to two counts of sexually penetrating a minor and a molestation charge.
Fourteen other similar charges involving the girl, who is now 15, were considered during sentencing.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Chong Kee En told the court that the cousins were close and played together as children. He would sometimes also help the girl with her schoolwork.
The pair were in a flat in early 2014 when the girl walked out of a bathroom naked.
The DPP said: "Although he was not aroused initially, the desire to see the victim naked again began to fester in his mind."
Later that year, the girl was lying down on their grandmother's bed when he felt an urge to touch her.
He asked her if he could do so and when she nodded her head, he undressed the girl and molested her.
The court heard that the youth was disgusted with himself after doing it. But he also decided the consequences were "not as bad", as he felt the victim probably could not understand what had happened.
About six months later, he molested her again and by December 2014, the acts of abuse were more serious with him sexually penetrating her without a condom.
He then sexually abused her multiple times from 2015 to 2017.
The DPP said that the girl started feeling a pain in her stomach on Aug 15, 2017.
He added: "Although the accused did not penetrate her vaginally - but anally and orally - she thought pregnancy could occur from anal penetration."
She told her close friends that she was afraid she might be pregnant. She also said her cousin had sexually abused her.
The girl's teacher later found out about the offences and the police were alerted.
SINGAPORE - Two local scientists have devised a novel process that can turn prawn shells into a drug that treats Parkinson's disease, and pruned tree branches into a nutritional supplement, among other quests to unlock the value hidden in discarded waste products.
The researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) first use chemical processes to break down the waste products into substrates that can then be transformed by bacteria into useful substances.
For instance, washed and dried prawn shells are ground and broken down into a paste that can be digested by bacteria such as E.coli in a process similar to grape fermentation to make wine, and after a few days, a highly valuable amino acid called tyrosine is produced.
Tyrosine is an important component of animal feed for chickens, pigs and fish, as the amino acid helps to enhance the animals' growth rate and protein quality.
However, the scientists' research has gone even further, using catalysts produced by the bacteria to then convert the tyrosine to L-dopa, a medicine that can be used to treat Parkinson's disease, a neurological condition.
The bacteria, including E.coli, were enhanced through genetic engineering to optimise the novel transformation process, said Assistant Professor Zhou Kang from NUS's department of chemical and biomolecular engineering, one of the two lead scientists in the project.
Their research on producing L-dopa from crustacean shells was published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March this year.
"Singapore is very focused on developing sustainable ways of producing proteins, such as through aquaculture, and animal feed will play important roles there," added Prof Zhou.
The scientists also found that the raw materials for their process were cheaper than conventional raw materials. For instance, L-dopa is traditionally made from glucose, which costs between US$400 and US$600 per ton, whereas prawn shells cost about US$100 per ton.
However, it will take another five to 10 years before prawn shell-based Parkinson's disease drugs can reach pharmacy shelves, said the NUS scientists.
For one thing, the L-dopa made in the lab needs to be purified before it can be sent to pharmaceutical companies to develop them into pills. It will also take a few years to scale up the manufacturing process and eventually commercialise the prawn-based medicine, said Prof Zhou.
He added that L-dopa can be further converted to other substances such as painkillers.
In their drive to upcycle unwanted waste, the team used similar chemical and fermentation processes to convert wood waste such as pruned branches and sawdust into proline, a supplement for healthy joints.
It is planning to work with industrial partners to commercialise their conversion technology, which took four years to develop, to manufacture L-dopa, tyrosine, and proline.
This year, the researchers also started working on converting carbon dioxide - the main greenhouse gas causing climate change - into ethanol, an alcohol, by pumping in hydrogen.
They hope to transform the ethanol into protein-enriched biomass, such as yeast strains, that has a nutritional value comparable to beef. The product can be a form of alternative proteins, the scientists said.
"Once the chemical process (to make ethanol) is done, we will add microbes and convert it into "beef", and that will be our next step. That's the plan," said Associate Professor Yan Ning, the other lead scientist in the project.
Prof Zhou added: "There is great interest to produce proteins from sustainable sources, so we believe it would be best if we can produce it from carbon dioxide."
Recently, the team also started work on converting wastepaper and expired meat into tyrosine.
"Tyrosine is one of the most valuable amino acids out there, and it costs between $30 and $50 per kilogram," said Prof Zhou.
"We are trying to make valuable products from the waste stream. We hope that this technology could be improved to expand the spectrum of products for society."
OTTAWA - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday (Oct 27) told Canadians exhausted by the coronavirus that the pandemic "really sucks" on the same day the nation's death toll was reported to have topped 10,000.
With fatigue setting in as the pandemic enters its tenth month, Canada has seen an uptick in people flouting public health rules on social distancing and mask-wearing.
"We're in an unprecedented global pandemic. That really sucks," Mr Trudeau told a news conference.
The Prime Minister acknowledged growing frustration, including over the lockdown of businesses once again amid a second wave of infections.
Figures released by several television news channels revealed Tuesday's grim milestone, with a case count of 220,670 and a death toll of 10,001.
Most of the deaths are concentrated in the two largest provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
"It's going to be a tough winter ahead," Mr Trudeau added, noting that most Halloween trick-or-treating this weekend has been banned and "there may not be the kinds of family gatherings we want to have a Christmas".
"My six-year-old (Hadrien) asked me a few weeks ago, 'Dad is Covid-19 forever?'" the Prime Minister shared with reporters.
"I mean he's in grade one, this was supposed to be his big year as a big boy," he added.
But he concluded that the country would "get through this".
More than 80 people were fined this week for attending a house party in French-speaking Quebec, while in the central prairie province of Manitoba authorities publicly admonished citizens who ignored pandemic precautions.
Their actions have led to thousands being exposed to Covid-19 at shopping malls, offices and elderly care homes.
One person was singled out for not alerting doctors of their Covid-19 diagnosis ahead of a surgery. As a result, the entire surgical team had to be placed under quarantine for two weeks.
Another person went to work with symptoms and when told to go home, went shopping instead, according to authorities.
"Thoughtful Manitobans are making sacrifices and staying away from loved ones, while other people are doing dumb things endangering all of us," a visibly upset Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said on Monday as the number of per capita cases topped all other Canadian regions.
"Get with the programme, grow up and stop going out there and giving people Covid," he said.
SINGAPORE - In the midst of a global pandemic that has disrupted supply chains, Singapore has strengthened its status as a global logistics hub and sees the sector as one of the bright sparks in its economy going forward, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing on Tuesday (Oct 27).
It is expected to grow as investments flow in and also create quality jobs for Singaporeans, he added.
Some parts of the logistics sector were hard hit by the pandemic but other segments continued to grow and hire workers, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said in its weekly jobs report.
There are currently more than 2,100 opportunities for workers available in the sector, of which more than 1,300 are jobs, 510 are company-hosted traineeships and attachments, and 290 are training opportunities.
About one in three of the 1,300 available jobs are for professionals, managers, executives and technicians, with some paying median salaries between $5,000 and $5,500.
Mr Chan noted that Singapore enhanced its reputation as an international hub amid the crisis by keeping the country open to trade even as global supply chains were disrupted.
Singapore was also helped by the efficiency of its operations and the reliability of its policies.
"We have distinguished ourselves in how we lean forward to make sure that the integrity of our supply chains was maintained. We did not impose any additional restrictions, we did not impose any export controls," said Mr Chan.
But the impact of the pandemic on the logistics sector has been uneven, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo noted Tuesday.
"There were companies that were affected by the reduction in airfreight capacity such as those serving hard-hit sectors including aviation and aerospace," she said.
"At the same time, companies servicing e-commerce and healthcare sector saw an increase in operations activities and requirements. These companies continued to hire and take on board more people."
Mrs Teo and Mr Chan were speaking to the media after their visit to German logistics firm DB Schenker's Red Lion facility in Changi.
The logistics sector is a key pillar of Singapore's economy and contributed $6.8 billion or 1.4 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product in 2019. It employs over 86,000 workers across more than 5,300 business entities. Mr Chan pointed out that Singapore has moved towards higher value-added logistics services, such as contract logistics that provide customised and end-to-end solutions for companies.
High-value sectors such as biopharmaceuticals and info-communications technology are attracted to Singapore, and these can create more good jobs for Singaporeans, he noted.
Leading global firms such as DHL, UPS and DB Schenker have also made Singapore their regional headquarters, while GlaxoSmithKline and Unilever have located their regional supply chain management teams here.
In the next five years, major logistics firms here are planning to create about 1,500 new jobs in the sector based on investment commitments in 2018 and 2019, said Mr Chan. Investments in digital transformation will also bring about new capabilities and jobs in digitalisation and automation within the industry, he added.
Mrs Teo also allayed fears that the use of technology may take jobs away from workers.
"When companies use technology, they can operate more efficiently and attract more customers. This increased growth leads to an expansion of workforce, while changing the qualitative nature of their work," she said.