National briefs: Explosion, fires in Texas

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WACO, Texas -- An explosion Wednesday night at a fertilizer plant near Waco sent flames shooting high into the sky, leaving the factory a smoldering ruin, causing major damage at nearby buildings and injuring numerous people.

The blast at the plant in West, a community north of Waco, happened shortly before 8 p.m. and could be heard as far away as Waxahachie, 45 miles to the north. Several fires continued to burn in West two hours after the blast.

Also Wednesday, 12 contract workers were taken to hospitals after being hurt in a fire at an ExxonMobil refinery in Texas' southeast. Beaumont Fire Department spokesman Brad Penisson says three of those injured Wednesday were critically burned. Others suffered burns and broken bones.

IRS workers charged

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Twenty-four current and former Internal Revenue Service employees have been charged with stealing government benefits, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

The IRS employees were indicted on charges that they illegally received more than $250,000 in benefits including unemployment insurance payments, food stamps, welfare, and housing vouchers, the U.S. attorney's office in Memphis said in a news release. Those charged range in ages from 28 to 64.

9/11 remains identified

NEW YORK -- Officials have identified a piece of the remains of a 55-year-old man who died in the 2001 World Trade Center attack. His name was not released.

The New York City medical examiner's office said Wednesday the identification was made by retesting remains recovered during the cleanup operation that ended 11 years ago next month. The total number of people whose remains have been found now reaches 1,635, out of 2,750 people killed.

Sanford loses support

WASHINGTON -- Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's comeback try encountered severe turbulence Wednesday when the National Republican Congressional Committee withdrew its financial support less than three weeks before a special election for his former House seat.

The action by the GOP's campaign arm came one day after a damaging allegation by Mr. Sanford's ex-wife came to light. It accused him of a pattern of trespassing at her house in violation of their 2010 divorce decree.

Gay therapy ban challenge

SAN FRANCISCO -- California's novel law seeking to ban licensed counselors from trying to turn gay teens straight is boiling down to a question over whether the therapy is free speech or a medical treatment that can be regulated by government.

It's the "pivot point" of the legal debate, Judge Morgan Christen of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday. The three-judge panel on the nation's largest federal appellate court considered 90 minutes of legal arguments. It took no action Wednesday and will issue a written ruling later.

Sea lion pups rescued

LOS ANGELES -- Starving sea lion pups are washing up on Southern California beaches at a rate more than five times higher than usual, and scientists are scrambling to figure out why.

Since the beginning of the year, 1,293 emaciated sea lions found stranded on beaches from San Diego to Santa Barbara have been treated at seven facilities in the state, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A leading hypothesis is lack of available food.



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