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Chicago sees fewest murders in decade, but tops nation

Chicago is the nation's 1998 murder capital, despite experiencing a 10-year low in murders, according to preliminary data from cities nationwide.

Chicago had 698 homicides in 1998, surpassing New York City's homicide totals for the first time ever. New York has seen a dramatic drop in its homicides. There were 629 there last year, compared with a 1990 high of 2,262.

When looked at per capita, Chicago's 1998 homicide rate is more than double that of New York.

The bad news comes at a time when Chicago is witnessing a drop in murders. There were 759 murders there in 1997. The last year murders numbered less than 700 was 1988, when there were 663.

"One murder is too many, but we are always pleased when the numbers go down," Chicago police spokesman Pat Camden said.

He credited the city's community policing program for much of the decline. But once the final numbers are in, Chicago is expected to again have the highest violent crime rate of the eight largest U.S. cities, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.

Agents examine fatal explosion in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS _ Investigators were trying to determine Friday what caused a truck loaded with fireworks to explode during preparations for a New Year's Eve show, killing two technicians and critically injuring an off-duty deputy.

Workers had been loading fireworks on a barge on a canal, where it was to be towed to the nearby Mississippi River to be the launching point for the midnight fireworks show held every New Year's Eve on the New Orleans waterfront. Thursday's show was canceled.

One man was in the truck and another was just outside it when the explosion took place around 8:30 p.m., said Austin Banks, a spokesman for the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

On Friday, ATF agents were examining the truck's skeleton, looking for clues to what caused the blast.

The deputy, a brother of one of the victims, was in critical condition Friday with burns over 50 percent of his body.

Police charge suspect for possessing explosives

SAN FRANCISCO _ A utility repairman was in custody Friday after authorities discovered bomb materials, including 250 pounds of ammonium nitrate, the same ingredient used in the Oklahoma City bombing, at his workplace.

Paul Joseph Madronich Jr., 44, enjoyed making small explosives and fireworks and did not appear to have a political agenda, according to investigators.

Police believe he was using the material for small explosives such as cherry bombs and M-80s that he sold to co-workers.

The 19-year Pacific Gas & Electric Co. employee was being held Friday on $1-million bail on three counts of possessing an explosive device.

Along with the ammonium nitrate, police found a 33-gallon drum of calcium nitrate, books on bombmaking, broken flares, electronic devices and a "small quantity of actual, ready-to-go explosives," said police spokesman Sherman Ackerson.

After he was booked, Madronich led officers to "a whole bunch more bombmaking stuff," Ackerson said. Authorities also carted off boxes of material from Madronich's home.

Assistant District Attorney Jean Daly said Madronich appeared to be motivated by profit rather than politics, selling his small explosives to co-workers who nicknamed him "the Unabomber."

Elsewhere . . .

CEYLON, Minn. _ A fire engulfed a two-story wooden house on New Year's Day, killing six people, authorities said. About 25 firefighters from five volunteer departments battled the morning blaze in extreme cold. The cause appeared to be a defective heater in the attached garage, fire officials said.

GRAYLING, Mich. _ Officials increased the automotive tally from a New Year's Eve pileup that closed I-75, took one life, sent 38 to the hospital and left more than 200 stranded. Initially, police put the number of twisted and mangled cars and trucks at 50. But as authorities ripped one car from another, they discovered some vehicles piled on top of each other two- and three-thick. By Friday afternoon, the tally had increased to 114.

SEATTLE _ Two suspected drunken drivers _ one of them an off-duty police officer from the suburb of Bellevue _ collided Friday in a grinding, high-speed crash that left one passenger dead and three others injured. A Washington State Patrol officer who was riding with the off-duty officer when the collision occurred is in critical condition. The fatal accident happened at 3:15 a.m., just hours after tough new drunken driving laws took effect in Washington _ laws for which the police officer involved in the crash had recently taken training.