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Top 10 stories of 2013

Fire ripped through three buildings on Main Street Marlinton November 10, causing seven businesses and several families to lose everything. G. Hamill photo
Fire ripped through three buildings on Main Street Marlinton November 10, causing seven businesses and several families to lose everything. G. Hamill photo

As we reflect back on 2013, stories about the good, the bad and the ugly rise vie for a place among the most memorable and life-changing events reported in The Pocahontas Times during the past year.

1. Fire destroys Main Street Marlinton buildings

Early Sunday, November 10, while the county was still shrouded by the dark of night, flames and smoke rose from the back of Hudson’s Variety Store. As fire departments from Pocahontas and surrounding counties converged to fight the fire, strong winds eventually sent the fire into the adjacent buildings, consuming Dirt Bean Ohana and The Old Bank Building, formerly known as The McK building.

Hampered by numerous roofs on the old buildings, the fire would appear to be extinguished, then an area would flare up, causing the firefighters to return for a second, third and fourth day.
By the end, the shells of three buildings – which had housed seven businesses as well as apartments – were all that remained.
The American Red Cross provided rooms for the displaced residents at the Marlinton Motor Inn while donations poured in from the county, the state and beyond.
Within a couple of days GoMarlinton volunteers helped those residents find permanent housing and the donations of money, food, clothing and household goods went far in establishing their new “homes.”

With everyone safe and under roof, Marlinton Mayor Joe Smith created a task force, Rebuild Marlinton, to ensure that the half-block destroyed by the fire would not become just another empty lot.

Just days before Christmas, demolition began on the buildings and L. D. Hanna & Sons Excavations Contractors brought down the walls of Dirt Bean Ohana and The Old Bank Building. Demolition of Hudson’s Variety was put on hold until the insurance company gives its approval.

The following fire departments, organizations and businesses assisted in the firefighting effort: Marlinton; Bartow-Frank-Durbin; Hillsboro; Shavers Fork; Frost; Cass; Renick; Frankford; Lewisburg; White Sulphur Springs; Anthony Creek; Clintonville; Smoot; Aldersom; Tri-County; Alderson Federal Female Correctional Facility Fire Department; Cowen; Valley Head; Richwood; West Virginia State Police; Pocahontas County Sheriff’s Department; West Virginia State Fire Marshal; West Virginia Division of Highways; Pocahontas County Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management; West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management; American Red Cross; Monongahela Power Company and Frontier Communications.

Numerous other departments were on stand-by to respond or cover the districts of the departments which did respond. Apologies if any department was not included.

2. Log truck crashes into tourist train near Cheat Bridge

Members of the Bartow-Frank-Durbin Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad were giving a presentation on fire safety at Green Bank Elementary-Middle School October 11 when tones went out calling them to a wreck.

Students watched as the firefighters and EMTs quickly gathered their equipment and rushed to an unusual and unfortunate accident at the Cheat Mountain bridge.

As the Cheat Mountain Salamander excursion train was crossing U.S. Route 250 near the Cheat Mountain Bridge, a loaded log truck failed to stop, and crashed into the train’s two rearmost passenger cars.

The truck driver, Danny Lee Kimble, 38, of Bartow, was killed.

The impact derailed both cars and knocked one car completely on its side. The second car came to rest at a 45-degree angle and had to be stabilized before passengers could be evacuated.

Twenty-three train passengers were treated at Davis Memorial Hospital and three were admitted. Four passengers were transported to Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown. Kimble was the only casualty from the wreck.

Due to the damage to the train, all trips remaining in the season were canceled. The Cheat Mountain Salamander is owned and operated by the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad.
Reports show that the railcrossing signals were working properly at the time, visibility at the time of the crash was good and the road was dry. No skid marks were visible on the road behind the demolished truck.

The West Virginia State Police investigated the incident. Joining the BFD on scene were Marlinton Fire and Rescue, Cass Fire and Rescue and Randolph County law enforcement units.

3. Denmar escapees captured near Fenwick

Two inmates escaped from the Denmar Correctional Center on July 28, leading law enforcement on a man hunt which ended in Fenwick the next morning.

Thomas Pennington, 40, and Larry Morehead, 48, were reported missing following an early morning bedcheck. Pocahontas County Emergency Management issues an advisory and informed the public to keep their homes locked and secured, and to report sightings to the 911 Center.

In the early morning hours of July 29, a Richwood resident identified Pennington in the area. Officers from the Marlinton detachment of the West Virginia State Police went to the vicinity to help search streets and vacant structures, and to look for anything that had been breached or broken into.

Shortly after the officers returned to Pocahontas County, they received word that the two inmates were apprehended and taken into custody without incident.

Pennington and Morehead were sent to Mount Olive Correctional Complex, a maximum security facility. Both were indicted by the December 2013 Pocahontas County Grand Jury on felony charges of escape from the custody of the Commisioner of Corrections.

4. Floodplain change confounds local residents

A change to Marlinton’s and Cass’ floodplain maps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has resulted in confusion and anger by homeowners and landowners.

FEMA published a new floodplain map in 2012 that affected about 25 properties along Tenth Avenue in Marlinton. The map change brought into the floodplain properties east of Tenth Avenue, which historically have not been flooded, even by the cataclysmic 1985 flood. The map change excluded properties west of Tenth Avenue, which were inundated during floods in 1985 and 1996.

FEMA provided $247,300 in Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) funds in 1998 to the Pocahontas County Commission to purchase properties in Cass because the lots were in the Greenbrier River floodplain. Those properties – paid for with taxpayer money – are no longer in the floodplain, according to the new map.

Now owned by the county government, those HMGP-purchased properties provide no tax revenue and cannot be sold.

The Pocahontas Times filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Director William Fugate of FEMA. The request was for records indicating the technology and procedures used to modify Marlinton and Cass floodplain maps, during the period January 2009 to January 2012. The request also sought records of payments made by FEMA for the purchase of flood-affected properties in Cass, during the period 19850-2013.

Because FEMA did not respond to the request in a timely matter, the newspaper will forward the information and questions – along with newly discovered irregularities – to federal elected representatives, including Senator Joe Manchin, Senator Jay Rockefeller and Representative Nick Rahall, for their assistance.

5. Commission withdraws monument support

In its first meeting of the new year, the Pocahontas County Commission undid one of its more controversial actions of 2012, withdrawing its support for the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument proposed by the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition and its supporters.

Discussions about the proposal continued throughout the year and at the commission meeting in early November it appeared that a majority of residents of Pocahontas County feel as the commission does – adamantly opposed to the monument, fearing that such a designation would restrict hunting and other outdoor activities in the county. Supporters of the monument appear to be primarily those who live outside of the county.

Areas of interest to monument supporters include the Cranberry Wilderness, Cranberry Glades, Falls of Hills Creek, Highland Scenic Highway, Tea Creek Backcountry, Turkey Mountain Backcountry, the site of the historic Mill Point Federal Prison and headwaters streams of the Cranberry, Cherry, Williams, Gauley, Elk and Greenbrier river watersheds.

6. NRAO loses two weeks during government shutdown

On October 4, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank went mostly dark due to the federal government shutdown.

Site director Dr. Karen O’Neil explained that the facility is primarily funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF) which is a federal entity with the same fiscal year as the federal government.

After two-weeks, the federal government ended the shutdown and the NRAO was able to return to work.

October being the busiest month of the year for the NRAO, many programs and group visits were canceled and had to be rescheduled. The loss of 13 days doesn’t seem like much, but for the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), that meant hundreds of observation hours went unused.

7. Commission president Dolan Irvine passes away, commission searches for new member

After a long fought battle with cancer, Pocahontas County Commission president Dolan Irvine passed away May 18, leaving behind a legacy of leadership, goodwill and service to the community.
Whether he was on the farm, in the classroom, assessing property, or serving his county, Irvine was a man who touched the lives of nearly all Pocahontas countians.

As the county mourned its loss, one question remained, how will the commission find a new member?

The commission was given until June 18 to appoint a successor before the county’s Democratic Executive Committee would step in to take on the task.

Remaining commission members David Fleming and Jamie Walker set about to fill the vacant seat, which led to a temporary stand-off between the two, broken only by the withdrawal of one of the contenders for the seat.

Fourteen candidates were interviewed June 4, and the commissioners presented their recommendations at the June 11 meeting.

Commission David Fleming put forth the names of Bill Beard and Pam Pritt, and made a motion for a coin toss to appoint one of the two.

But commissioner Jamie Walker did not agree with the motion. Walker had his own list of potential candidates whom he said he would consider – Bill Beard, LaVerne McCoy and Thane Ryder.

As Walker would not agree to the coin toss, neither would Fleming agree “to agree” on the one person whom they each considered to be a viable candidate for the seat. Bill Beard spoke to the commission telling them they had put him and Pritt in a “bad spot.” He added his dislike of gambling as a means to make a decision. The stalemate was broken when Pritt addressed the commission and withdrew as a candidate “for the good of the process and the good of the county.”

Beard will serve as the third commissioner until the November 2014 election.

Fleming was selected as commission president by his fellow commissioners Walker and Beard.

8. County celebrates West Virginia’s Sesquicentennial

A year of celebrations commemorated the 150th birthday of the state of West Virginia, culminating with several events on and around June 20.

In Huntersville, the Huntersville Historic Traditions committee celebrated West Virginia Day with a picnic, speech and play.

Guest speaker David Javersak, Dean Emeritus of the School of Liberal Arts at West Liberty State College shared the tale of the 35th state in his speech,” Species of Legal Fiction: The Wheeling Conventions.” The speech detailed the two Wheeling Conventions which led to the succession of western Virginia and later President Abraham Lincoln to naming West Virginia the 35th state in the union.

It is hard to celebrate the making of West Virginia without remembering the Civil War. To coincide with the celebrations, a series of hikes were led by Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park Superintendent Mike Smith.

Hikers followed in the footsteps of Civil War soldiers in and around Droop Mountain. The last and longest hike was in November, with hikers beginning their trek in Lewisburg. The collective hiked on into the night and reached the state park in the early morning, just as the soldiers did.

On June 20, the 150th birthday of the state, residents met at the Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park tower for a bell ringing. Throughout the state bells rang in unison with 35 clangs of the bells at 1:50 p.m. to commemorate the time of the signing of the bill that gave birth to the 35th state.

9. Pocahontas County Community Wellness Center opens in Marlinton

After nine long years of discussion, planning, fund searching and construction, the Pocahontas County Community Wellness Center was dedicated July 13.

The project began as a dream in 2004 and after the Pocahontas County Parks and Recreation committee received the land and funding for the project, construction began June 8, 2012.

Government officials – national, state and local – attended the dedication and shared their well wishes. In attendance were: U.S. Representative Nick Joe Rahall, delegates Bill Hartman and Denise Campbell, former senator Mike Ross, Marlinton Mayor Joe Smith, Pocahontas County Commission president David Fleming, then Superintendent of Schools C.C. Lester, Pocahontas County Sheriff David Jonese, The Pocahontas Times Editor Emerita Jane Price Sharp and Chapman Technical Group manager of architecture Dale Withrow.

The center is used by Marlinton Elementary School students as a gymnasium. The center has a full-sized basketball gym, an exercise equipment room, a racquetball court, and several rooms used for meetings or classes offered through Parks and Rec.

10. Former Sheriff’s officer gets 10 to 20 years in prison

On November 8, Pocahontas County Circuit Court Judge James Rowe sentenced former Pocahontas County Sheriff’s Department lieutenant Bradley C. Totten to 10 to 20 years in prison for the felony of sexual abuse by a parent, custodian or guardian.

Totten, 41, of Hillsboro, pled guilty to the offense in July. Grand juries indicted Totten on 19 felony counts in April 2012, and 47 counts in August 2012, involving sexual abuse of women and girls during the period 1995 to 2010.

In a plea agreement, Totten pled guilty to sexually abusing a 17-year old girl. Rowe read a victim’s statement to the court, which indicated that the sexual abuse began when the victim was 15 years old.

Rowe said Totten’s criminal conduct had “destroyed the fabric of the community,” and greatly diminished public trust in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

In addition to the sentence, Rowe fined the former deputy $5,000, and ordered protective custody for the former lieutenant during his incarceration.

Information compiled from articles written by Editor Jaynell Graham, staff writers Geoff Hamill, Suzanne Stewart and Drew Tanner; and Heather Niday of Allegheny Mountain Radio.

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