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American Scene

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2008

CALIFORNIA

Mechanical failure eyed in hotel blast

SAN DIEGO — A mechanical failure or gas likely triggered an explosion that rocked a waterfront hotel under construction, damaging four floors and injuring 14 workers, five critically, a fire official said.

The blast occurred at about 2 p.m. Monday, ripping off part of the Hilton hotel's facade and sending debris flying. More than 400 construction workers were at the site at the time, Mayor Jerry Sanders said.

Bruce Ragland, who runs an entry gate at the Petco Park baseball stadium about 200 yards from the hotel, said he was looking right at the building when the explosion blew through two sides and set off a shock wave.

"It was just like watching a Bruce Willis movie, like you know, 'Die Hard,' " Mr. Ragland said.

FLORIDA

Smoky air raises health concerns

MIAMI — A massive and smoky wildfire burned in the Everglades early yesterday, prompting health warnings across South Florida and the evacuation of two detention centers.

Smoke and fog advisories were issued across South Florida. Children, the elderly and people with breathing problems were told to avoid being outdoors.

The fire was burning almost 40,000 acres — or about 62 square miles — of Everglades National Park. Officials hope a rise in humidity will slow its spread.

"Firefighters are in a much better position ... because it only spread somewhat on Monday," said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Nina Barrow.

ARIZONA

Shuttle service comes to canyon

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK — Visitors to the Grand Canyon will be able to test a new free shuttle service on June 2. The shuttle will take visitors from the nearby community of Tusayan to the South Rim, where most of the canyon's visitors go.

Depending on the shuttle's success, the National Park Service said it may also offer the program during the summer of 2009.

CONNECTICUT

Court: Town can control business

BERLIN — The state Supreme Court ruled that Berlin can restrict sexually oriented businesses from opening near a residential neighborhood. Town officials contend that the ordinance is a way to control the adult businesses that have popped up in recent years.

The town had been sued by VIP, an adult novelty store, that already does business in Manchester, Hartford and Orange.

GEORGIA

Carter aide Jordan dies

ATLANTA — Hamilton Jordan, a political strategist from south Georgia who helped propel Jimmy Carter to the White House and served as his chief of staff, has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 63.

Mr. Carter's former chief of communications, Gerald Rafshoon, said Mr. Jordan died last night at his home in Atlanta.

Mr. Jordan's battle with cancer began 22 years ago, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, followed by bouts with melanoma and prostate cancer.

The Carter Center in Atlanta announced that a memorial service would be held there Friday.

ILLINOIS

Class canceled after vandalism

NORMAL — Classes were canceled Monday at University High School after vandals peppered the interior of the building with paint balls.

The green and gold splotches damaged lockers, walls, doors and water fountains. Officials decided to call off classes because the greasy paint made floors slippery.

LOUISIANA

Overpass opens after derailment

LAFAYETTE — Authorities reopened a railroad overpass Monday that was closed when a train derailment spilled 10,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid and forced the evacuation of more than 3,000 residents.

All evacuated residents were allowed to return home Sunday, but the Ambassador Caffery overpass remained closed so Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development experts could inspect the bridge for damage from the acid spill.

Louisiana State Police Trooper David Anderson said the overpass reopened Monday evening. A one-mile evacuation radius was cut to 200 feet from the accident site.

Crews were cleaning up the acid that spilled when six train cars rolled off the tracks on Saturday. Jimmy Guidry, the state's chief health officer, said the area was safe but advised people to open windows and air out rooms.

MASSACHUSETTS

Gun goes off in safety class

NEW BEDFORD — A firearms instructor in southern Massachusetts has been assigned to other duties after his gun accidentally went off while he was teaching a class on weapons safety.

Officials say the Glock handgun discharged while Maj. Donald Lamar was demonstrating to Bristol County deputy sheriffs how to safely holster the weapon.

The bullet ripped a hole in Maj. Lamar's pants but missed his leg and foot.

Sheriff Thomas Hodgson says the officer made a "gross error in judgment" by not emptying the weapon before the class last week.

Maj. Lamar, a certified firearms instructor since 2005, was transferred to another division and will not carry a firearm while the incident is being investigated.

MICHIGAN

Life term given for wife's slaying

MANISTIQUE — A man convicted of killing his wife by pushing her off a 140-foot cliff at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.

A Schoolcraft County jury found Thomas Richardson, 46, of McBain, guilty in April of first-degree murder in the June 2006 death of his wife, Juanita, 43. Richardson's lawyers had argued the death was an accident.

MINNESOTA

Chemical leak injures seven

ST. PAUL — Three buildings at the University of Minnesota have reopened after a chemical leak sent seven people to the hospital.

Campus police say 5 gallons of potassium hydroxide leaked from a large tank late Monday at a veterinary diagnostic lab on the St. Paul campus. The cause of the leak was under investigation.

The lab and two other veterinary buildings were closed by the spill. St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard said only the room containing the leak remained closed yesterday.

The seven injured people were treated for eye irritation.

NEW YORK

Adoptive mom guilty of fraud

NEW YORK — A woman pleaded guilty to fraud yesterday for using fake names to adopt 11 disabled children and rake in nearly $2 million in subsidies while she restrained the children and failed to send them to school.

Judith Leekin, 63, admitted she used plastic ties to restrain the children and prevent them from getting out of bed, and that she sent officials phony school report cards to qualify for the adoption subsidies. She agreed to forfeit the $1.68 million in subsidies she collected over nearly two decades.

Leekin adopted the children in New York City between 1988 and 1996, then moved to Florida in 1998. She faces abuse charges there saying she kept the children like prisoners in her home.

Leekin's attorney, Mark Harllee, said he was in plea negotiations with Florida authorities in that case.

NORTH CAROLINA

Body identified as investigator

CHARLOTTE — The North Carolina Department of Insurance says a body found in a wooded area south of Charlotte is that of a missing investigator who is thought to have been killed on the job.

Authorities say Sallie Rohrbach, 44, was killed by the owner of an insurance agency she was sent to audit.

Department spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson confirmed the identity yesterday. The body was found earlier in the day near Fort Mill, S.C.

Prosecutors have charged insurance agency owner Michael Howell of Indian Trail with first-degree murder in Mrs. Rohrbach's death. He made an initial court appearance yesterday.

OHIO

Chaperone seals students in room

MILLBURY — Parents have complained to a northwest Ohio school board that a chaperone sealed students in their hotel rooms with duct tape during a high school choir field trip.

At a heated meeting Monday, Michelle Mata told the Lake Local school board in Millbury that the tactic panicked her son during a recent weekend trip to Chicago.

Sylvia Keeler said she may file charges. Her son, Mark Hummel, said he worried he could be trapped during a fire.

School board President Timothy Krugh told parents that the tape was meant to keep students safe.

Schools Superintendent Jim Witt said the tape would show if students violated curfew but wouldn't have kept them from escaping in an emergency.

TENNESSEE

Buyouts offered to state workers

NASHVILLE — Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz presented details of a proposed state worker buyout plan, saying incentives for early retirement would range from $23,000 to $47,000.

The buyouts would save about $64 million in next year's state budget if the projected 2,000 workers take them. Tennessee is trying to bridge an estimated $500 million budget gap.

WASHINGTON

Cleared ex-chaplain a primary delegate

OLYMPIA — A former Army chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who was cleared of spying accusations will be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

Former Capt. James J. Yee was among the delegates pledged to Sen. Barack Obama who were elected by precinct representatives Saturday. He is representing the state's 9th Congressional District at the party's convention in Denver in August.

The West Point graduate, a Muslim, was accused in 2003 of being part of a spy ring at the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.

After spending 76 days in solitary confinement, he was exonerated. He resigned from the Army and received an honorable discharge.

Mr. Yee now lives with his wife and daughter in Olympia.

From wire dispatches and staff reports