Looking Back: Defining moments of 2019 in Prince George

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: January 4, 2020 | 12:30 p.m.

PRINCE GEORGE – As 2019 and the 2010s decade concluded yesterday, many, including The Prince George Journal, took time to reflect on the moments that defined Prince George during the now-completed year of 2019. 

From life-saving actions along Interstate 95, to an election that saw new faces and incumbents alike find success at the polls, to a continued push to have the aging Walton Elementary School replaced, these are some of the big stories from 2019 as reported by your community newspaper, The Prince George Journal

Heroic Actions Help Save Lives After Charter Bus Crash

The quiet of a foggy March morning in Prince George County was shattered by the sounds of emergency sirens rushing to the scene of a mass casualty situation along one of Prince George County’s key thoroughfares after a large charter push overturned at Exit 45 along Interstate 95 northbound.

Just before 5:30 a.m. on March 19, a New York-bound charter bus with nearly sixty people on board overturned at Exit 45 just south of the Interstate 295 interchange. The bright lights of fire engines and rescue vehicles from across the region pierced the thick fog as dozens of emergency personnel descended onto the area to attend to those injured in the crash, but also backfill county stations as many of Prince George’s crews were at the scene for several hours.

In an interview, county fire and EMS director Brad Owens talked about their response in the early moments of receiving the call in their dispatch center.

“We were dispatched as normal to a motor vehicle accident and, initially, there wasn’t a lot of information that was given so our typical response to a motor vehicle accident is sending a volunteer fire company and a medic unit,” he said, adding the Carson substation was near the accident scene so they all responded.

“As some of the units began to arrive, that’s when we started to get more information like it was a bus that was involved and multiple people were affected, and it was then that our units were on scene and giving updates on the number of patients, and as we got that information, that is what led us to declare a mass casualty incident,” Owens continued. 

State police later confirmed dozens of people suffered injuries ranging from minor to serious, but also that two people lost their lives in the crash.

After being treated, survivors were staged at Disputanta’s Central Wellness Center where they could reconnect with loved ones. As the passengers tried to make sense of the tragedy they witnessed along Interstate 95 in what should’ve been a routine trip up the East Coast, county prosecutors are in the midst of preparing their case against the bus’ driver – Staten Island, Ny. native Yui Man Chow. 

During the summer, Chow was indicted by a Prince George grand jury on two felony counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the March 19 crash. Since the crash, Chow or his attorney have not responded to The Prince George Journal’s request for comment. 

In the hours and days after the crash, Virginia State Police revealed through their investigation that the bus attempted to take the exit ramp but the bus ended up running off the left side of the ramp and overturned. As they continued to investigate, Virginia State Police said speed was being considered “a causative factor in the crash.” The posted safe speed for the ramp where the crash occurred is 25 miles per hour, which is prominently featured on a yellow warning sign prior to the exit.

Chow is scheduled to go on trial next month and remains free on bond.

Following questions from the community and county leaders about the signage at Exit 45 and a belief the displayed signs could confuse drivers into thinking Exit 45 is the ramp that leads to Interstate 295 northbound when, in actuality, the I-295 ramp is less than a mile north of Exit 45, VDOT moved forward with adjustments to signs displayed at the ramp.

While VDOT representative Bethanie Glover said previously installed signs “met all federal requirements as directed by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices,” in the interest of driver safety, the agency installed larger stop signs, chevrons to alert drivers of the bend in the exit ramp, along with signs along U.S. Route 301 that warn of the approaching intersection.

In addition, “A sign on I-95 north with the exit number, route number shield, directional arrow, advisory speed and destination of Petersburg,” “An oversized Ramp 25 mph sign” for the Exit 45 off-ramp that leads to Crater Road, and “A sign in the gore area with exit number, route number shield, advisory speed and directional arrow” were all put in place following the springtime safety review.

Parents, Teachers Push For Walton ES Replacement

After concerns from parents and teachers surrounding air quality issues, the push to move forward with the construction of a new elementary school that will likely serve as Walton Elementary School’s replacement remains vigorous. 

In February, The Prince George Journal was the first to share concerns from parents after a letter sent home noted that classrooms had been closed for extensive cleaning after mold spores and other air contaminants had been found. Following that report, Walton closed for two days to allow Capital Fire and Water to systematically clean throughout the aging school

While school leaders worked throughout last school year and the current academic session to address the challenges the school faces, Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff, who began her first year in the lead role of Prince George County Public Schools in February, said the issue has become “chronic” as she tasked their engineering contractors to provide solutions that can be implemented in the meantime while the school board and board of supervisors work to find a home for a new school.

Currently, the county is pursuing a land transaction between itself and Fort Lee, which would involve an unspecified property near the A Avenue gate of the military installation. While the school board has said the site would be amenable to a new school given its proximity to the current Walton ES and the school’s military families in and around Fort Lee, in recent months, outgoing school board members have argued for the county to consider using a tract along Prince George Drive for the site of the new school – the Yancey property – or building it behind the current school, with both ideas being rejected by supervisors.

That land transaction, if approved, isn’t expected to be completed until the end of this calendar year. 

In the meantime, school officials are in the midst of preparing to move forward with recommendations from their engineering contractors to address HVAC issues at Walton ES, along with installing trailers at Walton that will serve as extra classroom space when a room needs to close for cleaning and its cohort of students need to be relocated.

A public hearing that would’ve allowed the public to share their thoughts on a proposal to move borrowed funds from a planned New Scott Park project for a concession stand and restrooms to a funding request from the schools to cover part of the costs of remediation efforts at Walton ES was rejected in December, with dissenting supervisors saying they are not against the school division’s efforts at the school but, they believe the money can be found somewhere else.

After their vote, county finance staff explained during a work session roughly $160,000 in funds exist in last year’s spring borrowing from unused closing costs that could be allocated to the school division’s $170,000 request.

New Faces Join School Board, Supervisor Incumbents Retain Seats

Prince George County joined dozens of localities across the Commonwealth in November in voting for their local electorate as all of the county’s constitutional officers were on the ballot alongside three seats a piece on the county school board and board of supervisors following the county’s shift to staggered-terms several years earlier.

Once the November 5 ballots were counted, all of the county’s constitutional officers, Commonwealth’s Attorney Susan Fierro, Commissioner of the Revenue Darlene Rowsey, Sheriff H.E. Allin, III, and Treasurer Susan Vargo, all of which had no challengers, were re-elected to another four-year term in office. 

For the board of supervisors, District 1 Supervisor Alan Carmichael was elected to a fourth term after defeating challenger Stacey Everett, earning just short of 2,400 votes, or 55 percent of the votes cast. Looking closer at the returns, Carmichael outpaced Everett at a majority of the district’s five precincts, save the Union Branch and Rives precincts where Everett garnered 50 and 62 percent of the vote respectively.

Two seats were on the ballot for voters in District 2, where incumbents Donald Hunter and T.J. Webb were victorious over former supervisor and community leader William Gandel. Preliminary results from state election officials show both Webb and Hunter each received 37 percent of the vote, or just over 2,600 votes a piece, with Gandel trailing in third, garnering 1,720 votes and 24 percent of the vote. Results show both Webb and Hunter led in a majority of District 2’s precincts, with the pair being separated only by a few dozens votes. 

Additionally, District 2 absentee voting in the supervisors race showed a near-tie as Hunter received 150 votes to Webb’s 144, and Gandel’s 141.

For the school board, three of its longest serving members opted to end their time on the board as Robert Cox, Jr., Lewis Stevenson, and Kevin Foster all declined to seek re-election in November. That decision opened the door to six candidates across three seats, all vying to follow in the footsteps of the three members and begin their service to the children and teachers of Prince George.

In District 1, Cecil Smith was victorious over fellow candidates Sharon Jadrnak and Anthony Howard, with Smith earning just over 51 percent of the vote. Jadrnak, who finished second in this year’s election earned nearly 32 percent of the vote, down from her previous bid for the school board in 2017, where she received 44 percent of the vote in a defeat to Robert Eley, III. Results on a precinct-level show Smith found support in all five of District 1’s voting locations along with absentee voting. 

In District 2, voters were tasked with selecting a pair of candidates to serve as the successors to outgoing members Foster and Stevenson and Tuesday’s election saw both Jill Andrews and Sherry Taylor receive nearly identical percentages of the vote and vote totals as both candidates received just over 2,300 votes and carried 35 percent of the vote each. Carla Honeycutt Johnson finished third with 1,866, or 28 percent of the vote in District 2. 

According to precinct-level data from the Virginia Department of Elections, Andrews outpaced her opponents in the Bland, Blackwater, and Brand precincts while Taylor led her fellow candidates at the Courts Building and Jefferson Park polling places. Taylor received the most absentee votes, 153, in the District 2 race, with Andrews and Johnson finishing with 134 and 108, respectively. 

All of the county’s elected officials were sworn into office during a special ceremony late last month.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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