Family Launches Online Fundraising Effort To Improve Teen’s Vision

Lexi Jones

BERLIN — With a little help from an always generous local community, a Berlin teen legally blind since birth has a shot at an enhanced life with technologically advanced electronic eyeglasses, but the product comes with a stiff price tag.

Lexi Jones is a 13-year-old local resident who just completed the sixth grade at Berlin Intermediate School as a third-quarter honor roll student. Like many students her age, she is enamored with technology and her mind is constantly trying to solve problems. She loves to “listen” to YouTube videos that have taught her many unusual skills for a middle-schooler, including how to perform intubation, the benefits and treatment of Afib and how to perform CPR, perhaps in deference to her mother, Meghan Gorrera, a nurse at Atlantic General Hospital.

Her progress has been amazing and she has overcome so much in her young life, but her blindness remains a major obstacle, according to her mother. Lexi was born at just 24 weeks and weighed only one pound and 14 ounces. After delivery, she was taken by helicopter to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where she stayed for four months. During that time, Lexi suffered a grade-four brain hemorrhage, which required five brain surgeries and a shunt placement.
Lexi also developed a seizure disorder and was later diagnosed with autism. A week before she was set to be discharged from Hopkins, her mom was told Lexi had developed an eye condition called retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP. The disease occurs in premature babies and causes abnormal blood vessel growth in their eyes, ultimately detaching their retinas.

“There was hope that a laser surgery could be performed to stop the abnormal growth,” said Gorrera this week. “Being at Hopkins, Lexi was being treated by the best doctors at the Wilmer Eye Clinic and she had the surgery performed in both eyes. Sadly, shortly thereafter, we received the news that the surgery was not successful and that both retinas had detached.”

Undaunted, a doctor at the Wilmer Eye Clinic at Hopkins made another attempt at correcting Lexi’s vision, or at least improving it, with a second round of surgeries.

“This time, both surgeries were successful,” said Gorrera. “However, there was so much scar tissue and damage to her eye that Lexi was left with an estimated 20/600 visual acuity, which is legally blind. She is able to identify shadows and light perception, but only within a few inches of her face.”

According to Gorrera, Lexi has been learning, reading and writing in braille. She receives orientation and mobility training from professionals at the Maryland School for the Blind and is learning how to use a walking cane. All the while, Gorrera has held out hope for a breakthrough.

“I’ve always been told there was nothing else that could be done for Lexi and her vision, that it would never get better and may actually get worse,” she said. “That all started to change a few months ago when Lexi brought me a recording of a TV show about eSight Eyewear. She came to me and said ‘Mommy, I need these glasses. They make blind people see.’”

The eSight company has developed an opportunity for Lexi and many others to improve the quality of their lives. The small company of just 18 employees is branching out and heading east to expose the amazing product to those like Lexi who can benefit the most from the electronic eyeglasses. The glasses combine a camera, display technology and advanced computing to deliver a real-time video that enables sight for people with vision loss. Users have complete control over the image they see, which means they can enhance, magnify and adjust the image to ensure their eyes can best interpret their world.

Gorrera said she watched the television program in tears and explained to Lexi how the glasses wouldn’t be able to help her. Then, she began her own research.

“I called the eSight corporation out of Ontario, Canada and talked with them about the possibility of this eyewear working for Lexi,” she said. “At that moment, she became a candidate and we accepted the next available consultation appointment closest to us, which happened to be in New Jersey.”

Gorrera and Lexi traveled to New Jersey on June 11 for the consultation with the eSight representatives and the results were almost immediate.

“That’s when I saw my world and her world start to change,” she said. “For the first time in 13 years, Lexi was able to read a vision chart three rows from the bottom line 10 feet away from her. I stood across the room and she was able to tell me what I was wearing and that her Pop-Pop had really gray hair.”

Lexi’s vision improved dramatically assisted by the eSight eyewear.

“With that revelation, I began to cry and realize that for once, she may get the opportunity that she deserves so much, to be able to see the world around her and become more independent, to learn and grow,” she said. “Within those few hours, this technology has already changed so much in our life and has opened Lexi up to so many possibilities.”

The eSight glasses offer Lexi a chance at an enhanced life, but they come with a stiff price tag. The glasses cost around $15,000 and are not covered by insurance. To that end, the family has launched a Go Fund Me campaign in an effort to raise money to purchase the special electronic glasses. In the first week, the Go Fund Me campaign has raised more than $6,100, as of Thursday morning, and while the goal is still in sight, there is much work to be done. Lexi’s Go Fund Me page can be found at http://dm2.gofund.me/wvqavg.

Lexi is the second local teen with ROP to seek the special eSight eyewear this year. In the spring, local teen and Stephen Decatur student Caleb Conner, 15, who is legally blind in his right eye and severely near-sighted in his left eye, was a successful candidate for the eSight special electronic glasses. Like Lexi, Conner’s family started a successful Go Fund Me campaign to offset the cost of the special eyewear, which was not covered by insurance. His Go Fund Me campaign was successful in raising the $16,500 in a short time and he got the glasses weeks later.

 

 

 

Hammerhead Shark Appears To Be Injured Or Ill; Spotted This Afternoon In Back Bays

A hammerhead shark sighted along the coast multiples times this week is pictured on Thursday at 2 p.m. in the Inlet. Photo by Jill Needham Martire

OCEAN CITY — The hammerhead shark spotted along the beach in Ocean City on several occasions over the last two days is apparently ill or injured and has made its way to the back bays behind the resort.

Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin confirmed late Thursday afternoon the hammerhead, which had attempted to beach itself on the resort shoreline on multiple occasions on Wednesday and Thursday, had gone through the Inlet and was somewhere in the bay. The charter boat “Happy Hooker” actually hooked up the apparently ill hammerhead on Thursday afternoon in the bay south of the Route 50 bridge while targeting other species and released the big shark. Numerous other vessels have submitted videos of the shark and it’s clearly hampered by something.

Arbin said the first sighting was reported around 3 p.m. on Wednesday and beach patrol officers cleared the water. The shark went back out and reappeared around 5 p.m. on Wednesday was traveling south along the shoreline close to the beach. Arbin said Beach Patrol officers cleared the water about two blocks ahead of the shark as it traveled south along the coastline.

“We pulled people out of the water a couple blocks ahead of the shark as it swam south along the beach,” he said. “That’s our protocol whenever there is anything in the water that could be dangerous from a boat adrift, a large piece of driftwood, a dead whale or a dead or injured sea turtle.”

Arbin said the Beach Patrol followed the shark along the coastline until about dark on Wednesday and picked it up again on Thursday after more sightings were reported. Arbin said he last saw the shark on Thursday afternoon near the pier, shortly before it went through the Inlet.

Because of its multiple attempts to beach itself and its unusual behavior of swimming close to the shore, Arbin said the feeling is the shark is ill or injured. Others who encountered the shark, including the “Happy Hooker” captain, agreed the shark appeared to be ill.

“They just don’t cruise close to the shore like that for an extended period of time,” said Arbin. “They need to constantly swim to get air through their gills and the shark wouldn’t normally behave the way it has. They just don’t do that.”

Arbin said the shark was essentially washed through the Inlet because it wasn’t strong enough to swim against the current. He said the beach patrol was conducting recertification training near the Inlet with the shark in the area.

“It wasn’t anything that was scary,” he said. “We never really had any fear that it was going to attack somebody, but we just watched it and followed it to see what it was going to do.”

Arbin said the Beach Patrol was in close contact with the National Aquarium and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) throughout the last two days. He said the National Aquarium and DNR advised the Beach Patrol if the shark beached itself again to safely try to keep it from going back out so it could run tests and take samples to see what was causing its illness and unusual behavior.

As of late Thursday, the shark’s location has been in the thoroughfare from the Route 50 Bridge to as far north as the 28th Street area.

Arbin said there was little hope of capturing the ill shark and attempting to save it, but it could be collected at some point if possible to determine what was wrong with it.

For videos of the shark in the back bay from this afternoon, click over to www.facebook.com/thedispatchoc

 

Multiple Shark Sightings Create ‘An Unusual Week In Ocean City’

A hammerhead shark, measuring about 10 feet, is pictured on 36th Street in Ocean City. The shark's presence cancelled several surf shops' planned surf instruction camps Wednesday evening. The same shark has been spotted today.

OCEAN CITY — It’s no secret sharks, sometimes big sharks, frequent the waters off the coast of Ocean City, but several sightings over a period of a couple days this week created a stir in the resort area.

Early Monday morning, an estimated 10-foot hammerhead was caught in the surf at 143rd Street and birthed 20 pups before perishing and ultimately washing up on the beach in neighboring Fenwick. Over the next couple of days, a shark or multiple sharks were spotted close to shore at different areas up and down the Ocean City coast.

While it should not be alarming to see sharks of all shapes and sizes in the ocean near the resort, after all it is their home and human vacationers are merely guests in their habitat, it was somewhat unusual this week because of the frequency of the sightings. Images of sharks and shark fins close to shore were captured from one end of the resort to the other, and while many of them appear to be the same large hammerhead, there is no telling for certain what species and how many are circling the waters.

Ocean City Communications Director Jessica Waters said on Thursday town officials, including the beach patrol, are aware of the sudden appearance of large predators off the resort coast and are taking the appropriate actions to monitor them.

“This is certainly not normal for Ocean City,” she said. “Thankfully, the Ocean City Beach Patrol has been very aware and has been monitoring the activity. As usual, they closely monitor any type of risk in the ocean, whether it is a rip current, a shore break or marine life. They’re always keeping their eyes on the water to keep our residents and visitors safe. For all of our beachgoers, we want to make sure they know to check with the lifeguard on duty to find out the current conditions of the water.”

In a statement released later on Thursday, the Town of Ocean City re-emphasized the importance of heeding any warnings issued by the beach patrol.

“We have had an unusual week in Ocean City with several sightings of marine life in the surf,” the statement reads. “Our Beach Patrol is continuously monitoring water conditions including forming rip currents, shore breaks and our friends with fins. Our lifeguards are trained to keep you safe during your stay, however, it is imperative that you listen to the whistle and follow any directions given by the lifeguards.”

Again, it is important to note sharks spotted swimming in the ocean close to shore is not necessarily alarming. In regards to the hammerhead that birthed 20 pups on the beach in north Ocean City early Monday, National Aquarium Fisheries Research Specialist Alan Henningsen said the time of year and the time of the shark’s cycle were appropriate for Monday’s incident.

“Hammerheads are actually very delicate and they have to continually swim to survive,” he said. “They only come up to this area in the summer time, so this would be the right time for her to be here and the right time for her to be giving birth.”

It is uncertain if the live hammerhead spotted at different locations through mid-week was also coming close to shore to birth pups, but Henningsen said it is certainly possible. Additionally, a witness reported the hammerhead came close to beaching itself Wednesday evening on 52nd Street.

“They do give birth close to shore,” he said. “They generally come in close to shore to give birth because it’s a safer habitat for the pups away from other sharks and other predators.”

The sudden spike in shark sightings close to the shore this week ironically comes at a time when the 40th anniversary of the movie “Jaws” is being celebrated. The iconic shark movie was released on June 20, 1975 and has been scaring generations out of the water for the last four decades. “Jaws” was re-released in about 500 theaters around the country this week to mark the anniversary.

The unusual shark activity in Ocean City this week also comes just days before the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week, which will include programs related to everything about sharks including shark attacks.

 

9-Year-Old Pedestrian Struck In Fenwick Expected To Recover From Accident

Staff Photo

OCEAN CITY — The 9-year-old Pennsylvania boy struck by a vehicle while attempting to cross Coastal Highway at Route 54 in Fenwick last Saturday night still faces a long road but is expected to make a 100-percent recovery.

Just before 9 p.m. last Saturday, Zander Hartman, 9, of Lehighton, Pa., was crossing Coastal Highway at its intersection with Route 54, or Lighthouse Rd., with family and friends when he was struck by a 2007 Chevrolet Suburban. The group was attempting to cross Coastal Highway from west to east and stopped at the median when the pedestrian crossing signal went red.

According to the Delaware State Police, after Hartman and his family and friends successfully crossed the southbound lanes of traffic on Coastal Highway, or Route 1, as it is known north of the Delaware line, the crossing signal changed, forcing them to halt in the median near the raised curb.

For reasons unknown, other than simply being a young boy, Hartman did not stop at the median with his family and friends and darted out into the northbound lanes of Coastal Highway just north of the intersection with Route 54. Hartman was struck by the Chevy Suburban, driven by William D. Murphy, 52, of Havre de Grace, Md.

Hartman was struck by the front bumper of the Chevy Suburban, which had the right-of-way and was passing through the intersection on a green or yellow signal, according to conflicting reports. A DSP release stated the traffic signal was green, while a witness at the scene stated he believed the light was yellow.

Nonetheless, the driver was not found at fault and the collision was an unfortunate accident. According to the DSP report, alcohol was not a factor and no charges have been filed. After the collision, the Chevy Suburban pulled to a controlled stop in the bus lane of northbound Coastal Highway about 10 feet from the point of impact, according to a witness.

Hartman was flown by Maryland State Police helicopter to PRMC in Salisbury and was later transported by ambulance to D.C. Children’s Hospital in Washington where he was listed in critical condition. Despite the horrific collision, which closed northbound Coastal Highway at Route 54 for about two-and-a-half hours, Hartman was on the mend this week and is expected to fully recover, according to family friend Cory Hartsell, who has started a Go Fund Me page in order to raise funds for the mounting medical bills.

“He’s got a long road ahead, but the doctors expect him to make a 100-percent recovery,” Hartsell said on Wednesday. “He doesn’t have any neck or spinal injuries or any brain injuries, which is great news. Most of his injuries are internal and the doctors have them under control.”

Known to his family and friends simply as “Z,” Hartman is a typical 9-year-old and was enjoying a summer vacation in the resort area. According to his mom’s Facebook page, he was recently named to his Little League’s All-Star team. While she could not be reached directly for comment, his mom on Tuesday sent a rather positive message via Facebook.

“He’s got a lot going on, but he is very strong and is doing the best he can to get better,” the message read. “Just keep him in your thoughts and prayers.”

By mid-week, the Go Fund Me page started by Hartsell had gained a lot of momentum from well-wishers hoping for the best for the young boy. By late Wednesday afternoon, the page had collected nearly $7,000 of the stated $10,000 goal in just the first 24 hours. The page can be found at www.gofundme.com/xmxd2g.

Eric Tubens of Gilbertsville, Pa. was a witness to the collision and offered a few more details this week. Tubens was on the opposite corner waiting for the pedestrian signal to turn with his wife and was holding his newborn less than two months old. Tubens said half of his family had already crossed the west side of Coastal Highway and he was waiting for the next signal with his wife and infant along with about 15 other people.

Tubens said he saw the Hartman family cross to the center median and stop when the pedestrian signal changed, but Zander kept going and darted into the path of the Suburban. “It was kind of like slow motion and you could see it developing but were powerless to stop it,” he said. “It was horrible. Because of his size, the boy didn’t bounce off the bumper, but instead kind of rolled under the truck. It was devastating to watch and if he makes it through okay after that collision, it will be a blessing.”

Because of his proximity to the collision, Tubens said he had a chance to speak with the driver and his wife, who were clearly shaken. He said they were very upset and he attempted to console them.

“I reassured them they did not do anything wrong and it was just an unfortunate and tragic accident,” he said.

Tubens said he has since had the time to consider alternatives after he was on the opposite corner with his wife and infant child along with a dozen or so other people including young children.

“It could have been even more tragic,” he said. “If the driver had seen the child and swerved to avoid him, he could have easily driven into the crowd of people we were in on the corner.”

 

Hammerhead Shark Birthed About 20 Pups Before Dying, Witnesses Say

Witness Jess

OCEAN CITY — More details emerged on Tuesday about the mature 10-foot female hammerhead caught by surf anglers early Monday morning and the frantic attempt to return at least 20 pups she birthed on the beach back into the ocean.

Just after midnight on Monday, a group, including Jess Rutherford and her brother Chad, of Harford County, along with friend Cory Yoviene of Easton, were surf fishing and hanging out on the beach at 144th Street. About a block south, another group was surf fishing at 143rd Street when they had an unusual and quite substantial catch, a roughly 10-foot female hammerhead.

Jess Rutherford said her group could hear the other group yelling and screaming about their large and unexpected catch and they ran down the beach to see what the commotion was all about. The other group had beached the hammerhead and were attempting to put the ailing shark back into the ocean. Rutherford and her group helped them attempt to put the shark back in the ocean when they made a surprise discovery.

“All of the sudden, we saw something coming out of her,” she said. “We then realized she was giving birth and my brother pulled the shark pup out of the mom and threw it into the ocean.”

Rutherford said the group that caught the hammerhead initially had left after the two groups were able to push her back into the ocean. Rutherford and her group went back to where they were fishing at 144th Street and about a half an hour later, they could see a large shape rolling in the surf about a block south. They went to the area to find the large female great hammerhead had beached herself again and when they tried to push her back in, they realized she was birthing several pups.

“We tried to push her back, but she just kept having babies,” she said. “It was pretty amazing. We were finding pups all over the shore and we were running up and down the beach and collecting them and getting them back into the ocean as fast as we could.”

Rutherford estimated there was a dozen or so pups initially that were washing around near the shoreline. She said her brother, Chad, and his friend, Cory Yoviene, pushed on the female shark’s belly and another 10 or so pups came out.

“We were frantically trying to put them back into the ocean as fast as we could, but they kept washing back up onto the beach,” she said. “Finally, we started wading into the ocean further so we could get throw them out behind the breakers because the surf was pretty rough that night. Once we were getting them behind the breakers, they stopped washing back up and we didn’t see them anymore.”

Meanwhile, the female hammerhead appeared to be succumbing to the stress of being beached and giving birth. Rutherford said the trio attempted to drag her by the tail back into the ocean in the hopes she would revive and swim away. She said they called 911 and were told to leave the shark and let nature take its course. The Ocean City Police Department was contacted around 12:50 a.m. but by the time officers arrived on the beach, the hammerhead had perished. The Maryland Natural Resources Police confirmed they were contacted and passed the information along to the National Aquarium’s marine animal rescue program. When reached for comment, National Aquarium officials said they were contacted to consult on how to handle the beached shark, but did not respond in a rescue capacity after learning the hammerhead was already deceased.

The mature hammerhead later on Monday morning washed up on the beach in neighboring Fenwick Island and was discovered by early morning walkers who reported it to Fenwick Island officials. The shark was later reportedly dragged to the dune line by public works officials and buried, which is the normal protocol. A few years back, a large humpback beached itself in Fenwick and the deceased creature was buried on the beach as well.

National Aquarium’s Fisheries Research Specialist Alan Henningsen told The Dispatch on Tuesday it was not unusual for a hammerhead to be in close to shore at this time of year in the mid-Atlantic region.

“Hammerheads are actually very delicate and they have to continually swim to survive,” he said. “They only come up to this area in the summer time, so this would be the right time for her to be here and the right time for her to be giving birth.”

Henningsen said the mature female hammerhead would likely have been in the area close to shore to birth her pups.

“They do give birth close to shore,” he said. “They generally come in close to shore to give birth to their young because it’s a safer habitat for the pups away from other sharks and other predators.”

Rutherford estimated the total number of pups her group helped birth and get back into the water at around 20 to 22. Henningsen said that would be an accurate number and that a typical hammerhead brood numbers from as low as 13-15 and as high as 50. He said the hammerhead pups are generally about two feet long, which is consistent with the pictures of the young sharks Rutherford and her group took.

In terms of the future for the young hammerhead pups, Henningsen said a fairly large portion will likely make it, despite losing their mother.

“The minute they are birthed, they are on their own,” he said. “With sharks, there is no parental care whatsoever. The good thing is, because they were quickly put back into the water, the young sharks stand a much better chance of making it. In longer terms, their chance of survival during the first year of life is about 50-50 at best because of predation and other factors.”

Without knowing the all of the details, Henningsen said it was possible the mature female hammerhead came in close to shore to birth the pups when she was hooked by the shore fishermen. He said the stress of getting caught and beached could have triggered the birth of the pups.

“When they’re stressed, they will often abort their young even if they aren’t to term,” he said. “From what we know about this situation, it appears they were at term or close to term based on the size of the pups.”

Committee, State Tour West OC To Discuss Bike, Pedestrian Safety

WEST OCEAN CITY — Determined to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety in the increasingly dense West Ocean City, leaders of a grassroots citizens group this week toured the known trouble spots with a state transportation official to begin exploring potential projects.

Formed this spring, the West Ocean City Pedal and Pedestrian Committee has met on several occasions to explore public safety improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists in the rapidly developing West Ocean City area, but there is also a recreational element.

Group leaders envision a kinder, gentler environment in West Ocean City for bikers and pedestrians with links to a broader network of trails being developed in the north end of the county from Assateague to Berlin. In the short term, however, the committee is focusing its efforts on much needed pedestrian and bicycle-friendly upgrades in the area, but thus far the effort has been long on problems and short on solutions.

Committee leaders Michael Maykrantz, an Ocean City firefighter and paramedic, and Tres Denk, president of the Eastern Shore Mountain Biking Association, on Tuesday met with the Maryland Department of Transportation’s Director of Bicycle and Pedestrian Access Michael Jackson for a tour of West Ocean City.

“The whole area is a combination of state and county roads, and there is a lack of funding for both,” he said. “The roads are narrow with no shoulders in a lot of places, dark with inadequate lighting and generally not safe for pedestrians or bicyclists.”

The main problem is the often narrow, dark roads in West Ocean City were designed and laid out several years ago before the big development explosion in the area. Now, with an abundance of shopping centers, outlets, restaurants, hotels and motels and other businesses, the high volume of traffic along the corridors is mingling with an equally high volume of pedestrian and bicycle traffic, often with dangerous and sometimes deadly results. As a paramedic, Maykrantz said he has seen more than his fair share of serious injuries to bikers and walkers in West Ocean City and even a few fatalities over the years.

“The big problem is, these roads were laid out and designed decades ago when West Ocean City was basically out in the country,” he said. “With all of the residential and commercial development, it’s become pretty dense and urban in recent years, but the roads were never built to take the high volume of pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The whole area exploded, but the roads are basically the same as they were in the 1950s and 1960s.”

While change is slow in coming, there have been some changes implemented recently, especially along the Route 50 corridor with the implementation of crosswalks and pedestrian signals at some of the major intersections. There has also been a piecemeal development of sidewalks along the north side of Route 50 although there are still some gaps.

“There has been some progress with sidewalks along the north side of Route 50 from the bridge to Route 611,” said Maykrantz. “The only area that lacks a sidewalk along there now is the stretch in front of Hooper’s. We’re hoping to eventually have sidewalks all the way to Herring Creek, which is sort of the limit of West Ocean City.”

Maykrantz said the committee realizes funding and other issues, including the procurement of easements, is stifling progress to a large degree, and that projects will have to be done in phases. Thus far, the committee has focused a lot of its efforts on the densely developed north side of Route 50.

“Our main focus has been the corridors along Golf Course Rd. to Center Drive over to Keyser Point Rd. although we’re looking at the entire West Ocean City area,” he said. “That’s one of the densest areas in West Ocean City, but the roads are narrow and dark. The county’s Comprehensive Plan identified Golf Course and Keyser Point as areas with a lot of traffic flow feeding Route 50 and an area that needs improvements, but we haven’t seen any real progress.”

The committee is beginning to work with its state and county partners to affect some changes to make the area safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. Already the committee is finding out there are significant barriers to overcome.

“We’re learning there is a ton of issues to overcome from easements to property rights and, of course, funding,” he said. “Our hope is to get some of these projects to shovel ready status with pre-planning and engineering so they can be accomplished when funds become available.”

The committee, which now numbers about 12-15 individuals, can be found on Facebook and is always looking for new members and fresh ideas.

“The state does have a plan to make improvements, but you don’t hear much about them,” he said. “We’re trying to educate ourselves on what plans are already on the books and have a plan in place to expedite some of these projects.”

 

 

Extreme Heat, Cool Water Led To Tuesday Morning’s Route 50 Bridge Malfunction; State Confident Sensor Adjustment Will Address Issue

Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — An extreme differential in the air and water temperatures caused the Route 50 Bridge into Ocean City to malfunction early Tuesday morning, but adjustments have been made to prevent a similar occurrence heading into the height of the summer season.

Around 6 a.m. on Tuesday, the Route 50 Bridge was raised and lowered as planned, but the gates that prevent traffic from moving across the draw span were stuck in the down position. The malfunction caused a brief traffic backup, such as it is at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and many motorists opted to turn around and backtrack to Route 90 to get into the resort.

“The bridge tender raised the bridge, closed it and seated it as usual, but the gates didn’t open,” said State Highway Administration Media Relations Manager David Buck on Wednesday. “It was the first time it ever happened on the Route 50 Bridge. It has happened on other bridges around the state, but never at the Ocean City bridge. It was rectified in about 15 minutes.”

Buck said the problem was caused by extreme differences in temperature in the air and the water below the span. A sensor allows the gates to reopen after the bridge is closed and seated, but that sensor malfunctioned on Tuesday morning because of the vast differences in the air and water temperatures, according to Buck.

“With several days in the 90s, all of that steel and concrete was so hot and the water temperature in the bay is still pretty cold. The water is warming up quickly, but with those extreme temperature differences, the sensor didn’t engage. Basically, even though the bridge was closed and seated, the sensor didn’t recognize that everything was okay and wouldn’t let the gates reopen.”

Buck said once the problem was recognized, it was quickly rectified and the gates reopened, allowing traffic to flow across the bridge.

“The sensor was adjusted so it is less sensitive to the temperature differences,” he said. “It was a pretty easy fix. The sensor was adjusted to be less sensitive and the bridge tender now knows to hold the close button down just a little bit longer. It is a pretty narrow window of when the air temperature is so hot and the water hasn’t warmed up yet, but we’re sure the adjustments won’t let it happen again.”

Motorists stuck in traffic on Tuesday morning because of the bridge issue were likely reminded of a major malfunction of the span nearly one year ago. Around 3 p.m. last June 26, the drawbridge got stuck in the open position following a routine opening and closing. The malfunctioning bridge almost immediately caused heavy resort traffic on a busy Saturday afternoon in late June and the dominoes toppled backward as motorists attempted to find alternative routes into the resort, essentially causing gridlock across much of northern Worcester County and lower Sussex County.

The bridge remained stuck in the open position for about five hours until the decision was made to hand-crank the draw span into the closed position. SHA engineers determined the problem was caused by a cracked mount on the drawbridge’s drive shaft that would not allow the span to be lowered completely.

The bridge was fixed temporarily and worked throughout the rest of last summer without any more issues. A long-term fix was planned last fall and the work was completed in April in advance of the new summer season.

Buck said the problem with the sensor on Tuesday was an entirely different issue and it has been rectified. He said the completion of the major repair this spring would prevent a repeat of last summer’s debacle as the one year anniversary approaches.

“Tuesday’s issue had nothing to do with what happened last summer,” he said. “While we can never say never, the bridge literally has thousands of moving parts and we would be remiss if we said there will never be another problem, but we are completely confident that it will function properly as we head into the busy part of the season.”

Sprinkler System Credited With Minimizing High-Rise Fire’s Impact

sprinkler

OCEAN CITY — A potential disaster was averted on Sunday evening when a sprinkler quickly extinguished a kitchen fire at a 25th-floor unit in a north-end high-rise condominium.

Shortly before 11 p.m. on Sunday, the Ocean City Fire Department responded to a fire alarm activation resulting from a fire in a unit at the Century I condominium building. When firefighters arrived, there was smoke reported from a unit on the 25th floor. The fire department response was quickly upgraded to a structure fire in a high-rise structure.

The fire, which originated in the unit’s kitchen, was suppressed by one fire sprinkler upon arrival of the fire department. Firefighters on scene worked immediately to remove smoke throughout the 25th floor. OCFD officials said the fire at the high-rise structure illustrated the importance of working fire sprinkler systems.

“Fire sprinklers respond quickly and effectively to fire, often extinguishing the fire before the fire department arrives,” said Ocean City Fire Marshal David Hartley. “This is a perfect example of how an automatic sprinkler reacted quickly, reduced the heat and flames and prevented injuries to those inside the building.”

The unit was unoccupied at the time of the fire and no injuries were reported. The fire damage was limited to the unit in which it originated. The cause of the fire is under investigation by the Ocean City Fire Marshal’s Office.

Next Week’s Seal Release Marks A Milestone For Aquarium Program

Photo by National Aquarium

ASSATEAGUE — An injured grey seal rescued from the Delaware coast on Easter has completed its rehabilitation at the National Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program and will return to the wild next week as the program’s 150th successful release.

Lilly, a juvenile grey seal, was rescued on the Delaware coast on Easter in early April after suffering a broken jaw. The young seal was transported to the Animal Rescue Program at the National Aquarium in Baltimore where it began an extensive rehab program under the watchful of aquarium staffers.

After two months of rehabilitation, Lilly is now fully recovered and has been medically cleared for re-release. If all goes according to plan, Lilly will be re-released into the wild from the beach at Assateague State Park at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Like so many before her, Lilly will likely reluctantly head toward the ocean upon her release on Tuesday and swim away much to the delight of curiosity seekers and onlookers.

When Lilly arrived at the National Aquarium on April 5 after being rescued from the Delaware coastline, it was touch and go for a while as the young seal was suffering from a broken jaw caused by an unknown source. The Animal Health Team closely monitored her progress and it appeared to be a near certainty the seal would require surgery to repair the broken jaw.

However, Lilly responded well to treatment and it soon became apparent the wounded jaw would repair itself without the need for surgery. With a daily diet of herring and capelin, Lilly has gained around 12 pounds since being admitted in April.

Animal Health Team staffers have been working hard on providing Lilly with an assortment of foraging activities to hone her natural hunting skills and ensure she will be able to hunt and eat on her own. With the green light from Animal Health Team, National Aquarium crews will transport Lilly to the Assateague State Park on Tuesday afternoon where she will be re-released.

Lilly’s successful rehabilitation and return to the wild next week will mark the National Aquarium’s Animal Rehabilitation Program’s 150th release. The Marine Animal Rescue Program works year-round to rescue injured or ill seals, sea turtles and other marine mammals and nurture them back to health before re-releasing them.

Last fall and early winter, the program was inundated with sea turtles rescued from a phenomenon known as cold-stunning and many of those have been rehabilitated and re-released. In addition, the program also rescues and rehabs stranded seals from all over the mid-Atlantic region suffering from either illness or injury. Because of the proximity of the National Aquarium to Maryland’s Atlantic coast, many of the rehabbed marine mammals are released from Ocean City and Assateague.

 

Civil Suit Raises Social Media, First Amendment Issues; Wicomico Official Was Terminated For Facebook Page

SALISBURY — In what appears to be one of the first real tests of social media and First Amendment rights, at least locally, a former Wicomico County employee filed suit this week against the county asserting he was wrongfully terminated for starting a Facebook page to open a discussion on Wicomico’s proposed employee handbook revisions.

Former Wicomico County Emergency Management Coordinator David Inkrote filed suit in U.S. District Court against Wicomico County and three of his supervisors claiming his First Amendment rights to free speech were violated when he created a Facebook page in March to provide a forum for discussion on the county’s proposed new employee handbook. The suit seeks an undetermined amount in compensatory and punitive damages and could be a test case for an employee’s use of Facebook and other social media.

In March, the Wicomico County Council reviewed during a publicly televised session on PAC-14 a draft of the new county employee handbook. According to the suit filed on Tuesday, the proposed employee handbook would make substantial revisions to the existing handbook, which has been in effect since 2003.

For example, the new employee handbook would appear to replace tenurial employment, under which county employees could be terminated only for cause at the discretion of the employer, with at-will termination. In addition, the proposed employee handbook would make significant reductions in the employee benefits available to county employees, particularly with regard to health insurance and the availability of accrued paid time off.

According to the suit filed this week, the proposed revisions to the employee handbook set off a storm of public commentary on local blog sites and other media outlets. Supporters of the proposed revisions applauded the new handbook for saving the county money and reducing its administrative burden. Detractors claimed it was unfair to employees while making employment with the county less desirable and making it more difficult to attract qualified candidates.

Inkrote found himself in the middle of the discussion with several fellow county employees asking him questions about what the changes would mean. According to the suit, Inkrote shared those concerns with Councilman Larry Dodd, who suggested in an email that Inkrote should start a Facebook page to facilitate the discussion of the new employee handbook.

On March 21, acting on Dodd’s suggestion, Inkrote established a private Facebook account, on his own time and using his own computer to promote the discussion of the proposed employee handbook. Participation in the Facebook page was by invitation only and Inkrote invited several current county employees along with retirees to openly discuss the changes in the handbook. By the next day, there were 88 members and discourse on the Facebook account, which was civil, courteous and focused on the pertinent issues, according to the complaint filed this week. Eventually, 176 county employees participated in the Facebook discussions including the Deputy Director of Emergency Services, who posted the PAC-14 video of the council meeting when it was introduced.

“Mr. Inkrote participated in Facebook discussions only on his own time, and apparently, so did the other Facebook participants,” the complaint reads. “Facebook activity was subject to written ground rules imposed by Mr. Inkrote requiring participation to be civil, courteous and appropriate and virtually all participants complied. The Facebook account engendered no interference with participants’ workplace activities and did not disrupt operations in the workplace in any fashion.”

Nonetheless, less than a week after establishing the Facebook page, Inkrote was informed by his supervisors that he was being terminated. The correspondence attached to the termination acknowledged “the employee has a First Amendment right to Facebook for personal use, but the county does not condone behavior that subjects county employees to anti-county government behavior,” and that “the county cannot support a website that isolates or criticizes management and its practices.”

Inkrote, through counsel, then filed an formal grievance challenging his termination, asserting among other things he had not engaged in on-the-job activities, made no use of any official information not available to the public and that he had done nothing that “might reasonably be deemed as malicious, coercive, discourteous, inconsiderate or unprofessional,” and that his actions were “protected by the First Amendment in that they were undertaken on his own time and using his own computer and simply promoted appropriate discussion of matters of general public interest.”

In May, the county’s Personnel Board held a hearing on Inkrote’s formal grievance and ultimately upheld his termination. Left with no other recourse, Inkrote through his attorney filed suit this week in U.S. District Court claiming free speech retaliation under the First Amendment. The suit seeks relief from economic losses including back pay and benefits. The complaint also points out Inkrote was terminated with less than two years left until he was eligible for county retirement benefits.

The suit seeks an undetermined amount in compensatory and punitive damages and a declaratory judgment that Inkrote’s right to free speech under the First Amendment were violated.