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01-02-04: Flood top local story of 2003

From staff reports

A historic flood, tragic explosion and local ties to the U.S. war in Iraq ranked as the top stories of 2003 in The Daily Standard. Those issues dominated the headlines for significant portions of the year and were chosen as the most important stories of the year by newspaper staff members.
School levy troubles, some high-profile crimes and a local crackdown on drugs also made the Standard’s annual top 10 listing.
The entire list, is as follows:
1. Independence Day flood wreaks havoc
The weather turned sour on Independence Day, just as many evening celebrations were getting underway. Several days later, it was a summer the Grand Lake St. Marys area would never forget. Persistent thunderstorms — bringing torrential rain and wind — pounded the area for days. Rivers and creeks spilled their banks to record levels and many residential basements filled with water. The flood was at its worst in Rockford along the St. Marys River, where a trailer court had to be evacuated, and in and around Celina, where floodwater closed the Community Medical Center and BreakAway RecPlex fitness center for months.
Elsewhere many city streets and county roads were under water and county officials declared an emergency, making it a crime to travel through high water.
President George W. Bush and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft declared the area a disaster area, qualifying flood victims for state and federal assistance. Taft toured the area while standing water still covered many roads.
Local weather forecaster Dennis Howick recorded nearly 15 inches of rain in July and by the end of that month, had measured 33.06 inches of rain for the year, not far off the average mark for rainfall for an entire year. National Weather Service radar indicated that at least 15 inches — possibly more — fell over parts of Mercer County during a three-day period at the height of the storm.
2. Two New Bremen firefighters die
The tragic deaths of two New Bremen volunteer firefighters shocked and saddened area communities in October.
Firefighters Ken Jutte, 44, and John Garman, 40, died after an oxygen-limiting silo exploded at Hoge Lumber in New Knoxville on the morning of Oct. 1.
New Knoxville firefighters, who were summoned to the silo fire about 7 a.m., immediately called neighboring New Bremen-German Township Department for additional manpower and use of an aerial truck — something the New Knoxville crew didn’t have.
About two hours later, the unthinkable occurred.
As Jutte and a third New Bremen firefighter, Scott Albers, were spraying water into the 71-foot concrete structure from above, the wood chip-filled silo exploded. The three men were tossed to the ground along with cement debris from the silo’s top.
Albers landed in a trash dumpster, which cushioned his fall and likely saved his life. Jutte, a father of three, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Garman, who had been nearby in the bucket of the aerial truck, also fell to his death following the explosion. Nine others were injured by falling debris.
State Fire Marshal’s officials determined the fire was accidental, caused by a combination of backdraft and ignition of gaseous byproducts and dust particles.
3. Local residents react to war in Iraq
When the United States launched war in mid-March to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, stories about local military men and women serving abroad, local residents’ reactions to the conflict and analysis of what the war could mean locally followed in the weeks ahead.
As U.S. tanks rolled toward Baghdad in a military campaign that played out on our television sets, complete with “embedded reporters” and graphic video of the so-called “shock and awe” campaign, local veterans told The Daily Standard their stories about their time serving in the first Gulf War.
The reality of war came home to the local area just two weeks into the conflict when Christian Gurtner, a U.S. Marine from Ohio City, became the first Ohioan to die in the war. Gurtner apparently was killed in an accidental shooting.
Also in April, President Bush spoke about the war in a speech to workers at the Lima Army Tank Plant. There Bush found a military-friendly crowd who supported the war effort. Many local politicians and government officials attended the speech.
Just before Christmas, word came that Ryan Uhlenhake, a U.S. Army soldier from Celina, was among the 600-strong contingent that ultimately found Hussein hiding in a spider hole.
4. Budget crunch hurts area schools
Area schools suffered financial setbacks this year that led to many headlines — from closing a school to a proposal to convert a public school to a charter school.
Celina City Schools board of education cut their budget by closing Franklin Elementary School in Montezuma in January 2003, causing unrest in the community. To prevent further budget cuts, voters passed two levies in May, which was the board’s eighth attempt at the polls.
However, one of the levies passed in Celina was gobbled up by state budget cuts that, coupled with declining student enrollment, will bring the district back to taxpayers with a new levy attempt in March 2004.
State budget cuts also hit hard in St. Henry, St. Marys and New Bremen, where school officials are forecasting million dollar deficits and possible cuts in staff or programming. Voters nixed operating levies at each of those districts in November and again will see issues on the ballot in the new year. St. Marys voters also rejected a levy to build a new school and renovate existing facilities.
Officials in Minster have been attempting to jump through a loophole in state law by becoming a charter school — a move they believe will give the district more state funding and grants. School officials still are working on the move, but are facing some roadblocks at the state level.
5. Celina voters reject lakefront revitalization
Voters in Celina narrowly defeated a city council ordinance that endorsed the Celina Downtown/Lakefront Revitalization Master Plan.
The plan, which took $83,000 and months of public meetings to create, laid out a long-range plan for Celina’s lakefront and downtown areas. It included uniform facades on downtown buildings, new residential use in vacant areas, more businesses near the lake, a reshaped shoreline to add land, a pavilion, a boardwalk and countless other ideas. In drawings, the plan showed every idea put in place and the costs.
A group of Celina residents circulated referendum petitions shorty after Celina City Council passed an ordinance that stated the city adopted the plan. The referendum put the issue on the November ballot, and voters rejected supporting the master plan.
Now the plan sits on bookcases and bewildered city officials have not decided how to react to the defeat. Work on bringing a boardwalk to West Bank Road began before the vote’s outcome, using a $250,000 grant from the state’s capital budget as matching funds in an attempt to attract more than $600,000 in other grants to fund the project.
Work also has continued on the private development between West Bank Road and U.S. 127, which now includes condos, rental units and the new Romer’s Entertainment Facility.
6. Water problems plague Celina
Celina city officials spent 2003 investigating an alternative drinking water source, after the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined the city $10,000 and ordered Celina officials to find a permanent fix to its water troubles. Those troubles involve a group of cancerous chemicals named trihalomethanes (THM). Celina consistently has violated Ohio law regulating THM levels in finished drinking water during the last decade, continuing through every quarter this year. THMs are believed to cause stomach and bladder cancers, and a list of other intestinal disorders.
Celina draws its drinking water from Grand Lake St. Marys, to the tune of 1.5 million gallons per day. The city has spent more than $100,000 in 2003 investigating an alternative to the lake source. Water wells have been dug and tested out in a field north of Celina and thousands of dollars were sunk in tests on new technology to better treat the lake water. Celina is on a timeline provided by the EPA to fix the water problem, and final decisions should be made in 2004.
7. Local pharmacy, bank robbed
Armed robberies — especially those involving pharmacies and banks — are not common in Mercer County.
However, lightning struck twice in 2003 as a robber demanded drugs from the Celina CVS Pharmacy on July 11 and a thief fled with $2,000 in cash from Chickasaw branch of the Osgood State Bank on Oct. 20.
Steven R. Mayer of Fort Wayne, Ind., brandished a gun at the Celina pharmacy twice, first in November 2002 and then again in July 2003, and demanded the drug Oxycontin. Witnesses descriptions helped police locate the car along U.S. 127, north of Celina, less than an hour after the second incident. Mayer was found hiding beneath a blanket in the backseat as his wife, Amber, drove.
Two days prior to his sentencing, Mayer briefly escaped from the county jail. His short-lived flight to freedom sparked discussion on replacing the aging facility.
Observant citizens and dedicated detectives were credited with the arrest of Matthew C. Baker, 36, of Greenville, in connection with the armed robbery of Osgood State Bank in Chickasaw. Residents described a pickup truck later linked to Baker, who reportedly confessed to detectives Pat Elking and Kip Wright during the investigation. Court proceedings in the bank robbery were continuing at year’s end.
8. Celina doctor pleads not guilty
Celina physician Dr. Thomas Santanello made front page news several times in 2003 when his attorneys sought to have the two indictments against him dismissed.
Santanello, 51, of Southmoor Shores, St. Marys, pleaded not guilty in September 2002, to 214 felony charges lodged against him in the two indictments by a Mercer County Grand Jury. The charges include 210 violations of drug laws and four theft offenses, including one count of Ohio Bureau of Worker’s Compensation fraud, one count of theft by deception and two counts of falsification.
Santanello’s attorneys have claimed the four affidavits that Mercer County Municipal Court Judge James Scheer used to authorize the April 2001 search warrant of Santanello’s 1107 N. Main Street office are defective. A three-day evidence hearing was held in November and no ruling has been made yet on what evidence will be allowed at the trial.
Santanello, 51, is a doctor of osteopathic medicine, specializing in pain management, sports medicine, neurological and spinal disorders. He is licensed to practice medicine in Ohio until 2004, but has not practiced since closure of his Celina office in early 2001.
9. Law enforcement cracks down on drugs in county
A continuing crackdown on illegal drug activity in Mercer County took drugs valued at more than $175,000 off the streets during 2003.
Statistics from the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office and the Grand Lake Task Force indicate there were 25 arrests on various drug offenses and a total of 26 firearms were seized during a number of raids. Methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine top the list of common drugs while favored pharmaceuticals include Oxycontin, Hydrocodone and Ecstasy.
Law enforcement conducted a series of raids; the largest coming in October with nine indictments handed down by a Mercer County grand jury.
Authorities found a meth lab on Nov. 6, when deputies visited a home in the 6700 block of Wabash Road.
On Aug. 22, 62 marijuana plants, valued at $62,000 to $93,000, were seized during aerial surveillance in Union, Blackcreek and Dublin townships in northern Mercer County.
Concerned citizens also contacted the sheriff’s office after seeing suspicious plants in a Union County farm field and home. Authorities later found marijuana growing there.
10. Local women enter political arena
A year of women in power rounds out our top 10 list.
Mary Pat Zitter became Mercer County’s first female county judge and Sharon LaRue was elected Celina’s first female mayor in 2003. Zitter, the Mercer County juvenile/probate judge, won the office over county prosecuting attorney Andrew Hinders in a race that also marked the highest campaign spending levels the county has seen. LaRue, also a Republican, defeated Celina Mayor Paul Arnold in the primary election and Ron Hammons in the general election.


Phone: (419)586-2371,   Fax: (419)586-6271
All content copyright 2004
The Standard Printing Company
P.O. Box 140, Celina, OH 45822


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