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Cabell EMS employees start unionization process

HUNTINGTON — Dozens of Cabell County EMS employees packed the tiny Cabell County Commission chambers Thursday to show solidarity as union representatives announced plans to attempt to start a union for the first responders.

Chad Francis, a United Mine Workers of America representative, said more than 100 Cabell County EMS employees want to unionize because they fear for their safety at work.

“That’s the major thing,” he said. “One of the things is a lot of these people work 12- or 24-hour shifts. They may be 23 1/2 hours in, and then they’re asked to go to Columbus. It’s not safe.”

Floyd Conley, another UMWA representative and organizer, was the first to speak at Thursday’s commission meeting and asked the commissioners to recognize the UMWA as the bargaining unit for the Cabell EMS staff.

The commissioners said they would take it under advisement. The request is expected to be revisited on the next commission agenda.

Cabell County EMS Director Gordon Merry declined to comment on the union’s allegations Thursday, citing the commissioners’ ongoing discussions about the unionization request.

“They are going to make a decision and give me directions on where I’m going,” he said.

Francis said the EMS drivers don’t fall under regulations from the Department of Transportation and don’t have to log hours. While they do have a fatigue chart they have to follow, if they use it too much, they get reprimanded, he claimed.

“There’s an overwhelming majority here that wants to be represented. They don’t feel safe where they are working right now,” he said. “We are just here to try to help them in any way they can to where they can go to work and feel they can come home in the evening.”

In other items taken up on Thursday’s agenda, commissioners approved the city of Milton’s annexation of about 22 acres containing the Milton Little League youth baseball and softball fields.

The request was made by the landowner, CSX, which said they would be “only too happy” to agree to the request.

The annexation will allow the city of Milton to enter the area to assist in general maintenance and provide additional police services in the area.

Cabell County Sheriff Chuck Zerkle, who spent some of his career working law enforcement with the city of Milton, said city police cannot go on the property and make an arrest without the annexation. If a crime was occurring, they would have to wait for a sheriff’s deputy to arrive before making an arrest.

“We would go over there and detain people until the sheriff could get there. It was an ongoing problem from time to time with vagrants and drug addicts and things like that,” he said. “Now that I’ve switched paths, they are still waiting on us. This is going to improve the safety of the public and people who go over there.”

In an unrelated matter, Marshall Health is seeking to build a new parking garage near the Erma Byrd Clinical Center.

While the parking garage will have no effect on the county commission, attorney Fred Williams, of Steptoe & Johnson, said federal law requires a public comments hearing to be held before the project could move forward with the issuance of the bond. The commissioners approved the issuance of a bond after no public comment was made.

The project is expected to cost anywhere from $15 million to $20 million, with an interest rate not to exceed 5% with a maximum 30-year payback term.

The parking structure will be located in the 1200 block of 15th Street, between Charleston and Columbia avenues at the Erma Byrd Center. It will have four levels with 700-plus parking spots and is expected to be about 10 feet lower than the main roof of the center.

A new east-west walkway from the new Fairfield Landing student housing will align with one staircase and elevator, which will be located near the entry to the new School of Pharmacy located on the property near Charleston Avenue.

A second staircase and elevator will be located at the corner of 15th Street and Columbia Avenue to accommodate users of the clinical center, as well as patients of the main Marshall Medical Center on Hal Greer Boulevard.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

Homecoming parade filled with legendary MU alumni

HUNTINGTON — Baseball legends and men who literally reached for the stars highlighted the Marshall University homecoming parade Thursday evening.

Co-grand marshals for the parade were sons of Marshall Gary Ray and Bob Lang, retired NASA engineers who both enjoyed distinguished careers in the field, heading up major programs from the Apollo missions to the space shuttle program.

Rick Reed and Jeff Montgomery, sons of Marshall and Major League Baseball players, were joined by Cincinnati Reds all-time great Johnny Bench on the parade route as well. Bench went from the parade to the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center for his Marshall Artist Series talk. All three men also will be at the groundbreaking of the baseball stadium Saturday morning.

The parade was capped off with a pep rally and bonfire.

Autumn Colors Express ready to make inaugural run

HUNTINGTON — On the eve of the inaugural run of the Autumn Colors Express, workers spent Thursday afternoon loading ice, bottled water and other supplies onto the 21-car consist — a combination of private rail cars familiar to New River Train riders, and some historic cars making their first runs on the fall excursion route.

Most notable of those will be bringing up the rear for the first leg of the Huntington-to-Hinton round trip: The Cedar Rapids, a parlor-observation car that was the jewel of the Milwaukee Road Hiawatha trains of the 1940s and ’50s.

It features a dramatic glass-enclosed Skytop Solarium at the rear of the car, where a young Frank Sinatra held court in the luxury car en route to concerts in the Midwest, according to Rail Excursion Management Co. (Railexco) spokesman Lou Capwell.

“This is the car he was pretty happy with,” said Capwell, who said Railexco is thrilled to have the car in the Autumn Colors Express lineup.

He said only four cars like it were built, and this is the last one still operational.

Also making its first excursion run is Northern Pacific 549, a short dome car that owner John Webb III found rusting away on a siding in Spokane, Washington, and spent more than $1 million to restore to its original circa-1957 glory. At 62, it is one of the younger cars on the train.

“This is not only the first chance to ride this car, but this will be the only chance for people to ride this one until sometime next year,” Capwell of the car, which features a combination of dome, lounge and deluxe coach seating.

Conversely, Steve Sandberg, of Minneapolis, has eight cars on the train, most in Milwaukee Road livery, cars that have been making the fall excursion run for the past 26 years.

“We’re just happy to be back in Huntington this year,” he said trackside Thursday, noting the uncertain future of the train just months ago.

In February, the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society, which had operated the New River Train since 1966, announced that, because of money issues and higher operating costs imposed by Amtrak, it would not be running the fall excursion train this year.

However, less than three months later, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. — who had worked with Amtrak to assure the New River Train’s operation in 2018 — posted a message on Twitter announcing that “a deal is in place” to continue the Mountain State tradition.

Manchin’s announcement proved to be accurate — but also premature.

It would be another 10 weeks before Railexco — a Midwest-based rail excursion and private car charter company — would be able to finalize the deal and formally announce resumption of the fall excursion train under a new moniker.

Unlike the New River Train, which operated on consecutive weekends, runs of the Autumn Colors Express were announced for Oct. 25, 26, and 27 — saving the costs of paying CSX to store the train in its Huntington railyard during the week.

Another obstacle with the late announcement was that Railexco had a window of less than three months to sell tickets, unlike New River Train tickets that generally went on sale in January.

Nonetheless, Capwell said sales have been strong, with the Saturday run essentially sold out, some premium seating available for Friday, and some premium and dome seating for Sunday.

He said ticket sales will continue online up to departure times.

Capwell said adding a stop in Charleston helped sales, with a lot of ticket-buyers from Ohio opting to board in the capital city.

“I’m really impressed with what we were able to cobble together in two months,” he said.

For Sandberg, keeping the excursion train going without a lapse was vital.

“It’s important to keep this tradition alive, and keep this train running,” said Sandberg, who said he feared if the train lapsed this year, it might never have resumed.

“We’re happy the new organization stepped up and took on the responsibility of running the train,” he said. “It’s also extremely important to the local economies of Huntington and Hinton.”

Previously, tourism industry estimates have placed the economic impact of the excursion train at $5 million. The train is the focal point of the Hinton Railroad Days festival each year.

Manchin, meanwhile, issued a statement about the inaugural run, saying, “For more than 50 years, the New River Train has been at the heart of West Virginia’s proud railroading history as the focal point of Railroad Days. That’s why I’m so glad to see that tradition carry on with the Autumn Colors Express this year. I have been so proud to have worked with them to make sure our state could continue this important tradition. I wish everyone a safe and fun ride for this fall’s Autumn Colors Express.”

The train, which was assembled in Amtrak railyards in Chicago, arrived in Huntington Wednesday morning, where it awaits departure on a siding adjacent to the former C&O Railway Depot downtown.

Mother claims self-defense in Huntington shooting death; investigation now underway

HUNTINGTON — Investigations are under way into the Wednesday shooting death of a Michigan man and subsequent fire at the house where he was killed in the Fairfield neighborhood of Huntington.

No charges had been filed as of Thursday afternoon, but the investigation is ongoing.

A shooting in the 900 block of 21st Street in Huntington was reported to Cabell County 911 just after 6 p.m. Wednesday. The 911 alert stated the caller said a man she did not know was trying to get into her house.

According to Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial, when Huntington police officers arrived, they found Christopher Johnson, 31, of Michigan, with a gunshot wound. Johnson was taken to a hospital, where he died from his injuries a short time later.

The home’s resident, Alicia Freeman, 40, also of Michigan, told investigators with HPD’s Violent Crime Unit that Johnson came to the home with a gun and demanded money while several children and Freeman’s boyfriend were inside.

According to Freeman and other witnesses, Johnson pointed the gun at several people while threatening them before attempting to shoot Freeman’s boyfriend. However, the gun malfunctioned and a fight ensued.

During that altercation, Freeman said Johnson began to fight with one of her children. Freeman said at that point she grabbed the gun and shot Johnson.

At approximately 4 a.m. Thursday, the Huntington Fire Department responded to the same location for a structure fire.

First responders found the back door to the home had been forced open and the home set on fire. No one was inside at the time of the fire, which is under investigation as arson by the HFD.

Dial declined to release additional details Thursday because of the ongoing investigation.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.