Opioids, school upheaval, new bus system, fatberg among other 2017 headlines in Maryland

It’s been another whirlwind year for Baltimore. In 2017, the city was the backdrop of Netflix and HBO documentaries, had its entire bus network redesigned and grappled with an opioid epidemic intertwined with a third straight year of more than 300 homicides.

The year brought upheaval in the region’s public school systems, with both Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance and Howard County School Superintendent Renee Foose exiting their posts amid controversies. In the city, some teachers were accused of staging a “sick-out” — staying home to protest impending budget cuts and layoffs to close a $130 million budget deficit.

A solar eclipse turned our eyes to the sky as a “fatberg” of congealed grease and trash grew in the sewer under our feet. Thefts and other issues plagued Baltimore’s nascent bike share system. Maryland Democratic candidates began queuing up to take on incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in the 2018 governor’s election.

Here are a few of the stories that made headlines.

TRAGEDIES

The city had its heart broken less than two weeks into the year when six children died in a house fire in Northeast Baltimore — a quarter of the city’s 24 fire deaths so far this year in one night.

Eight-year-old Erin Malone helped her mother, Katie, pull her 4-year-old sister Jane and 5-year-old brother Jack from the burning home. But first responders were unable to rescue six other siblings — Bridgette, 11; Amelia, 10; twins Zoe and Amanda, 3; Billy, 2; and Daniel, 8 months. After a monthslong investigation, the Fire Department was unable to determine the cause.

Meanwhile, the national opioid epidemic raged on unabated in the state. In Baltimore, 393 died of overdose deaths of heroin, fentanyl and other opioids in the first half of the year, according to the city’s health department. Overdose deaths in Maryland related to fentanyl jumped 70 percent in the first half of the year, officials said.

Hogan convened an Opioid Operational Command Center to coordinate the state’s response to the growing crisis, and Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen ordered her department to send out real-time text message advisories about “bad batches,” to keep people from unwittingly using the potentially deadly drugs.

The June hit-and-run death of 20-year-old bicyclist Aaron Michael Laciny in Towson — less than a mile from the spot where cyclist Thomas Palermo was killed by a drunk and texting driver in 2014 — infuriated the bicycling community and renewed calls from advocates for more bike-friendly infrastructure to protect bicyclists.

Several military deaths hit home in Maryland this summer. Sgt. Eric Houck, 25, of Perryville, and two other U.S. soldiers were killed in an attack by an Afghan soldier on June 10. Personnel Specialist 1st Class Xavier Alec Martin, 24, from Halethorpe was one of seven sailors killed in a collision between the U.S. Navy destroyer Fitzgerald and a container ship off the coast of Japan just over a week later. Two Maryland sailors were among 10 killed when the destroyer USS McCain collided with an oil tanker near Singapore in August. Electronics Technician 2nd Class Kevin Sayer Bushell, 26, of Gaithersburg and Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Timothy Thomas Eckels Jr., 23, of Manchester were on board the ship.

Gun carnage continued across the country, with the deadliest mass shooting in recent history killing 59 people and injuring 520 others, including a former Anne Arundel County resident, at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas in October. Crofton native Tina Frost was shot in the head at the concert and, after emerging from a coma, returned to Maryland for further treatment and rehabilitation.

Later that month, three people were killed and two were injured in a workplace shooting at an Edgewood granite workshop, allegedly by a suspect who led police on a manhunt to Delaware, where he is charged with shooting and injuring a sixth victim. The suspect, Radee L. Prince, faces a slew of charges in both states.

In September, a 33-year-old Montgomery County man was charged with murder after allegedly killing his pregnant girlfriend, Wilde Lake High School teacher Laura Wallen, burying her in a shallow grave — and then making a dramatic public plea for help finding her.

TRANSPORTATION

Buses and bicycles were the main transportation stories of the year in Baltimore, with the launch of Hogan’s $135 million BaltimoreLink overhaul of the Maryland Transit Administration’s bus system, the shutdown of the $2.36 million Baltimore Bike Share system and a fierce debate over a Canton bike lane that culminated in a lawsuit before city officials eventually agreed to rebuild it.

BaltimoreLink, a redesign of the MTA bus routes around a network of high-frequency, color-coded CityLink routes, received mixed reviews from riders on its first day, but officials say it has increased reliability in the five months since, even though ridership remains flat.

The city shut down its bike share system for a month after “unprecedented” thefts and a long maintenance backlog resulted in most of the bikes being removed from the system by the end of the summer. The system re-launched after the shutdown with only about two dozen bicycles and persisting problems with the system’s mobile app, though more are on the streets now.

It wasn’t the only botched re-launch for the city transportation department this year. Baltimore’s speed camera system returned on July 31 but stumbled on its first day, when the vendor accidentally issued more than $38,480 in duplicate tickets to nearly 1,000 people.

The governor also announced a $9 billion plan to add express toll lanes to three Maryland highways: the Interstate 495 Capital Beltway, I-270 between Frederick and D.C., and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

The hurricanes pummeling Florida put an end to Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport’s 26-month streak of passenger growth in September, and the port of Baltimore continued record growth, handling more than half a million more tons of cargo in the first nine months of the year than it ever had before. Meanwhile, Hogan directed Attorney General Brian Frosh to sue the Federal Aviation Administration over airplane noise at BWI in response to complaints from nearby residents.

POLITICS

A crowded field of Democratic candidates have declared or are exploring campaigns against Hogan, the popular Republican incumbent, for governor in 2018.

Those running (so far) include Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz; Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker; former NAACP leader Ben Jealous; state Sen. Richard Madaleno; technology entrepreneur and author Alec Ross; Baltimore attorney Jim Shea; Krish Vignarajah, a former policy director for first lady Michelle Obama; and Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a policy consultant who is married to U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings.

Not running — despite having the most name recognition, according to a September Goucher poll — is former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

In a year when national and local politics felt as divisive as ever, Maryland House Speaker Michael Mike Busch’s life-saving June liver transplant from his sister brought about a statewide sigh of bipartisan relief. Busch had been diagnosed with nonalcoholic liver disease in May.

EDUCATION

As Baltimore school officials struggled with a $130 million budget shortfall, Howard and Baltimore counties both saw their top education officials leave before their contracts ended.

Renee Foose, the Howard County superintendent, had been locked in a power struggle with a new school board majority that took control in late 2016, and she left in May with three years remaining on her contract. She sued the board after members passed sweeping measures asserting their authority over her, but, following secret severance negotiations, she departed.

Dance left Baltimore County schools at the end of June, giving no explanation, but suggesting that the job was wearing on him. A subsequent Baltimore Sun investigation found that Dance had spent more than a third of the 2016 school year traveling, and that he had been penalized twice for not disclosing pay he received for speeches.

Dance’s interim successor Verletta White got caught up in ethics questions related to undisclosed payments for consulting with a firm that promotes education technologies. She later agreed to no longer receive pay for consulting and limit her travel.

In February, teachers at Tench Tilghman Elementary-Middle School in East Baltimore called out sick en masse in what school officials and the teachers union called a “sick-out” protest against a looming $130 million of budget cuts and layoffs. While the city and state contributed money to help fill the gap, Baltimore City Public Schools laid off 115 people to close the shortfall, including assistant principals, librarians, school counselors — as well as the first classroom teachers to lose their jobs in a decade.

“The Keepers,” a Netflix documentary series examining the unsolved death of a Catholic nun and sexual abuse at then-Archbishop Keough High School in the late 1960s, rattled the city’s Catholic community and prompted a petition for the Archdiocese of Baltimore to release files on the priest at the center of it.

(The other high-profile Baltimore documentary released this year, HBO’s “Baltimore Rising,” focused on young activists’ response to the 2015 death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent trials of the six police officers who were charged in Gray’s arrest and death.)

ODDITIES

Baltimore being Baltimore, there was no shortage of odd, quirky and just plain weird news.

City workers discovered a giant glob of congealed grease, wipes and other detritus — a mass known as a “fatberg” — causing overflows in the city’s sewer system in September.

A steam pipe below Eutaw Street in downtown Baltimore exploded in June, injuring five people and shooting mud and chunks of asphalt onto nearby cars. Veolia North America, which manages the city’s steam pipes, attributed the explosion to “abnormal pipe wall thinning” and called the explosion “an extremely rare and isolated event.”

The solar eclipse was a cultural phenomenon, drawing all eyes to the sky one Monday in August for the “Super Bowl of Astronomy.” Storm clouds mostly obscured the view in Baltimore, but the sun peeked out a few times, partially blocked out by the moon.

Thousands of the cicadas that overwhelm Maryland’s tree branches once every 17 years showed up in May — four years early, which some scientists attributed to climate change. The hypothesis: Longer growing seasons due to climate change may have shortened the cicadas’ life cycle, which could have created new cycles of timekeeping broods.

A tornado tore though Kent Island in July, one of the most destructive to hit Maryland in years, tearing the second stories off townhouses, twisting metal electricity poles and ripping massive trees from the ground. One person was reported injured by falling debris.

In the late afternoon of Nov. 30, a sudden jolt sent people to Twitter and other social media to ask “Did you feel that?” Turns out a magnitude 4 earthquake had struck near Dover, Del., and was felt hundreds of miles away in Maryland and other states.

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Upper Fells Point was evacuated in October for a burning odor. The smell sent two students and three adults to the hospital with upset stomachs. The culprit? A pumpkin-spice aerosol plug-in.

But perhaps no story perplexed and entertained more than the discovery of a pile of cubed ham on the sidewalk of Charles Street downtown.

“You see a lot of things just walking around,” tweeted the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore’s Michael Evitts, who found the mount of meat. “Today, apropos of nothing, we found a pile of ham.”

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6



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