Top 10 Stories of 2013: Firsts, lasts, milestones and tragedies

The year just ended brought a number of significant milestones, most of them good, to the area covered by The Record. The highlights include a couple of noteworthy sports accomplishments, completion of a major highway project, the end of a couple of eras in our history, the celebration of another and, possibly, the beginning of another of historic proportions.

There were also three tragic deaths at Aberdeen Proving Ground and a bizarre crime story from a year earlier that hasn't gone away.


The following are The Record's Top 10 Stories of 2013:

1 - Local control of hospital ends


The federal Affordable Health Care Act, or Obamacare, might well have been the most polarizing, if not the biggest, news story in the Untied States during 2013.

It also had two big impacts locally, one that was expected and one not so expected, the former being the end Harford Memorial Hospital as it had been known for more than a century, the latter the stalling of an important economic development project for Havre de Grace.

In October, the leader of Harford County-based Upper Chesapeake Health told Havre de Grace city officials the company had put on indefinite hold on its plan to build a new hospital and medical campus on 97 acres it owns next to the I-95/155 interchange.

A year earlier, Upper Chesapeake unveiled a concept plan for the project that showed the new hospital, a replacement for Harford Memorial in downtown Havre de Grace, surrounded by 20 buildings housing clinics, offices, a hotel and retail. The nonprofit also began the city approval process with the intention of breaking ground for the hospital in 2016.

But in an October appearance before the Havre de Grace Mayor and City Council, Upper Chesapeake President and CEO Lyle Sheldon conceded the new hospital and campus project would be stalled because of the uncertainty created by Obamacare.

"When we get a little more clarity on that we'll be back in front of this body," he told council members.

In later statement he said, the "timing of our groundbreaking is influenced by final state regulations that are associated with the modernization of the Maryland Medicare Waiver associated with how hospitals will be paid in the future."

"Although there has been much progress on the modernization [new hospital project] in the past year, there are still many unanswered questions related to how capital costs will be reimbursed under the new regulations," he said.

On the plus side, Upper Chesapeake did complete and open its new $61 million Patricia D. and M. Scot Kaufman Cancer Center on its Bel Air medical campus, giving Harford County residents their first opportunity to receive comprehensive cancer treatment and care in their home county.

Both the Kaufman Center and the stalled Havre de Grace package were the first collaborations between Upper Chesapeake and the University of Maryland Medical System, which agreed to merge four years earlier.

In early December, the merger was completed, and it ended more than 100 years of local control over Harford County's health care system that began in 1910 when a group of Havre de Grace residents founded the county's first general hospital that became Harford Memorial.

With that Upper Chesapeake Health became University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health and its two hospitals were renamed University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital and University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center.


Upper Chesapeake's leadership and its local board also became answerable to University of Maryland Medical System's senior leadership, as the hospitals became subsidiaries of the new parent company.

Though coincidental, Sheldon said, the merger would strengthen the local hospitals position in the age of Obamacare.

2 - Divers down

On a cloudy afternoon in late January, a distress call went out over Harford County's emergency radio system that a diver was "lost in the Super Pond."

That call foreshadowed a devastating year for Aberdeen Proving Ground and the families and associates of three divers who were the first to die while diving in the installation's huge inland underwater test facility built in 1994.

The Jan. 30 death of civilian diver George H. Lazzaro Jr., 41, was followed less than a month later by the deaths of two Navy divers, Diver 1st Class James Reyer, 29, and Diver 2nd Class Ruan Harris, 22, who drowned while training in the Super Pond, known officially as the Underwater Explosive Test Facility.

Despite the death of Mr. Lazzaro, an employee of the Army's Aberdeen Test Center, the Navy divers, who were attached to a command in Little Creek, Va., were allowed to use the Super Pond by the commander of the Aberdeen Test Center.

An Army investigation into Mr. Lazzaro's death, just released to the public this month, concludes it was an accident, but specific causes are redacted from the public version of the report. Witness statements in the report say Mr. Lazzaro, who was diving in SCUBA gear, complained he was losing air while diving in a four-member team to recover equipment used in a recent armaments test.

The diver was told to surface as fast as possible and he would be decompressed; however, upon reaching the surface he quickly submerged again and his body was not recovered for almost two hours. He was pronounced dead at Harford Memorial hospital.

The Navy divers' deaths were investigated by the Navy, and the incident has led to disciplinary action against five sailors, including relieving the commander of the divers' unit of his duties. Criminal actions are still pending.

Testimony at a hearing in Norfolk earlier this year disclosed a litany of problems with equipment and personnel during the Navy dive.

"Everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong for us," Petty Officer 1st Class Fernando Almazan, the dive supervisor, testified.

Although the Army's Criminal Investigation Command investigated Mr. Lazzaro's death and found no wrongdoing, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA, which has jurisdiction because Mr, Lazzaro was a civilian employee, cited APG and the Army for several workplace safety violations. The Army did not contest OSHA's findings.

Following the three deaths, the Super Pond was closed until investigations were complete. An Army spokesperson said last week that diving and tests could begin as soon as this April but under new guidelines and standards.

3 - Bye-Bye $10 Hatem commuter toll

This past year marked yet more changes for the tolling systems at the two Susquehanna River crossings linking Harford and Cecil counties, none of them favorable to residents who need to use them for such essential trips as getting to and from work, operating a business or for getting to and from medical appointments.

On July 1, the cash toll to cross the Route 40 Hatem Memorial Bridge between Havre de Grace and Perryville and the I-95 Tydings Bridge a few miles to the north went up from $6 to $8 - a 60 percent increase since 2011 when the toll was $5.

In the winter the special EZ-Pass transponders that Hatem Bridge commuters were given for free when the AVI sticker system ended in the summer of 2012 began costing $9.


The AVI - automatic vehicle identification - sticker system on the Hatem had for years had allowed local commuters unlimited crossings at the rate of $10 annually.


The stickers had been doomed the previous year when the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the bridges, began making commuters switch to the E-Zpass electronic toll collection system, though not before public and legislative pressure forced the authority to offer the special E-Zpass transponder just for Hatem Bridge commuters.

But the $10-a-year commuter toll rate, which MdTA had also agreed to keep for a year, increased to $20 effective July 1. That's still a bargain perhaps, though given the state's ever mounting highway construction needs, it seems likely the annual toll won't stay at $20 for as long as it was $10.

Later in the year, MdTA announced yet another potential change for the Hatem Bridge, saying it was considering doing away with the toll booths on the Perryville side that have been there since the bridge opened in 1940.

Removing the toll barriers would mean no more cash tolls and all toll collections would be recorded through either E-Zpass or by a vehicle's license plate in the absence of the other. The state would then bill the owner of the vehicle for the $8, plus a collection fee.

4 - Happy 50th, JFK Highway

On the afternoon of Nov. 14, 1963, President John F. Kennedy opened the new Northeastern Expressway between Baltimore and the Delaware state line during a ceremony held at the latter location.

During the brief speech he gave that day, Kennedy called the joint federal, state and local undertaking that produced the new highway "essential to the progress of our people."

The four-lane divided highway, constructed under the fledgling federal interstate highway act, not only promised to speed traffic traveling up and down the East Coast from New York to the South, it was expected to have a significant economic and social impact on the both Harford and Cecil counties.

This year, the highway, now named for President Kennedy who was assassinated just eight days after he dedicated it, marked its 50th birthday.

Over its first half-century, the highway largely accomplished what many believed it would on a local scale, making it easier for people to live in Harford and Cecil counties and commute by auto to jobs in and around Baltimore and Wilmington. And, the more extensive north-south I-95 system that the northeastern Maryland portion spawned did indeed alter interstate commerce and travel along the Eastern Seaboard.

And, also not unexpected, along with population growth in its corridor, the highway helped encourage more automobiles and trucks, more congestion, more urban/suburban sprawl and other consequences.

Building the Kennedy Highway was the most significant public works improvement in our area during the last half of the 20th Century, and the highway's impact on our daily lives will be felt way into this century and most likely beyond. There were no grand parties for the 50th, no ceremonies, just media stories and continued work on the road. Echoing Kennedy's words, on the eve of the 50th anniversary, Harford Del. Mary-Dulany James, whose father the late State Sen. William S. James, was instrumental in getting the highway built, said I-95 had shown how "cooperative undertakings at all levels of government" can come together for a common good and without a lot of tension.

5 - Lady Eagles repeat

When Brionna Jones, their star center, went down with a season-ending knee injury in early January, it would have been understandable if her teammates and the devoted followers of the Aberdeen Eagles girls basketball team lowered their expectations for the remainder of the 2012-13 season.

Not so. The team regrouped, played excellent basketball over the next 11 weeks and in March cut down the nets at UMBC's RAC Arena for its second straight Maryland Class 3A state championship, after winning a 51-47 title game thriller over River Hill from Howard County.

Winning a state championship in any sport is a major accomplishment. Doing it back-to-back is special. The Eagles, who finished their season 25-3, joined Fallston's girls team (2008-09 and 2009-10) as the only Harford basketball squads, boys or girls, to repeat as state champs.

In addition to needing to find its way following the loss of Jones, the team was playing for a new coach, Amber Milnes, and with the proverbial target on its back after its dominating season a year earlier.

None of that, however, mattered. Led by sophomore Kierra Palmer, senior Jimmia McClusky and freshman sensation Stephanie Jones, Brionna's younger sister, with strong support from Endia Jones and Nazje Norton, the Eagles found another gear for the remainder of the regular season and moved strongly through the playoffs, running away in the second half of their semifinal game with Damascus for a 21-point win and setting up a title game rematch with River Hill.

Aberdeen started the championship game sluggishly, fell behind early and looked like it would not catch up. With 1:14 left in the third quarter, the defending champs trailed, 38-28, and then their two hallmarks, speed and defense, took over.

Led by Palmer, who had a game high 22 points and nine of her team's 18 steals, the Eagles went on a 20-3 run and were up, 48-41, in the game's closing two minutes, before River Hill closed the gap to one at 48-47.

A Palmer layup gave Aberdeen breathing room, but there were several anxious plays in the final moments, including missed River Hill shots, more Aberdeen steals and some missed Aberdeen free throws before the Eagles hoisted the championship trophy.

6 - Along the waterfront

Early in 2013, Havre de Grace city officials were presented with what many said was an extraordinary opportunity to acquire waterfront property adjacent to the historic Concord Point Lighthouse.

Former city councilman Steve Gamatoria and his family offered to sell the city their home and surrounding property on Concord Street for $1,290,000. The Mayor and City Council jumped at the chance.

Gamatoria said the family was considering moving from the property they had called home for 18 years and wanted to give the city the first crack at buying it.

He said he did not really want to sell "what I believe is the single most beautiful piece of land in Havre de Grace" to a private buyer who might use it for high density development.


"We see it as an opportunity for the city to regain some of the waterfront and increase the park space and open space," Gamatoria said in an April interview, shortly before city voters approved the acquisition in an Election Day referendum.

The city has already floated plans for the 13,125-square-foot property - about one-third of an acre - that include removing the house, extending the Promenade and building a small park and pier. The Gamatoria family had improved the waterfront portion of the property with a new bulkhead and pier.

Settlement on the property occurred in September, according to state tax records. The deal with the Gamatorias calls for a long-term payout of most of the money - 25 years at 4 percent interest annually.

The city wasn't so fortunate with another potential waterfront acquisition that was pursued in 2013: Acquisition of the former Gilbert Oil Company terminal properties along Water Street between Jean Roberts Park and the Havre de Grace Marina.

Harford County Executive David Craig's administration proposed buying the properties for $3.47 million, but members of the Harford County Council questioned the deal, citing discrepancies in appraisals and estimates for cleaning up contaminants on the site that could run to $1 million.

In the end, a majority of the council members voted down legislation to fund the purchase, much to the dismay of Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, of Havre de Grace, who cast the only votes in favor of the deal.

"I have never, in seven years on the council, seen a bill handled so poorly," she said. "It was very clear there was disdain for something."

7 – Vi Ripken scares off carjacker

It remained a bizarre story in 2013, or any year for that matter.

In July 2012, Vi Ripken, matriarch of the first family of Aberdeen, was kidnapped from her home, driven around central Maryland and returned unharmed the following morning, about 24 hours after she was abducted.

Being the mother of baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and former Major Leaguer and now baseball broadcaster Bill Ripken, the kidnapping garnered plenty of national publicity. But even after police released security camera photos and sketches of her assailant and set a five-figure reward, no arrest was made and not even a hint of a name behind the photos was forthcoming, according to police sources.

In the meantime, Ripken's four adult children fretted about her safety and theirs, but she continued to reside in her modest Aberdeen home, albeit with extra security precautions, according to the family.

Around the first anniversary of the kidnapping, the reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Ripken's assailant was increased to $100,000.

"I didn't want to go and hide," Ripken, 75, said in July. "I felt like if I keep away from things, it's not going to be very fun for me. I had to face it."

So in October, while making a routine trip to her bank in downtown Aberdeen, Ripken thwarted what police said was an armed carjacking attempt.

Vi Ripken was able to scare off a man, who flashed a handgun and said he wanted her car, by activating the panic alarm on her key fob. She was not injured.

Police later arrested a Havre de Grace man, Jesse Bowen, 33, of Havre de Grace, charging him with attempted armed robbery, attempted carjacking, assault and weapons violations. He remains in jail awaiting trial.

Investigators said they don't believe there was any connection between the attempted carjacking, which they called a crime of opportunity against an older person, and the earlier kidnapping. They said they do believe the carjacking knew Ripken's identity.

8 – BRAC's spoils, toils

The latest round of federal base realignment, or BRAC, that began in the latter half of the previous decade ensured that Aberdeen Proving Ground would remain the engine driving Harford County's economy.

And, the federal government largely upheld its end of the bargain, shifting thousands of jobs to the local installation, while the county pulled out all stops to make new arrivals and private contractors who followed the BRAC path welcome.

It remained for the state to do its share, albeit reluctantly as it seemed to many local officials, but in September, a state delegation led by the lieutenant governor, joined local government leaders and the top brass at APG to celebrate the completion of a complete rebuilding of the Route 715/Route 40 interchange in south Aberdeen.

The $33 million State Highway Administration project, which took three years to complete, was expected to immediately improve the flow of traffic in and out of APG's main gate for contractor personnel and other visitors.

"These improvements are going to make it easier for all residents to be able to spend less time behind the wheel in the car, behind another car, and more time either with their families or on the job being productive," Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown told the audience at the ribbon cutting.

While the new interchange was nearing completion, on the other side of town another face of the BRAC impact on Aberdeen was taking place.

In the spring, the SHA finally began to clear its expanded right-of-way along Route 22, the Aberdeen Thruway, to make improvements at several of the intersections between I-95 and the main APG gate for employees, a second BRAC-related state highway project in Aberdeen.

Unfortunately, that project involved the acquisition and demolition of 18 homes, the first of which was razed this year.

In October, Mary Lynn Myers, who lived at 606 Aberdeen Thruway with her family for 38 years, told members of the Aberdeen City Council she was disappointed the city did not reach out to support or acknowledge the families like hers who would be losing their homes.

"Our husband and I created our home here in Aberdeen and we took great pride in our property," said Myers, whose family was forced to move out of Aberdeen when their property was taken for the road work. BRAC giveth, BRAC taketh away.

9 - Craig for Maryland - maybe

David Craig has been a city councilman and twice the mayor of Havre de Grace, a state delegate, a state senator and this summer he became the longest serving Harford County executive in the history of the position.

In June, Craig took the biggest step yet in a political career that began in 1976, announcing his candidacy for governor of Maryland in 2014. With his wife, Melinda, and their children and grandchildren by his side, the 63-year-old Republican kicked off his campaign at St. Patrick Hall in his hometown as friends and well-wishers cheered.

For a bit of history, there have been two Harford County natives who served as Maryland's chief executive, William Paca (1782-85), the state's third governor, who was born in Abingdon before Harford County was carved out of Baltimore County, and Augustus Bradford (1862-66), who was born in Bel Air. The last Harford resident to make a serious bid for the office was the late C. Stanley Blair, who was the Republican nominee in 1972, but was trounced in the general election by the Democratic incumbent, Marvin Mandel.


In a state that has elected Republicans to its highest office just twice in the past 60 years, Craig nonetheless exuded optimism regarding his chances in the weeks leading to his formal announcement. There would be no incumbent in the race, with Gov. Martin O'Malley having reached the two-term limit, and Craig certainly was well known enough in state political circles. He picked an up and coming Eastern Shore legislator, Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio as his running mate.

By year's end, the Craig campaign was facing challenges from two other Republicans - Del. Ron George from Anne Arundel County and Prince George's businessman and politico Larry Hogan. On the Democratic side, the O'Malley camp got squarely behind Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, although that did not dissuade Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur from getting into the race for their party's nomination.

10 – Playoffs? IronBirds? Yeah, Baby!

Over their first 11 seasons encompassing some 900 games, the Aberdeen IronBirds had been a model of consistency - mostly atrocious with an occasional glimmer of mediocrity.

As the curtain rose on the 2013 New York-Penn League season in June, the Ripken Stadium faithful had no reason to suspect it would be any different from the rest.

But an astounding thing happened over the ensuing 12 weeks. When the regular season ended in Aberdeen on the night of Sept. 4, the IronBirds had compiled a 40-32 record, good enough to win the league's McNamara Division and secure the team's first playoff berth in its history.

How do you go from a perennial doormat to a champion? Part of the credit certainly has to go to the front office of their parent club, the Baltimore Orioles, who select the team's players and picked the on-field coaching staff.

It probably was no coincidence that the IronBirds on-field futility closely paralleled what was arguably the big league club's worst stretch since it arrived from St. Louis in 1954. So, when the Orioles returned to the playoffs in 2012 after a 14-year absence, there was certainly reason to believe a page might turn 25 miles to the north.

The players who wore IronBirds uniforms in 2013 were certainly a different lot from their predecessors. They hit, fielded and pitched with remarkable skill for mostly first year professional players, some just weeks out of college or high school. And, most of them were allowed to stay in Aberdeen for the whole season, rather than being moved up the ladder to other Orioles farm teams when they played well, as had often happened in previous seasons.

There was also another change in the on-field leadership that finally appeared to pay dividends.

Matt Merullo, who was short on managerial experience, but long on optimism, was tapped to lead the club on the field. On his first day on the job, he moved some furniture around in his office.

"I changed things around in here," Merullo, a former Major League catcher, said. "I didn't like how it felt. The desk was tucked way back there where you couldn't see who was coming through the door. I like to see people when they walk past the office. That's just me."

Though Merullo and his young charges lost two heartbreaking, well played and well pitched games to be swept out of the New York-Penn League playoffs in the first round, the IronBirds of 2013 proved something none of their predecessors could, namely you can actually win wearing "IronBirds" across your chest.

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