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April 5, 2012 Issue

Teacher killed in wreck
Reedy Creek suffers third spill in 12 month period
Unidentified pilot crashes at airport

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Teacher killed in wreck

By Faye Ellisonand Carol Mcleod
Staff Writers

Students, teachers, faculty and staff gathered at Jefferson County High School on Friday to say goodbye to someone who had left them all too soon, their beloved Spanish teacher, Heidi Benstead Hernandez.

Hernandez, 28, of Evans, died in a car accident last Tuesday, March 27, when the car she was driving was struck by another vehicle on Campground Road outside of Wrens.


Trooper First Class Gerald Lyles of the Georgia State Patrol investigated the scene and said she came to a stop at the intersection of Campground Road and US Highway 80 about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 27.

“From what I saw and from what the deputies told me, she did come to a complete stop and looked both ways probably and didn’t see the vehicle and pulled out,” the trooper said.

The other vehicle, a silver 2002 Chevrolet Impala driven by Neiley Donell Chance, 37, of Sardis, struck Hernandez’s car on the driver’s side.

“She died on impact,” Lyles said.

The passenger in Hernandez’s car, her fiancé and fellow JCHS teacher, Steven Bryant Jones, 34, of Martinez, and Chance were taken to Georgia Health Sciences University, formerly MCG, in Augusta. Both have been discharged.

Jefferson County Coroner Edward James said that Hernandez would not be sent to the state crime lab, although such tests are routinely done when there is a fatality.

“I called the crime lab and explained she just failed to yield,” James said.

The coroner said he spoke with the families of the victims.

He said Hernandez and Jones were headed home when the accident occurred.

James said he thought Hernandez didn’t see the other vehicle and pulled out from the road.

The impact of the wreck was weighing heavily on students and teachers at JCHS Wednesday, while they were trying to come to terms with Tuesday’s accident.

“What we’ve done here is we are taking care of the kids and teachers today,” Dr. Alan Long, principal at JCHS, said Wednesday, adding a memorial will be planned. “We will meet in the morning to talk about what we will do Friday. Today, we are trying to get through the day.”

And talk they did. Friday, everyone had their chance to say goodbye and honor the memory of their friend. Among the speakers was Jones, who was to have become her husband and a literature teacher at the school. The school’s gym was overflowing with pink balloons, flowers and pink T-shirts honoring Hernandez’s favorite color.

Jones said God had brought him to the school for a reason, that being his late fiancée.

He explained at the school’s memorial that he and Hernandez would play games with the students to keep his and her relationship secret, adding that he cherished every moment with her and the students.

“I loved everything about her,” he said.

“I know how good all of you are,” he added. “All of you have done so much for me and my family. I loved the way you’ve honored my angel.”

Jefferson County Superintendent Dr. Molly Howard said that Hernandez had been teaching at the school for two years.

“She had a very close relationship with her students, which was very evident in watching her with them,” Howard said. “Since her death they have written hundreds of letters to her family.”

Students have even put a memorial at Hernandez’s classroom door, with flowers and cards.

“When you read them you can see from a child’s perspective what she meant to them,” Howard said. “She wanted them to achieve at high standards and she was an inspiration to a lot of students. Nothing made her happier than seeing her students do well. I hope in life she knew how much she meant to them, because it is very obvious now.”

Her life and death have left a lasting impression on her students.

“One little boy told a teacher that he would never give a teacher a hard time again,” Howard said. “It made us as adults and teachers personal to students. They see we are not invincible. Seeing their teachers upset and crying has had an impact on them.”

Howard noted the outpouring of love and sympathy from the community.

“The community, first responders, law enforcement and ambulance service took it as their loss,” she said. “I think they saw that educator tag, and so often in political arenas and with the media, teachers have gotten an unfair bashing. The loss of such a young person and for her to be a teacher was more personal to people.”

Dr. Howard said that there are five weeks left in the school year once students return from spring break.

“We have another teacher, Angela Palmer, who has been assisting Heidi’s class this past week to help,” she said. “Connie Gay is also certified in Spanish, so she has helped as well.”

The school system has placed notices for their need of a new Spanish teacher, and Howard said they hope to have a new teacher by the time students return in the fall. Jones will return after spring break.

“He said he will gather his strength from the children,” Howard noted.

Apprentice Oraleethia L. Morgan contributed to this story.

Reedy Creek suffers third spill in 12 month period

By Bonnie K. Sargent

Just a few months after a kaolin slurry spill rocked the ecosystem of Reedy Creek, the creek took another heavy blow when more than 100,000 gallons of kaolin whitewash was leaked from a faulty pipe.

The leak was first detected around 7 a.m. the morning of Friday, March 23. At 9 a.m. it was reported that the leak had been stopped.


Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus said the liquid that spilled into the river is known as whitewash. Whitewash is the material that is separated from the white kaolin clay.

“It’s the orange clay and all the materials in the ground that are not kaolin,” said Bonitatibus.

The Riverkeeper said the waterways affected were Reedy Creek near Highway 17 and a small creek near Thomson that feeds into Reedy Creek.

The company responsible for the spill was Thiele Kaolin Company. The spill occurred when a valve malfunctioned during the night.

“There was a retention pond that should have caught this material before it reached the creeks, but the valve on the pond was also damaged,” said Bonitatibus, adding that the valve on the pond had been damaged by a lawnmower or tractor at some point.

Bonitatibus said the company did a lot to help restore the creek. Thiele brought in pumps and worked to remove the kaolin whitewash from the water.

“Out of all of the spills that I’ve seen in the past, this is the most aggressive clean up I’ve seen,” said Bonitatibus. “They worked with KaMin and KaMin has the capability to suck out almost the entire creek. They were bringing it in and filtering it through their systems as well.”

Over the past year the creek has been affected by three major spills, each of which Bonitatibus said stemmed from a maintenance issue.

“I think that there are some significant resources and time that needs to be spent doing a good survey of some outdated maintenance,” she said.

She said it is interesting to note that all three of these spills were from different parts of the kaolin process.

“We’ve had three different discharges with three different reactions on the waterways, each coming from the same facilities,” said Bonitatibus.

Bonitatibus said there was not an immediate effect on the wildlife in and around the creek.

“One thing that’s obvious is that Reedy Creek itself is pretty heavily impacted and a lot of that has to do with the different spills and the nutrients found in those spills,” she said.

There is a large amount of stuff built up on the bottom of the creek which has created algae that may choke out fish, especially during the summer, Bonitatbus said.

“We are at an extremely high risk for a fish kill this summer, even without a spill occurring then, just because of the stuff built up on the bottom,” said Bonitatibus. “The creek is definitely getting filled in but I think that is something that has been happening for a while.”

The city of Waynesboro pulls its drinking water from the creek. As soon as the spill occurred, the drinking water was cut off.

“Out of all of these spills, the thing that is well worth recognizing is that we’ve seen a drastic change in the way these spills are dealt with. Every single time it’s getting better,” said Bonitatibus. “That’s one thing that we’ve been very happy about, as happy as one can be in this situation. Obviously, we would like the spills to stop, but the companies are taking the right steps to solve those problems and the government agencies are doing what they can to make sure they are regulating properly. We’re a lot better off than we were a couple of months ago.”

The Riverkeeper said she feels the spills could have been prevented by proper maintenance. Similar to this spill was one that occurred in January when a damaged pipe belonging to KaMin, LLC, ruptured and allowed over 600 tons of kaolin slurry to flow into the creek. In that instance, Bonitatibus said the pipe had been nicked and harmed many years ago, the same as the valve belonging to Thiele.

“I think a more aggressive maintenance policy probably needs to be looked at in both of these plants,” she said. “They need to take a tighter look at what exactly happened and make sure that stuff is up-to-date.”

Bonitatibus said she would like to see the companies come together with a good solution to rehabilitate the creek. She also thinks the company should have real-time monitoring in the creek.

“That would have alerted somebody to the spill before that much whitewash got out,” she said. “It was less liquid spilled than KaMin and they found it fairly quickly, but a real-time monitor in the creek would have told them almost immediately.”

The Riverkeeper is encouraging citizens to do their part as well. Savannah Riverkeeper is planning to offer a number of classes over the next few months to educate citizens on the steps they can take.

“That’s where we need to be is giving the citizens the tools and the kick they need to be able to test their waterways and watch over them themselves,” Bonitatibus said. “There are only four of us on staff here and the citizens are the ones that know when something is going on.”

Bonitatibus said they want to set up a volunteer citizen monitoring program and also hopes to have an advisory board put together whose job it is to look over the waterways and communicate with the industries as well.

The Riverkeeper is currently in communication with KaMin, LLC regarding the spill in January. Savannah Riverkeeper had announced its intent to sue the company for illegal filling of wetlands and failure to properly permit ongoing cleanup operations, unless they were compliant. Bonitatibus said they are still going back and forth with the company, but they have a meeting scheduled next week.

“We’re hopeful that we will be able to come up with a solution that is beneficial to the citizens in the area,” she said.

Unidentified pilot crashes at airport

By Faey Ellison
Staff Writer

An experimental aircraft enthusiast was injured on Sunday, April 1, when windy conditions caused him to lose control of his powered parachute.

Jefferson County EMS Director Maj. Carl Wagster confirmed Monday that the accident happened at the Louisville Municipal Airport around 2:30 p.m.


“He was using some type of parachute or parasail equipment coming in from the sky,” Wagster said. “Someone saw him hit a pole and they said he came down hard.”

Louisville City Administrator Don Rhodes said he understood that the pole had been broken at the ground level, with Louisville Mayor Larry Morgan adding that the pole was old and used to have a light attached.

“The city will fix the pole eventually,” Rhodes said. “We just hope he is all right.”

Pilot Pierre Smith said the powered parachute that the man was reported to have been wearing at the time of the accident is a small version that has an engine that is strapped to the person’s back along with a parachute. The person must run to be lifted off of the ground. At least two local men fly similar aircraft in the area; however, theirs are bigger and look more like go-carts dangling from parachutes.

Wagster said the unidentified accident victim, who is believed to be from out-of-town, was airlifted by AirMed to the Georgia Health Sciences University, with possible trauma and fractures.

Officers who arrived at the scene did not have any information on the victim, but said he has been instructed to contact the Louisville Police Department when he is released from the hospital.

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