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Worker killed when wall collapses at Enlow Fork Mine

A worker was killed when a wall collapsed at the Consol Energy Enlow Fork Mine in Morris Township Thursday night.

Tanner Lee McFarland, 25, of Canton Township, was pronounced dead by the coroner at 8:51 p.m.

According to the Washington County coroner’s office, a longwall at the mine gave way and collapsed on top of McFarland about 6 p.m. Thursday. The mine is located at 181 Dry Run Road.

Consol Energy gave the following statement via email:

“We are saddened to confirm that last evening we lost a member of the Consol Energy family at our Enlow Fork Mine during an incident underground. We are working closely with state and federal officials to determine the cause of the accident. We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and loved ones during this very difficult time.”

Randall Caramellino, a staff assistant with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the agency began an investigation into the incident “immediately.”

“A final report will be produced with the results of that investigation,” Caramellino said.

He added that these investigations can take up to two months to complete.

The incident remains under investigation by state police.

Judge Traci McDonald-Kemp makes history in Washington County

Traci McDonald, as a little girl shopping uptown with her mother at Lang’s Fashions and trying on footwear at Union Shoe Store, was aware of the grand stone courthouse looming above the intersection of South Main and West Beau streets.

The little girl didn’t know back then she was destined to make history at the Washington County Courthouse in not one, but in several ways.

On Friday, for the first time in the county’s 238-year history, a black woman took the oath of office as a Washington County Common Pleas Court judge. And when she ascended the steps to the bench, she became part of a seven-member team, the largest complement of full-time jurists here since the Legislature enacted the expansion of the Washington County Court in 2017. She is also the first black woman to be elected to countywide office in Washington County.

Traci McDonald-Kemp, 48, in a courtroom where she had previously prosecuted criminal cases as a deputy district attorney, fulfilled Gov. Tom Wolf’s nomination. The state Senate unanimously approved her appointment June 27.

Gwendolyn Simmons, whose late husband, Paul A. Simmons, was Washington County’s first black judge in the 1970s, told the packed courtroom, “It is a history-making event in the history of Washington County,” and reminded the audience, “This is a true example of what America is all about.”

McDonald-Kemp thanked the many who helped in her campaign, and harking back she said, “Even as a young child, I recognized the power this place had.”

But she said of becoming a member of the judiciary, “It was never in my wildest of dreams.” She also singled out her father, local civil rights activist James R. “Cookie” McDonald.

“The bridges that he built, the blood, sweat and tears, that wasn’t for me,” she said. “It was for everyone.”

McDonald-Kemp transcended party lines in the May primary on her path to becoming a judge, and the governor appointed her for the remainder of this year to fill the seventh-seat vacancy. She resigned her magisterial district judgeship in the Cecil Township area at the close of business Thursday before donning the robe again in Friday morning’s ceremony.

Her father said before a line of judges and former judges formed for a procession, “Her life speaks for itself. I’m so proud of her, and Washington County will be proud that they elected her judge. She’ll make Washington County proud.”

During the program, he directed part of his extemporaneous remarks to one segment of those gathered in the courtroom.

“I’m saying to youngsters: Dream. Study. Because it all can happen,” McDonald exhorted.

Among them were members of the Fort Cherry Junior and Senior Choir, who sang the national anthem.

Hannah Garry, a rising junior, said at a reception during her first visit to the courthouse, “Traci chaperoned on the Disney trip last year. She was on the bus with us.” A classmate described her feelings as she witnessed history being made.

“It’s more like excitement for her and everything,” said Ayla Podrasky, still on summer vacation because the Fort Cherry District won’t begin classes until Sept. 12.

Meeting well-wishers outside of Courtroom No. 1, McDonald-Kemp described the experience as “exhilarating, but there are no words. Beyond that, there really are no words.”

Phyllis Waller, leader of Washington County Chapter 2291 NAACP, said after the swearing-in ceremony, in which President Judge Katherine B. Emery administered the oath, “I’m so excited. It’s so wonderful for Traci to now be a judge. She’s worthy of it.” Waller has known McDonald-Kemp since she was a child.

“My father (Louis) and Mr. McDonald worked together within the NAACP,” she said.

On Tuesday, the county’s newest judge faces a full calendar including dependency, delinquency and protection orders.

A graduate of Washington High School, Clarion University and the University of Pittsburgh Law School, she and her husband reside in McDonald with their two daughters.

Voters will also see her name on the ballot as she runs unopposed in the Nov. 5 general election for a full, 10-year term.

Sears store at Crown Center closing in December

The Sears store at Washington Crown Center is closing.

Lisa Eger, the store’s manager, confirmed Friday that it will be closing in December. The store is one of hundreds that have been shuttered across the country in recent years as the once unassailable retail giant has struggled.

A statement from Sears’ corporate office in Chicago stated, “After careful review, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to close the Sears store in Washington, Pa. A liquidation sale is expected to begin in mid-September and the store is planned to close by mid-December.”

Earlier in August, Sears announced that 21 stores would be closing, along with a handful of Kmart stores, which are also owned by Sears Holdings, though the store in North Franklin Township was not on that list. The Sears store at Crown Center was one of the last two remaining in the Pittsburgh region, the other being at Westmoreland Mall in Hemfield Township. An outlet store remains in Collier Township.

Eger said shutting down Sears, and its adjoining automotive center, was “a sad day” for associates and customers at the store.

“There are a lot of people who love Sears and want to see it succeed,” she said.

The first indication that the Sears store was going to close came on Thursday, when officials in North Franklin Township received an email message from a lawyer with Sears saying that the store was closing and asking if the company needed to apply for a permit to conduct a “store closing” sale.

Sears’ departure from Crown Center was perhaps inevitable, given the company’s long-running decline and much-publicized woes as it has strained to compete with online retailers and big-box stores like Walmart. But the end of Sears at Crown Center is another blow to the mall, which in recent years has also seen other anchor stores decamp, including Macy’s, Bon-Ton and Gander Mountain.

Sears’ leaving Crown Center has troubling implications for North Franklin Township, according to Bob Sabot, a township supervisor.

“The mall is in serious trouble,” he said. Sabot also said he and his fellow supervisors would like to meet with the owners of the mall to discuss its future.

“We need some direction,” he explained. “We are struggling with our tax base.”

As she was walking into the store Friday afternoon, Washington resident Lori Campbell said she was disappointed to hear that Sears’ days were numbered.

“I’m sorry to see it go,” she said. “Everything is leaving.”

In 2012, there were 4,000 Sears and Kmart stores across the country. Now, there are fewer than 500. Sears opened its store at Crown Center in 1969, when it was known as Franklin Mall. It is the only original anchor store that remains.

editor's pick
Residents without power in Wiencek mobile home park in Canton Township

For the second time since 2015, residents of a Canton Township mobile home park have had their power shut off due to nonpayment by the landlord, who owes West Penn Power $50,000.

The power went out for 73-year-old Willis Hartzog about 8 a.m. Thursday at the trailer where he lives in Weincek Park, in the 1700 block of Jefferson Avenue. He needs electricity for medical breathing treatments throughout the day.

“We’re still waiting for them to turn it back on,” Hartzog’s daughter, Elizabeth Gaito of Eighty Four, said Friday afternoon.

She took her father to the hospital for a breathing treatment yesterday, since the power was off. He was also using his car to provide power for the treatments, but it was draining the car battery.

“I don’t live here, but I stayed here last night so he wasn’t alone,” she said. “My father spent 25 years in this spot. He’s on a fixed income – Social Security – and he has custody of my 3-year-old nephew.”

Hartzog is one of three residents in the park. One of the other two is Jim McElhaney, a veteran in his 60s.

The electricity at the park is “sub-metered,” meaning that the landlord, Stanley C. Wiencek Jr., is the West Penn Power customer.

“This is like Groundhog Day with Mr. Wiencek,” said Todd Meyers, West Penn Power spokesman. “Last time we dealt with this was in 2015, and it was a problem before then.”

Meyers said Wiencek’s account balance in 2015 was about $23,000. The power was terminated at the park, though the tenants allegedly were making electric bill payments to Wiencek at the time. This week, the power was shut off again, because that balance reached $50,000.

“In between now and then, that number has ballooned,” Meyers said. “He’s only made less than a dozen payments over that time.”

Wiencek said Friday morning that he hasn’t paid the electric because the tenants don’t pay rent, which is supposed to be $225 per month plus electric dues.

“Nobody pays rent, but I’m still supposed to pay the utilities,” he said. “Nobody gives me money for the electric. I don’t take in any money over there to pay the electric. I should have them evicted. It’s my fault for not getting rid of them a while ago.”

Wiencek had told a reporter in 2015 that he planned to evict the five tenants he had then, shut down the park, sell the property and square things up with West Penn. He said Friday, four years later, that while the property is not yet on the market, he still plans to sell it and that he hasn’t taken on any new tenants.

“I’m in the process of trying to sell the property,” he said. “That would be my only recourse because they’re not going to pay rent.”

When asked Friday why he hadn’t evicted the three still living there, he said, “I guess I just keep putting it off. I feel bad for them – they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

McElhaney is the only one, Wiencek said, who’s “attempted” to give him money each month for rent, but McElhaney had fallen on “hard times” and was behind by more than a year’s worth of rent.

Gaito said her father doesn’t pay rent because he’s the “maintenance guy.” She said he cuts grass, shovels snow and maintains meter boxes on the property. Gaito said it was a deal Hartzog had made with Wiencek’s father, Stanley Sr., who had purchased the park in the early 1960s.

“He’s been doing it for 25 years now,” she said. “I don’t think Wiencek Jr. has the heart to walk over to my dad and say, ‘It’s time for you to go.’”

Wiencek said that while Hartzog does cut the grass on the property, “it’s not payment as rent.”

Wiencek said he has never kept official documents for rent or lease agreements with the tenants on the property, or documents on electric payment agreements.

“I just tell them what it is and they pay,” he said. “Before, a handshake would work.”

Gaito said tenants would walk next door to Wiencek’s Dairy Bar and Restaurant to make payments. The Dairy Bar was opened in 1953 by Stanley Wiencek Sr. Wiencek Jr. is still running it, and he said it’s doing well. He said the electric bill at the restaurant is paid.

Meyers said that for now, West Penn has a “work around” for the tenants to be able to get the power turned back on. He said they notified the tenants 10 days in advance of the shutoff and indicated that the tenants have the opportunity to pay the current bill – in this case about $178.

“The landlord can’t pay the current bill anymore because of his huge past-due balance and other fees that have built up,” Meyers said.

He said the tenants, or someone acting on their behalf, would have to provide West Penn with proof of residency and pay the current bill in order for the electric to be turned on again.

“They have this remedy, and they’ve used it before,” Meyers said.

That’s what Gaito said her father did Friday, though they were still waiting that afternoon to have power restored.

Meyers said this “remedy” isn’t supposed to be a years-long fix.

“I don’t know how long that arrangement can continue,” he said. “If it continues, they may need to find a different place to live. It really is something between the tenants and Mr. Wiencek. I feel for the tenants, but it’s not a good situation.”