The death of a popular county judge.
Acts of individual heroism.
A third judge for Carbon County.
A Carbon legislator becomes House speaker.
These were all stories that figured prominently in the daily news cycle of the TIMES NEWS editorial department as the final year of the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close.
Carbon and Schuylkill counties mirrored the nation in the one economic story that affected many households – unemployment. The jobless rate for the two local counties surged from 6.5 percent in October of 2008 to 10.4 percent in 2009.
However, there were some hopeful signs on the local economic front, thanks to a green energy project which figures to give Carbon County a lead role in the commonwealth. Because of the efforts of state Rep. Keith McCall, Speaker of the House, a prime mover behind the project, plans moved ahead for the solar energy production plant in Nesquehoning that could power 1,450 homes when operational.
And on the lower end of Carbon County, plans progressed on a county-themed waterpark at the Blue Mountain Ski Resort. It was estimated that the $12 million first phase of the project would require a staff of 500 people, which could help improve the county's unemployment numbers.
One of the more spectacular fires in the area occurred in March when a gas tank exploded at the Pazzazz Boarding Kennel in Franklin Township. The driver of the propane truck was seriously injured in the blast and fire, and 17 dogs, including prized show dogs, were killed. Martha Stewart's Chow puppy, Genghis Kahn, was one of the animals that died.
Despite suffering severe burns, Timothy Kleinhagen of Summit Hill, driver of the propane truck, heroically saved one dog by tossing it to safety.
Another resident heroically tried to rescue a trapped neighbor during a fire later in the year. During that tragedy in the Heights section of Jim Thorpe on Dec. 11, Larry Darrohn, a former Marine Corps veteran, paid the supreme sacrifice with his life while trying to save his neighbor, Sharon Joseph, who also died.
Carbon County also lost a friend and dedicated public servant late in the year when Judge David W. Addy passed away at the age of 52 after battling a long illness. Among his many contributions to the bench and to his community, Addy had also dedicated his life to helping children in the county.
A number of blockbuster regional stories made news in 2009. One involved an ongoing corruption investigation in Luzerne County, which affects three county judges, a county commissioner and other county employees and area businessmen. The probe began last January when former county judges Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. were charged with accepting $2.8 million in kickbacks from builders and operators of two private juvenile detention centers.
Another explosive regional story concerned the town of Shenandoah, where charges of a hate crime by several high school athletes and an alleged cover-up by officers in the borough's police department sent shockwaves across the nation.
The teens were charged with beating to death an illegal immigrant who lived in Shenandoah.
Although the former athletes were acquitted of the most serious state charges against them in May, they are now facing federal hate crime charges. Four police officers also face federal charges in the alleged cover-up by tampering with evidence and lying to the FBI.
And questions continued to surround the state and federal investigations into occurrences of polycythemia vera, a bone marrow disorder that can evolve into leukemia. Concerns into the rare blood disease involved an area of northeastern Schuylkill County – a Superfund site between Tamaqua and Hazleton.
Studies revealed an increased number of cases of polycythemia vera in Schuylkill, Luzerne, and Carbon counties in northeastern Pennsylvania. In December, following two rounds of community health screening in northeastern Pennsylvania for the JAK2 genetic marker, 19 (1.6 percent) of the 1,170 people tested were found to have this mutation. This is the first time large scale screening for this JAK2 genetic mutation has been done in the United States.
On the political front, Rep. Keith R. McCall put Carbon County on the statewide political map by being elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. It marked the first time ever that a county resident was elevated to the highly-visible position. As the year progressed, McCall played an instrumental role in crafting a Pennsylvania budget alongside Gov. Edward Rendell.
Another historic first occurred in the November general election when Carbon voters elected Republican Steven Serfass to become the county's third judge. The new seat was created by the state Legislature to handle an increasingly busy court schedule.
Also reaching historic levels were two special elections held in the Carbon-Schuylkill county region. The October 2008 death of late Sen. James Rhoades of Mahanoy City resulted in a special election for the 29th Senatorial District seat. It was won by David Argall of Lake Hauto, who defeated Clerk of Courts Stephen Lukach. Argall formerly served in the House of Representatives. That election was followed by a special election for the 124th Lesgislative District seat which Argall's top aide, Jerry Knowles, former Tamaqua mayor and Schuylkill County commissioner, won over Bill Mackey.
The Lehigh-Carbon Community College found itself in the national and international spotlight for several hours in early December when President Barack Obama opened his "White House To Main Street Tour" at the Schnecksville campus. The president talked about job creation during the town-hall-style event.
In religion news during 2009, Catholics in the region had special reason to celebrate as the Most Rev. John O. Barres, 48, was named by the Vatican to succeed retiring Bishop Edward P. Cullen as only the fourth bishop of the six-county area. Previously the chancellor of the Diocese of Wilmington, he was named by Pope Benedict XVI to succeed Cullen upon his mandatory retirement at age 75.
The appointment came a little over a year after a mass consolidation of churches in the diocese. Bishop Barres was ordained and installed as bishop July 30 during a Mass in the St. Catharine of Siena Cathedral, Allentown.
In February, the county sent notices to the diocese of tax assessments levied on closed churches in the consolidation. The diocese has since appealed the decision to tax the buildings to county court.