Thursday, November 29, 2001

Woodstove blamed for Thanksgiving fire in Cape

Published in the Current

On Thanksgiving night, firefighters’ pagers went off all over Cape Elizabeth. The home of Rudy,Teresa and Alex Tumidajski on Sweet Fern Road was ablaze.

The family was in Connecticut for the holiday, but relatives who live nearby came to the house.

They called Connecticut and the Tumidajskis headed back to Maine that night. Their beloved dog, an Australian terrier named Max, died in the fire. “He was 7 going on 2,” Teresa Tumidajski said. Rudy said he wasn’t sure if he would get another dog, after the heartbreak of losing Max.

As firefighters arrived, they saw a house “fully involved,” with flames shooting from
upstairs windows and licking the outside of the brick chimney.

“The fire had a real good jump on us,” said Fire Chief Philip McGouldrick. The beams holding up the second floor had already burned through, collapsing a bedroom into the living room. McGouldrick said the fire was due to prolonged use of a woodstove insert in the fireplace.

There is sometimes little a firefighter can actually do. Even rapidly extinguishing a blaze can leave only a sodden, ash-coated shell of a building, with a home, memories and treasured possessions destroyed.

In the effort, two firefighters were slightly injured, one by tripping over a planter sitting on the darkened lawn, and the other had his shoulder clipped by a piece of clapboard that fell off the building.

Within 25 minutes of the crews’ arrival, the fire was under control, and the home’s attached three-car garage was saved, McGouldrick said.

After that came what the crews call “overhaul,” when they tear apart the remains of the building’s interior to make sure there is no fire hiding between walls or in the rubble.

Investigators next comb through the wreckage, searching for the source of the fire.

The outside of the building gives a good clue. There is severe damage around the chimney and in the upper bedroom, where the fire burned through the exterior walls.

The house was originally built with electric heat, but due to the expense, there was a woodstove insert installed into the fireplace which McGouldrick believes caused the fire. Over 12 years, the Tumidajskis have used the insert primarily as a furnace.

“A fireplace is more aesthetic,” McGouldrick said, and should not be used as the primary source of heat in a home.

The sustained heat from the stove made the fireplace bricks hot. Those bricks were stacked right up against the wood frame of the house, which would be fine for a fireplace in occasional use, McGouldrick said, but is not appropriate for a furnace.

Over time, high heat affects the wood, creating a low-grade smoldering, which makes it more likely to catch fire.

A new two-by-four needs to be heated to between 300 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit before it will burn, McGouldrick said. But after years of heat contact like that in the Tumidajskis’ fireplace, it would only need to get up to around 100 degrees before catching fire.

McGouldrick said people who have woodstove inserts should have their fireplaces checked out by the local fire department. And people going through a house with a home inspector should ask about the possibility of installing a woodstove into the fireplace, rather than assuming it will be fine.

The family had banked up their woodstove so it would continue to heat the house over the long weekend.

And hours after they left, it heated the wood to its burning point.

With few neighbors home, and the fire on the side of the house and away from the street, nobody noticed the flames until it was too late.

The shell of the house remains, with its windows boarded up. The family said the insurance company may decide to repair the damage rather than start from scratch, but that remains to be seen.

The Tumidajskis are holding up well, staying with Teresa’s mother in South Portland, and focusing on “what’s important in life.”

“Your world as you know it is turned upside-down and disintegrated,” Teresa said.

She said they do plan to rebuild the house, but it could be several months in the process, notwithstanding winter.

She asked that people who want to help say prayers for the family.

Chief McGouldrick said his firefighters turned out in great numbers despite the holiday. The first people on the scene were there within five minutes of the call. “We had a good response,” McGouldrick said. And nobody really left early, either, even though, with cleanup included, the work took close to four hours. “The more people that stay and pitch in, the quicker everybody gets home.”

“It’s what firefighters do,” McGouldrick said, “and what their families have come to expect. It just seems to happen at inopportune times.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Youth transition facility opens

Published in the Current

On a small dirt road off Mitchell Hill Road in Scarborough is a beautifully renovated house which will soon be home to six young adults in transition from the state’s youth services programs to systems serving adults.

On Dec. 1, the youths, between ages 17 and 21, will move in to their single bedrooms in the fully furnished house, along with a 24-hour support staff including social workers and psychiatrists. The program is run by Ingraham, the Portland-based human services agency.

All six bedrooms will be full, and the agency said there is a waiting list. This part of Ingraham’s programs helps troubled youths make transitions from youth to adult systems of state programs and helps teach them skills for living and working in a community.

The house existed before, but was significantly renovated with sprinklers, exit signs and other safety features added, as well as offices for staff, additional common space and landscaping.

“We wanted to keep it as homey as possible,” said Ingraham Executive Director Jane Morrison. “When you give (the residents) a beautiful atmosphere, they feel like they’re worth something.”

This is Ingraham’s seventh such home, but its first in Scarborough and the first in such a rural location.

There is a pond on the property for skating in winter, and trees and shrubs abound.

“It’s so serene,” Morrison said.

She said the agency could explore outdoor education and wildlife and ecology programs using the home as a base.

Neighbors have been supportive, Morrison said, adding that some are former Ingraham volunteers, which helped the community’s reception.

“We’ve always been a good neighbor,” Morrison said. Neighbors were also glad that there is 24-hour supervision, and that residents are carefully selected so as not to be a risk to themselves or others, Morrison said.

One challenge for the residents and staff alike will be transportation.

The house has a van, and can give residents rides to and from work, education and other programs. But since part of the program involves learning living skills, Morrison said sometimes the van will drive a group to the Maine Mall and they’ll have to take buses to their destinations.

Remembering holidays spent on the Ice

Published in the Current

For the first time in three years, I'll be home for Christmas in more than just my dreams. I've spent the past two holiday seasons as a journalist in Antarctica, based at McMurdo Station, the main U.S. research and logistics base in the Antarctic.

Now this year, as I share meals and gifts with my family and friends in New England, I'll be thinking of my friends in the Antarctic.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are the major holidays celebrated at the U.S. bases, though the small Jewish populations do have Hanukkah. They have to violate bans on candles (fire is a big threat in the windy, dry Antarctic) but they light a few small menorahs anyway.

In 1999, I met an Egyptian at the South Pole trying to observe Ramadan. His problem was that Muslims have to fast between sunrise and sunset, and he was in a place where the sun was up all day for months. The solution was clever: With the advice of his family's cleric back home in Egypt, he used the sunrise and sunset time of Christchurch, New Zealand, a main support station for the U.S. Antarctic Program.

But because most of the folks at the stations are of Christian extraction, even if they don't all go to the church services, there are holiday parties, carol-singing events and a huge Christmas feast, which is the main event everyone looks forward to.

Big holiday meals are a long Antarctic tradition. Capt. Robert Scott even carried a special plum pudding for the Christmas feast while he and his companions were sledging toward the South Pole in 1912. They never made it home, and they weren't the first to the Pole, but their bellies were full that night for the first time in months. The man who led the expedition that first reached 90 degrees south latitude, Roald Amundsen, also had a big Christmas meal on his way home, two weeks after reaching the Pole.

I often think of those small groups of men in tiny tents on the high Antarctic plateau, celebrating in that great cold and solitude a holiday they had previously spent with their wives and children at home in Europe.

Nowadays, in the warmth of McMurdo and the other American bases, the kitchen staff and volunteers serve turkey, stuffing, hand-made breads, fresh vegetables specially shipped in from New Zealand, and glorious desserts.

When we walked into the dining room for the holiday meal, there were artificial trees, colored streamers, and ornaments, and the food was arranged beautifully. Even the old hands, who had spent more Christmases on the Ice than they had at home, were impressed and amazed.

People dress up for the holiday feast, a big change from the Carhartts and fleece jackets normally worn at mealtime. Wine is even allowed in the dining room during holiday meals, and people take their plates off the cafeteria-style trays, insisting they "eat civilized" for the special day.

Other spontaneous celebrations occurred. My first year, the dormitory hallway on which I lived was a close-knit crew. We couldn't have a real tree because we couldn't import non-native species, and we couldn't find a fake tree either. Somebody found a floor lamp, though, and we put on it as many decoratioins as we could find, including Thanksgiving and New Year's signs, and each of us hung a government-issue thermal sock on the wall as a stocking. On Christmas Eve, we sang a few carols and shared the quirky holiday spirit we had nurtured.

And despite all the festivities, there was a sad undertone. Folks who head to the Antarctic are strong and independent, but at the holidays, everybody would really rather be at home. Some are lucky and have their partners or spouses there with them. But most make phone calls home, touching base by voice with family members they wouldn't see that year.

The holidays are a time to think of loved ones near and far, and to remember that while we may be lucky to see many family members and friends this holiday season, there are those who will not. Think of them too, and send them your telepathic holiday greetings. I certainly will.

Thursday, November 15, 2001

OxyContin theft at Rt. 1 Rite Aid

Published in the Current
Scarborough police are looking for a man who threatened a Rite Aid clerk with a knife during a theft of OxyContin from the store’s pharmacy on Route 1 at about 6 p.m. Monday.

The man was a white male with possibly brown hair and possibly brown eyes, said Detective Ivan Ramsdell. He was wearing a hat pulled low and a bandanna over the lower part of his face, so only his eyes were visible, Ramsdell said.

Late last month, police told The Current that a general warning had gone out to all local drug stores because there was concern about OxyContin thefts in the New England area.

The Community Pharmacy in Oak Hill Plaza responded to the warning by posting a sign on its front door, telling would-be thieves, “we don’t have any OxyContin in stock; if you leave a prescription we can order for the next day.”

The pharmacies at the Scarborough branches of Hannaford and Wal-Mart said they had not changed any policies since Monday’s incident but continued to be concerned about theft of the drug.

“We will be verifying prescriptions,” said Hannaford pharmacist Barbara L’Heureux, noting that her procedures have been in place since the OxyContin theft in Yarmouth last year.

The CVS pharmacy in Cape Elizabeth has not put up signs about its stock.

Community Pharmacy pharmacist Bob Milligan said this week he is still concerned, but hopes there will be a solution. He said the problem is not just in Maine, but is a nationwide issue. The store’s warning sign is now posted above the pharmacy counter.

OxyContin is a synthetic opioid painkiller intended for use by cancer patients, Milligan said. It has a 12-hour dose in a single pill, which is covered with a time-release coating. Addicts crush the pills and snort or inject the powder, taking an entire 12-hour dose at once.

Milligan said the pharmacy had received a police warning a couple of weeks ago, cautioning them about possible thefts of OxyContin. He said he had not heard from the police since the Rite Aid theft, though he had thought he might.

Scarborough’s a safe town, Cape is even safer

Published in the Current

Scarborough is the third-safest place in Maine, among towns and cities with populations greater than 10,000 people, according to the recently released FBI report, Crime in the United States 2000. It is one of only five towns or cities in Maine with a crime rate lower than the state’s overall rate.

Cape Elizabeth, with its population just below 10,000, had less crime than even the safest city.

The FBI analysis is based on reports from local law enforcement agencies, and indicates the number of serious crimes occurring in towns, cities, states and nationwide in 2000. Comparisons are possible between regions by calculating the crime index rate and the number of serious crimes in an area for each 1,000 inhabitants.

The FBI groups seven types of crimes into its crime index: murder and negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft
and motor vehicle theft. Larceny-theft is defined by law enforcement agencies as including shoplifting, pick-pocketing, thefts from motor vehicles, bicycle thefts and other thefts “in which no use of force, violence or fraud occurs.”

Maine, with a population of 1,274,923 in 2000, had 33,400 serious crimes, which is a crime index rate of 26.2 crimes per 1,000 residents, making it the fifth safest state in the country.

The national index was 41.24. North Dakota was the lowest with 22.88.

Scarborough’s 15,394 residents in the year 2000, had 284 crimes in town, a rate of 18.45. Nearly all were property crimes: 222 were larceny-theft, 39 were burglaries, 15 were motor vehicle thefts and one was a robbery. Regarding person-on-person crimes, there were seven aggravated assaults in 2000, but there were no murders, arsons or rapes reported to Scarborough police.

Police Chief Robert Moulton said Scarborough has tended to have a low crime rate, which he attributed to the staff of the police department. “We’ve got a lot of good people who are very committed to what we do,” he said.

Not only, he said, is community resource Officer Joe Giacomantonio being very successful at getting the word out about public safety programs, but the patrol officers are very visible on the streets of town and the detectives are excellent at catching lawbreakers when crimes occur.

“If they do come to Scarborough to do something bad,” Moulton said, “they’re going to get caught.”

Cape Elizabeth, with about 9,000 residents, does not have a large enough population to appear on the FBI report.

According to its 2000 records on file with the state, however, Cape has a crime rate of 15.15. Of the 140 serious crimes in town that year, 123 were larceny-thefts, 14 were burglaries, two were motor vehicle thefts and one was a rape. Two arsons were reported in town as well, but those are categorized separately in the Uniform Crime Report system.

Town Police Chief Neil Williams attributed the low incidence of crime in town to it being a residential area without many commercial buildings.

“We just don’t have much (crime), which is good, knock on wood,” Williams said.

The most dangerous town in Maine was Bangor, with a rate of 56.42. The safest town on the list was Orono with 16.02. Following Orono and just ahead of Scarborough was Gorham, with 17.88.

Maine compares favorably to nearby states. The state’s rate is 26.2 per 1,000, as contrasted with the national rate of 41.24. New Hampshire’s rate is 24.33. Vermont’s
is 29.87. Massachusetts’s rate is 30.26.

Thursday, November 8, 2001

Per pupil spending separates Cape and Scarborough schools

Published in the Current

Scarborough spends 20 percent less than Cape Elizabeth does per student, but the two districts have very similar educational outcomes.

Looking at all the school districts in the state, the average per-pupil expenditure was $5,819 in 1999-2000. Cape spent $6,506, and Scarborough spent $5,224.

To compare the two towns only to similar districts, those paying for all grades, K-12, is more relevant.

The K-12 average, a breakdown the state does not provide but which was calculated by The Current, is $6,070 per student.

Cape Elizabeth spent $436 more than the average, while Scarborough spent $846 less.

Out of the 117 K-12 districts in Maine, Cape Elizabeth ranks 29th, while Scarborough is 100th.

While students in both districts perform generally above the state average on the Maine Educational Assessment tests, Cape Elizabeth students tend to score higher than Scarborough students. The margin between the two towns’ scores, however, is between one and four points in most categories.

Of the 146 graduates from Cape Elizabeth High School in 1999, 81.5 percent pursued postsecondary education. One hundred sixteen went to college or university, according to state statistics. Three went to vocational or technical schools.

Of Scarborough’s 144-strong class of 1999, 88.2 percent enrolled in post-secondary education. One hundred ten went to college or university, and five went to vocational or technical schools. One went to a post-secondary high school course and 11 went to junior colleges.

Superintendent William Michaud said Scarborough schools have a strong curriculum,
excellent staff, good educational outcomes and good facilities.

He said the enrollment growth does put pressure on the district’s finances, but it hasn’t adversely affected the education opportunities available to students.

“Scarborough gets a great return on its investment,” Michaud said. “Scarborough is known statewide as a progressive, high-achieving district.”

Cape Elizabeth school board chair George Entwistle said he is pleased with the education Cape Elizabeth students are receiving.

“The value you receive, using any metric you want, is a good value,” he said. One of the school board’s primary funding goals is helping teachers learn more and do better, he said.

“One of the biggest and best investments we can make is staff development. A highly energized teacher in the classroom is the best guarantee of good education for our kids,” Entwistle said.

By the numbers
Herb Hopkins, business manager for Scarborough’s schools, said the per-pupil spending numbers are not always an accurate reflection of a community’s commitment to education.

Some districts, for example, put buses in the operating budget of the schools, while Scarborough issues bonds to purchase buses. That makes the per-pupil spending appear lower in Scarborough than if the town’s buses were included in the school budget.

A big factor as well, Hopkins said, is that the modular classrooms were refitted by Scarborough as part of its capital improvement budget, rather than its operating budget. Since the state uses operating dollars, not capital improvement dollars, to figure per-pupil spending, that may further lower Scarborough’s ranking in the state.

Hopkins did say, though, that the state’s method is fairly good, and that while Scarborough may actually spend enough to be higher on the list, it wouldn’t be a big change.

“We might be 70th,” Hopkins said, rather than the 100th the district ranks in the state.

Hopkins said Scarborough’s town government supports its schools.

“They have treated the school department pretty well,” he said, allowing the ordering of two or three buses a year as growth requires, rather than the one many districts are able to purchase “if they’re lucky.”

Comparisons to similar districts
Both Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough traditionally compare themselves to K-12 districts in the Greater Portland area which are similar in socio-economic characteristics.

The districts themselves list Yarmouth, Falmouth, School Administrative District 51 (Cumberland and North Yarmouth) and Gorham. Each district also said it looks at the other. Cape said it looks at Freeport as well, while Scarborough looks at Windham and, “to some extent,” South Portland, said Assistant Superintendent David Doyle.

Taken in that context, Cape Elizabeth appears in the middle of the list of its comparison districts, behind Yarmouth and Freeport but ahead of Falmouth, S.A.D. 51 and Gorham.

Scarborough is at the bottom of the list of those districts with which it compares itself, spending less than Gorham by $73.

The district spending the most per student is S.A.D. 7 (North Haven), which spends $13,081 per pupil.

S.A.D. 64 (East Corinth) spends the least, $4,593 per student.

Cape Elizabeth’s business manager, Pauline Aportria, did not return calls requesting information for this story.

Thursday, November 1, 2001

Cape and Scarborough above national average for web access

Published in the Current

Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth are among the most-wired towns in the U.S. Some of it is due to demographics, while part of the two towns’ connection to the Internet came by accident.

When TimeWarner Cable introduced its RoadRunner high-speed Internet access over cable television wires here in 1996, it was not because the company was looking for a test market, or even had much of a plan for the Portland area.

The system the company ordered for installation in San Diego was too small for that city.

Scrambling to find a home for equipment it couldn’t otherwise use, TimeWarner looked at Portland, and brought RoadRunner to Maine, according to Maine’s RoadRunner general manager, Rick Preti.

That ordering mistake kicked Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth into the elite bracket of high-speed, easy-installation Internet access early in the Internet boom, according to analyst Antony Parchment of Internet Commerce Systems in Scarborough.

The relative affluence of the two towns meant people could purchase Internet access. High educational levels of town residents meant they wanted to see what was out there on the newly-dubbed “information superhighway.”

Many people had moved to Maine for improved quality of life, but wanted to continue
working in their previous career fields.

The Internet allowed them to do that, and high-speed connectivity made it even easier. Rather than a one-lane dirt road full of potholes, the Internet over a cable connection was at least a two-way street covered in blacktop.

“We were fortunate,” Parchment said. And there was a ready market of ex-city people.
“People had made their lifestyle choices and wanted to be in Maine,” Parchment said.

It caught on, and passed via word-of-mouth among Internet users in the area.

“Now people are hooked,” Parchment said.

And Internet access in both Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth is well above national norms.

One-fourth of the households in the two towns are connected to RoadRunner, Preti said.

Business advantage
One Scarborough business is capitalizing on the Internet connectivity in town.

Rob Doehler of Scarborough’s said his business would not be located in Scarborough if the town’s demographics did not support an Internet food-ordering business.

With a high concentration of families in which both parents work, and with a high household disposable income, Scarborough is well-positioned to support a food take-out and delivery business which accepts orders over the Internet, he said., Doehler said, takes advantage of the Internet to allow busy professionals to order healthy food quickly. It is an example of his vision for the next phase of Internet business development.

“The Internet at this stage needs to come to the brick-and-mortar business,” Doehler said. The real potential, he said, is to make transactions between existing customers of existing businesses more efficient.

People can order food on-line or over the phone, and can either pick it up or have it delivered in Scarborough.

Customers can also come in and eat at the store on Route 1.

Other local businesses say the Internet has a positive impact on them, too. Car dealerships traditionally draw most of their business from local residents, but Michael Pierter of Scarborough-based Portland Volvo said he gets interest from as far afield as Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Those prospective customers, he said, look at the dealership’s on-line used car inventory and call to express interest in a certain car.

“It opens up our inventory to a new group of people,” he said.

Many walk-in customers also are better informed as a result of the Internet, Pierter said. They have done on-line research into cars’ safety ratings, reliability and options packages, as well as prices.

“We have a fair amount of customers who do research before they come in,” he said.

Tom Hall of Hall Marketing in Scarborough said he has web development clients in various businesses, including retail stores, software dealers and consultants.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of business you have,” Hall said.

He said a lot of people locally use the Internet to research items before purchasing, and many take advantage of Internet access at work.

“You’ll see a big spike (in web site traffic) from like 11:45 to 1:15,” Hall said, when people are at their desks eating lunch and checking out the web.

He said web site statistics also show local businesses can succeed on-line.

“Server stats show that businesses that offer local services are getting found” during Internet searches, Hall said.

Wired houses
Not only are most households in the two towns equipped with some form of Internet access, but more of those connections are high-speed hookups than would be expected by looking at national data.

RoadRunner, Preti said, has over 30,000 subscribers in Maine, serving 18 communities in Cumberland County, including Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth.

He would not give specific subscriber numbers in the two towns. He did say that out of the homes in Scarborough which are passed by cable service, 26 percent are subscribers to RoadRunner. In Cape Elizabeth, the subscriber base is between 28 and 29 percent of households passed by cable, he said.

This, he said, is “very high by national standards.”

Still, the medium has room for growth. By contrast, Preti said, 85 percent of homes passed by cable connections subscribe to cable television service.

Nua Internet Surveys show that 70.7 million households in the U.S. have Internet access, or just over two-thirds of all households nationwide.

Nua said less than 1 percent of Internet access in the U.S. is provided over cable television systems, which is due, in part, to the fact many areas are not served by cable Internet services. But the sector is growing, with cable Internet connections increasing 153 percent to 3.6 million in 2000, Nua statistics show.

Schools and government
Gary Lanoie, technology coordinator for Cape Elizabeth’s schools and for the town, has two mobile labs—carts with laptops and printers—which can move from classroom to classroom to assist with teaching.

“You can bring the technology to the classroom,” Lanoie said.

Teachers and parents use the web site extensively, Lanoie said, to get information about school activities and programs. “We try to keep things current and up-to-date,”
Lanoie said.

Both Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth have extensive town government web sites, providing 24-hour access to forms and information, as well as databases of town ordinances.

Stephen Tewhey, Scarborough’s director of information systems, which is also a school-town combination position, said the town will be expanding its four-year-old web site, offering real-time signups for community services events. Tewhey said the town will continue to put meeting agendas and minutes on the web, as well as other information.

“We really want to be able to put the public information out where the public is able to view it,” Tewhey said.

He said town residents do use the web sites, often in the evening when town offices are closed. And people notice if there’s a delay.

“The few times that we have been late putting out agendas, the phone rings,” he said.

The Scarborough Police Department also uses the Internet to distribute information. The department has a list of e-mail addresses to which community officer Joe Giacomantonio sends road closings, emergency advisories and general information.

The list is constantly growing, Giacomantonio said, and now includes between 30 and 40 addresses.