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Lilburn police officer praised for saving train workers during derailment

A Lilburn police officer is being recognized for his efforts to save the engineer and conductor from a train that derailed in the city over the weekend.

Senior Police Officer Almedin Ajanovic was heading home from an off-duty job early Sunday morning when heard dispatched about the derailment and fire on the CSX line in the city.

Ajanovic headed to Main Street and Camp Creek Road in Old Town Lilburnto offer his assistance, according to Capt. Scott Bennett. He went into the woods along the tracks and the Camp Creek Greenway when he saw a “massive fireball” as he heard an explosion.

He then spotted the train wreckage.

“He was able to hear male voices in distress and called out to them,” Bennett said. “Seeing a man standing on the train and observing a large amount of red fluid all around, he asked if there were others on the train and was told just one and they were together. Ignoring the heat from the fire and and a “Danger High Voltage” sign on the side of the train, SPO Ajanovic climbed on the wrecked rail cars to help both men down.”

The heavy rains from Hurricane Delta that moved through metro Atlanta this weekend washed out train tracks in Lilburn early Sunday morning, causing the train to derail, several rail cars to catch on fire and, as a result, prompting an evacuation of homes in the surrounding area.

Lt. Justin Wilson said firefighters were called to the scene of the derailment, which was on the CSX line near Main Street and Camp Creek Parkway, at 1:43 a.m. A 9-1-1 caller said two CSX employees were trying to get out of the train and that it was taking on water.

Firefighters were already in the area looking into reports of a woods fire on Bailey Drive, which they discovered was related to the train derailment.

“On arrival, crews found what would later be confirmed as 38 railcars derailed between Main Street NW and Rockbridge Road NW,” Wilson said. “A Unified Command with representatives from Gwinnett Fire and Lilburn Police was established at Lilburn City Park. Several railcars were engulfed in flames shortly after arrival between Jon Jeff Drive NW and Bailey Drive SW.”

After Ajanovic got the train’s conductor and engineer to safety near Main Street, they were taken to Northside Gwinnett Hospital to be treated for minor injuries.

Gov. Brian Kemp praised Ajanovic for his efforts.

"Please join me in thanking Officer AJ Ajanovic, who saved the lives of two conductors on a derailed train Sunday," Kemp said in a Facebook post Tuesday afternoon. "Across our state, we are grateful for heroes in law enforcement, like AJ, who don’t run away from danger, but selflessly run in to help their fellow Georgians."

Meanwhile, hazmat crews began atmospheric monitoring for hazardous materials. Wilson said they did encounter some problems with initiating spill control measures because of a swollen creek.

“With the fire involving hazardous materials, a decision was made to begin evacuation of the area closest to the fire,” Wilson said. “Lilburn Police and firefighters assisted with this task and the Reverse 911 system was activated by the Gwinnett County E911 Communications Center. The Reverse 911 system contacted land lines within a half-mile radius of the incident and instructed people to evacuate the area until further notice.”

Firefighting crews did set up apparatuses on both sides of the fire in an effort to prevent the fire from moving through the wood lines and to protect nearby homes. They also used an unmanned master stream appliance to cool off the railcars that had been exposed to the fire.

It was not until about 5:30 a.m. that crews felt they brought the fire under control enough and gotten the air quality to a level where they felt it was safe to let residents return to the homes.

“Multiple agencies were involved in bringing the situation under control in the early morning hours,” Wilson said. “CSX representatives arrived on scene quickly and began a massive mobilization of response personnel. Lilburn Police, Gwinnett County Police and the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office supported the operations with evacuations and traffic control in the area. Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources responded to the scene to investigate the impacts on storm water runoff.”

DeKalb County Fire Rescue’s Hazmat Team also provided assistance and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division responded to the incident as well.

“Firefighters will continue to remain on scene and support CSX operations as needed,” Wilson said. “CSX is working with environmental cleanup companies to minimize impact to the environment.”

Gwinnett sees long lines at all sites on the first day of early voting

By 5 p.m. Monday, Lawrenceville resident Gail McDaniel had been waiting in a slow moving line at the Gwinnett County Elections and Voter Registrations headquarters on Grayson Highway for about six hours, and she still faced a long wait before she could get in the front door.

At that time, county officials estimated the wait time to vote at the headquarters early voting site was eight hours. When McDaniel arrived at 11 a.m., the end of line was in front of the county health department’s Lawrenceville clinic, which is next to the elections headquarters, but it snaked around the side of the building before turning around and coming back in front of the clinic.

By 5 p.m., McDaniel’s spot in the line was just getting back to the front of the clinic, and she had some choice words for county officials.

“They should have planned better,” she said. “This is voter suppression to me.”

Even with a record-setting nine early voting sites open in Gwinnett County for the first time ever, the county saw a huge turnout for the first day of early voting in the Nov. 3 general election, resulting in long lines at every site. As of 3 p.m. on Monday, 4,822 people had cast ballots at early voting sites across the county.

Tuesday brought more of the same with the headquarters location, the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds in Lawrenceville and the Mountain Park Activity Center in the Stone Mountain area each reporting waits of more than three hours by mid-morning. Bogan Park in Buford, the Dacula Park Activity Building and the Lenora Park Gym in Snellville each reported waits of at least two hours.

Lucky Shoals Park in Norcross, George Pierce Park in Suwanee and Shorty Howell Park in Duluth each had waits of more than an hour at mid-morning on Tuesday.

Although the elections headquarter’s eight-hour wait to vote on Monday was the longest wait seen in the county on Monday, every polling site reported waits of several hours on the first day of early voting.

Multiple locations reported wait times of at least three hours at various hours on Monday, and the wait at Lenora Park in Snellville late Monday afternoon exceeded four hours.

“There have been long lines everywhere and some of the locations have longer lines than other,” county spokesman Joe Sorenson said around mid-afternoon Monday. “A little while ago, we were at an hour and a half at the fairgrounds and we were at about six hours at headquarters.

“There’s just a lot of people going to the headquarters location, so really it’s volume.”

A major factor in this general election is that it is headlined by a hotly contested presidential race featuring a matchup between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Gwinnett elections officials have frequently said over the years that presidential elections always drive significantly higher voter turnouts.

Add on to that the fact that voting is taking place amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and county officials have to make sure voters are social distancing, which means not as many voting machines can be in a location.

Gwinnett Elections Supervisor Kristi Royston said this was not only the first time Gwinnett has had nine early voting locations, but the first time all of its early voting locations have been open for the entire three weeks of early voting.

Still, it was a similar story to what was seen four years ago, when Gwinnett opened only one location on the first week of early voting for the 2016 general election, which — like this year — featured a hotly contested presidential election. Gwinnett made national headlines in 2016 after voters waited in line for hours to cast ballots during the first of early voting.

Even though the long lines were seen again on Monday, Royston said she was glad the county opted to open all of the sites for every day of early voting.

“I think it’s a great opportunity (to cast a ballot) and we know people are going to take advantage of it,” Royston said.

Not long after noon at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds in Lawrenceville, county officials were saying the wait time at that location was about two and a half hours.

Lawrenceville resident Solomon Walker said he and his kids had waited for about two hours as they approached the door to an exhibit hall where voting was taking place. Like McDaniel, Walker felt the county needed to do more to alleviate the long lines being seen at early voting sites.

“I think they should have more precincts open, a few more locations so the line doesn’t have to get so long,” he said. “I’m proud to see all of these people out here voting, but at the same time we need more locations.”

Further back in the line, Grayson resident Joellen Sheldon said she and her son, Carter, had waited in line for about an hour and 15 minutes with a little more waiting left to do.

“(It’s) not bad,” the mother said. “We’ve just been chitchatting (and) the breeze has been nice.”

Monday was the first time, Carter Sheldon and Ryan Walker, who is Solomon Walker’s son, got to vote in an election.

The Sheldons went to vote early because Carter is a freshman at the University of Alabama and was home for the weekend and decided to vote. He was concerned the amount of time it would take to request an absentee ballot, get it sent to him in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and then get it sent back would take too long.

Voting on the first day of early voting is a way to guarantee his vote would be counted, he said.

“I’m ready for it all to be over,” Sheldon said. “I’m pretty active on social media and a lot of my friends are active on social media, and it feels like everybody’s just attacking everybody.”

Ryan Walker said said he it “feels great” to be able to cast a ballot in an election.

“Getting to vote for who I want to vote for,” he said about why he looked forward to voting.

McDaniel said she spent her time in the line at the elections headquarters reading Bob Woodward’s new book on the Trump administration, “Rage,” on her phone. At one point she had her husband bring her a portable charger so she could recharge the battery and keep reading.

She had planned to cast an absentee-by-mail ballot, but she said she waited for it to arrive, but hadn’t received it, so she decided to cast an advance-in-person ballot, as early voting ballots are officially called, instead. She was not going to let anything deter her from casting a ballot in this election.

“My vote counts, my vote matters, every vote counts and I’m not going to let Trump or anybody else rob me of my right to vote,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel said the fact that so many people in Gwinnett came out for the first day of early voting shows how important the county’s residents see the election as being.

“It’s making a big statement, you know,” she said. “I think that people want to see Georgia go blue and I think we’re close and I think that Vice President Biden having Kamala Harris as his running mate really energized the Democrats and the independents and women.

“It’s just vital and I’m hoping it’s going to be such a landslide that Trump is not going to be able to cause any kind of malfeasance.”

Absentee voting is also expected to be huge in Gwinnett for this election. Royston said more than 140,000 absentee ballots had already gone in the mail to Gwinnett voters as of last Friday.

While voters were waiting in the long line in front of the elections headquarters, elections staff were behind closed doors in the back of the building entering ballots that had already been returned into the county’s system.

At this point, Royston hesitated to estimate a possible turnout number for Gwinnett in this election, but based on the number seen so far from absentee ballot requests and the turnout on Monday, she said it’s clear that it won’t be low.

“Everything is just so different this year to try to figure out where things are going to be,” Royston said. “I think it’s going to be large, but how large, I don’t know.”

Gwinnett turns to secret weapon — moms — to dispense COVID-19 safety advice

In an effort to make sure Gwinnett residents comply with public health guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic, county officials are turning to a new strategy: mom nagging.

The county has launched a new public health education campaign called Listen to Gwinnett Moms to highlight the importance of steps such as wearing face masks, frequently washing hands and practicing social distancing. Real moms participated in an educational video to highlight the important public health steps residents can practice to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“With the amount of information available on the news and across social media, knowing what to do to keep yourself and family healthy during this pandemic isn’t always straightforward,” Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said. “It’s an important moment for us to come together to provide much-needed clarity and create a sense of community through this countywide campaign.

“We want to empower our community to recognize the significance these small acts play in protecting our collective health and can think of no better spokespeople for this message than our very own Gwinnett moms, who care the most.”

As of Monday afternoon, Gwinnett had seen a total of 28,861 COVID-19 cases, as well as 424 deaths from the disease, reported since March.

In the last two weeks alone, there were 1,230 new reports of the disease in Gwinnett, with an incidence rate of 127 new cases for every 100,000 residents during that 14-day time period. The new case numbers have been on a gradual decline since late summer.

The county’s overall incidence rate for all cases reported since March is 2,971.85 cases for every 100,000 residents.

The Listen to Gwinnett Moms campaign has the mothers from the county’s diverse population groups giving advice on reducing the spread of COVID-19 by using — what else — “momisms.”

The sprinkle in such famous motherly sayings such as “listen to me with both ears,” “it’s my job to keep you safe,” “for the millionth time,” “wash your dang hands” and the ever-classic trinity of “because I said so,” “don’t test me on this” and “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.”

One mom in the video even said “six feet is fine, but 60 feet is even better.”

Another mom said, “I know I told you sharing is caring, but this is not what I meant.”

A third mother went so far as making the ultimate threat, however.

“You know I love you, but if you don’t listen to me, I will call your mother-in-law,” she said.

But, what mom nagging session wouldn’t be complete without at least one of the moms saying, “Would it kill you to call your mother once in awhile?”

Yep, that one is in there too.

“These are the kinds of safety tips we grew up hearing at home, and now as our community continues to work to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we know that our moms really do know best,” District 4 Commissioner, and mom, Marlene Fosque said.

“The potential impact for a public health education campaign like this one is tremendous. We look forward to seeing how our community can continue to rise to the challenge of fighting COVID-19 as we look out for each other by embracing and using these safety tips.”

The Listen to Gwinnett Moms campaign can be found at listentogwinnettmoms.com, and residents — particularly the mothers in the county — are encouraged to share the information on social media using the hashtag #ListenToGwinnettMoms.

Norcross hires new city manager from neighboring Forsyth County

Eric Johnson is the new city manager for the city of Norcross, coming to his new job from neighboring Forsyth County.

Johnson was hired Monday night after a vote by the City Council at a specially called meeting. He started his new job Tuesday morning, taking over for Rudolph Smith, who retired in September after more than two decades with the city.

“I am at the stage of my career where I look for opportunities to have an impact — and quickly,” Johnson wrote in his cover letter to apply for the position. “The opportunities for Norcross are endless: building a tax base to ensure the quality — and sustainability — of services the community deserves, redevelopment on key corridors, ensuring the long-term viability of the downtown, providing infrastructure and greenspace to address needs that aren’t the same in each character area, and collaborating with the county and schools to ensure the city’s efforts work as seamlessly with those other entities as possible.

“The city’s Imagination Proclamation presents even more of an opportunity for the community to effect change and emerge stronger and united.”

Johnson has 26 years of experience in local government senior management, having spent the past three years as county manager of Forsyth County, where the county is the municipal provider (as well as the utility provider) for 97 percent of the county’s residents.

In his new position, Johnson will oversee 124 city employees and a budget of more than $36 million for a city with a population of 16,854, according a press release from the city. Johnson will also oversee includes the operation of a MEAG electric utility.

Prior to his role with Forsyth County, Johnson spent nearly 30 years with Hillsborough County in Tampa, Florida, holding such positions as assistant county administrator, director of strategic planning and ERP Implementation, management services administrator, director of management and budget and manager of revenue and forecasting.

Johnson has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Florida, and a master’s of Public Administration from the University of South Florida.

“Johnson’s greatest strength is in local government financial management, having developed material for national seminars that he has taught over a period of 20 years, and having chaired a national committee of budget directors and then served on the Executive Board of the Government Finance Officers Association of the U.S. and Canada,” a statement from city officials said.

“He has developed more than two dozen financial policies based on best practices, implemented multi-year forecasting and monthly financial reporting, and received recognition for developing a guide to the budget for taxpayers.

“This specialization was of particular value to the City of Norcross during the hiring process, given the city has had the benefit of a financial-focused city manager for many years and truly appreciates the significance of what such a background brings to the table.”