CEDAR CREEK LAKE–As we move into a new decade, we take a look back at 2019, the tears, the triumphs and the strange events that made the news in the past year.
2019 began with one of the most horrifying and heartbreaking tragedies when an Athens ISD school bus carrying two students along with the bus driver was hit on the tracks around 4 p.m., Jan. 25. The Monitor reported, “According to a press release issued by Athens Police Chief Buddy Hill, ‘Just after 4 p.m. Friday, January 25, the Athens Police Department received a report of an Athens ISD school bus that had been struck by a train in the northeast section of Athens. Upon arrival at the scene, first responders found the train stopped on the tracks near the intersection of Murchison Street. The school bus was partially wrapped around the front of the lead locomotive.”’The initial investigation indicated that the 2004, IC, 77 passenger bus, which was driven by John Stevens, 78, of Mabank, was southbound on Cream Level Road as it approached the railroad crossing. The bus came to a stop but then continued across the tracks, directly in front of the westbound Union Pacific train. The bus was impacted on its left side and became lodged on the locomotive. The train and bus then traveled approximately one-quarter of a mile down the track before coming to a stop at the Murchison Street crossing.
The accident left 13-year-old Christopher Bonilla dead and cousin Joselyne Torres, a 9-year-old student at Central Athens Elementary, hospitalized with serious injuries after being extricated from the bus. The bus driver, also injured, was treated at a nearby hospital and released.
The next weeks brought out the compassion of surrounding school districts and communities as they dressed in Athens colors and sent messages of comfort to those affected by the tragedy. Memorials were made and Bonilla’s funeral was held on school grounds to accommodate all those who mourned the youngster, who was called fun-loving and kind. His classmates paid tribute to a life cut short, a boy who loved soccer and dreamed of being a professional football player.
As the months wore on, initial reports proved that bus driver John Stevens had stopped at the crossing and then proceeded. Charges were filed and Stevens was indicted for Criminal Negligent Homicide and Injury to a Child. The case is set for pre-trial February 2020.
Another tragedy occurred when 25-year-old Brenda Lizbeth Montanez went missing on Jan. 27 after trying to meet up with a boyfriend in Log Cabin. Her 2011 Mazda was pulled from Cedar Creek Lake off the Log Cabin City Park boat ramp Feb. 15 with Montanez deceased inside. Investigators ruled no foul play was suspected in the tragedy.
She was not the only driver to wind up in a local body of water. In two separate incidents, vehicles were pulled from a pond off the U.S Highway 175 Service Road where it intersects with State Highway 274 in Kemp. Feb. 10, Kaitlin LeAnne Lawrence, 24, was recovered, deceased in her car after missing the turn on the service road. Two months later, Jamie Manning, of Reagor Springs suffered the same fate in her pickup truck. The incidents prompted TxDOT to place orange barrels and a warning sign to avoid further occurrences.
Happy news appeared in March when Mabank High School Sophomore Riley Thompson was picked to compete in American Idol. Residents of the lake area watched, along with much of America, as she received her “Golden Ticket” March 10 and made Top 40, traveling to Hawaii to continue the competition. She finished in the Top 14 and continues her education at MHS, with many devoted fans at local performances waiting for what’s next for the talented teen.
Other locals who had a brush with fame include Carly Manning, whose Texas Tech Pom and Co-Ed Cheer Squad earned first place at the Collegiate Cheer and Dance Championships in Dayton Beach, Fla. and cheered at a Final Four Game in Minneapolis. A video entitled “Bleacher Creature” submitted to America’s Funniest Videos by Kemp Intermediate School earned second place and garnered the school $3,000 which they decided to use for physical education equipment for the school. Brittany Barton of Barton’s Transmission in Mabank appeared on “Let’s Make a Deal,” and almost won a new car on the show.
Schools in the news included Tool Elementary which began March by celebrating its designation as a National Distinguished School. In true Christal Calhoun fashion, Tool Elementary’s Principal Calhoun held a grand celebration, making her staff and her students the stars of the show. But Calhoun couldn’t escape the accolades as she was named a finalist and then a winner of the 2019 NAESP National Distinguished Principal for Texas, celebrating with her school, then in Austin and finally in Washington D.C., where she represented the State of Texas in style with her family. It was a HUGE year for Tool Elementary School and the children are indeed the winners as Calhoun plans to use the $10,000 award to create a scholarship.
April saw a retirement party for Mabank ISD Superintendent Dr. Russell Marshall who retired after 16 years as MISD Superintendent and 38 years in education. Dr. Marshall left behind an impressive legacy of achievement.
Weather in the news- Severe thunderstorms May 19 brought out photographers in Gun Barrel City as rotation formed in the clouds and severe winds brought damage to roofs and trapped shoppers in Lowe’s and Walmart. A mere 10 days later, the Cedar Creek Country Club was rocked with an EF-2 tornado that ripped through the area downing stately oaks and damaging 26 homes in the subdivision, four of those severe enough to be called uninhabitable.
Three tornadoes struck Canton that same day, an EF-2 and two EF-1s, wreaking havoc and terrorizing the city for the second time in two years. Damage in the millions was reported but no fatalities.
In retail news, Bealls, a long-time staple in clothing stores, announced its store closing in October to make way for Gordmans, another retail store owned by parent group Stage Stores. Gordmans will offer a larger selection of home goods along with a more moderately priced clothing line for the entire family. Walmart completed a parking lot overhaul following a complete store remodel the year before, investing over $5 million in the project. To top it off, Murphy Oil rebuilt its gas station, adding more pumps and a convenience store for shoppers.
The November election brought good news to Kaufman County as bond proposals for road improvements as well as facilities were passed. The Monitor reported: Vo t e r s i n Kaufman County voted to approve Propositions A, $104.1 million bond for road and transportation improvements and B, which proposes $50 million for facilities to include a new justice center, as well as improvements to existing facilities. Proposition A passed 8,780 to 2,902 and B passed 7,435 to 4,189. Kaufman County Judge Hal Richards said in a press release, “On behalf of the Kaufman County Commissioners court and the entire Kaufman County organization, we want to express our appreciation for the overwhelming support of both the transportation and the facilities bond propositions. Kaufman County leadership is hard at work today and in the coming days to clearly identify and plan the next steps to bringing these improvements to life.”
In other political news, two beloved men died in office this year. Kaufman County Constable Pct. 4 Chad Jones died June 12 and Henderson County Pct. 1 Commissioner Ken Geeslin passed away Dec. 3.
Of course in Washington, the year ended with the House impeachment of President Donald Trump. That will begin the trial and the aftermath, which is sure to set the stage for a turbulent election season in 2020 as we navigate the March Primaries, the May local elections and the Presidential race in November.
The Monitor wishes all our advertisers and readers a prosperous and Happy New Year!