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Bethel funeral home heavily damaged in fire

BETHEL — A funeral home sustained heavy damage from a fire on the second floor and spread to the rear of the building, a local fire chief said Tuesday.

The fire took place at the Walker Funeral Home Ayres Chapel location, which is nestled between West Washington and James streets.

More than two dozen fire crews from Bethel, Carolina Township and Staton House Fire Departments responded to the blaze about 11 p.m.

“The first truck arrived on scene with heavy smoke and flames showing,” Bethel Fire Chief Joe Peel said. “We established an attack and stayed on scene until roughly 3:30 this morning.”

It took about three hours to get the fire under control and Peel said most of the fire had been knocked down by 1:30 or 2 a.m.

Peel said crews cleared the scene about 6 a.m. and returned briefly after some hot spots flared up.

Peel said the fire started at the top of the stairs and spread to a single-story section located near the back of the funeral home, which is housed in a structure that is over 100 years old.

“It was very old construction and it’s been added on to over the years, which made it a little more difficult to battle the blaze because of the way things were arranged in the funeral home,” Peel said.

Firefighters found hot water heaters along with a sitting room and a bedroom upstairs, Peel said.

The fire is not considered suspicious but the cause remains under investigation, he said.

The funeral home was empty at the time of the fire; Peel said he believes the structure can be salvaged.

Technology expected to improve Pitt EMS response

Paramedics and 911 operators in Pitt County said goodbye on Monday to sole reliance on radio communications for emergency medical calls.

At the same time, they said hello to new technology and equipment that will get the job done more efficiently.

That “job” is communicating with each other about where a unit needs to go to respond to a medical emergency.

The new technology is called “automatic vehicle locator” and allows 911 operators to send the unit that is closest to a call based on the unit’s GPS location, according to Randy Gentry, director of Pitt County Emergency Management.

Gentry gave a presentation about the new system at Monday’s meeting of the Pitt County Board of Commissioners.

“We’re really accomplishing two things,” Gentry said.

First of all, the new system provides greater efficiency in the dispatching and response of the Emergency Medical Service, and it allows EMS to better serve residents over the long-term, he said.

There is one centralized 911 system throughout the county while EMS units are based in multiple geographic areas. It makes sense that emergency vehicles can cross over district lines when needed, depending on their location and availability, Gentry said.

If it gets busy, the 911 operators can move units around. Based on previous calls for service, EMS knows when peak times are and which areas have higher call volumes, Gentry said.

Now, thanks to the GPS technology, they will know exactly where the units are located, too. In the past, unless paramedics or EMS staff called in by radio, 911 operators did not necessarily know of a unit’s exact location, Gentry said.

Secondly, the new system provides safety and accountability for the responders in the field, he said.

The system equips emergency medical vehicles with a mobile data terminal that allows paramedics and other EMS staff to see live call data from the 911 center so they can travel to calls while reducing unnecessary radio traffic.

The data terminals provide a powerful alternative mode of communication, he said. Information that had to be conveyed previously over sometimes busy radio signals is now displayed real-time on the in-vehicle terminals.

”It puts them in a position where they don’t have to use the radio at all times,” Gentry said. “They can just hit a key on the computer terminal and it tells them that they’re in or out or they’ve arrived or they’re on the way to the hospital, and they also can input information to the 911 center.”{/span}

Following the meeting, EMS staff gave a demonstration of how the new system operates, using a Pitt County EMS vehicle in the parking lot of the Pitt County Office Complex, 1717 W. Fifth St.

Currently all county EMS units have AVL capability with terminals installed in these vehicles, Gentry said.

The technology has been around for a while, Gentry said.

Other counties that use it include Guilford, Wake, Wilson and Johnston, he said.

Visual meets verbal: Exhibition features art based on poems of James Applewhite

James Applewhite has been creating images with his words for the better part of a century. A decade ago, the arts community began responding in kind.

The result is painting, sculpture, photography and other works of art all inspired by the prolific eastern North Carolina poet.

More than a dozen works of art and two poems by the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame member will be presented Thursday at City Art Gallery.

The ninth annual exhibition, which continues through Feb. 15, invited artists to respond to Applewhite’s “Thinking Music” and “Trees Stars the Seasons.” Both works will be featured in the 2020 edition of the North Carolina Literary Review.

“Often a poem is based on a work of art,” said Margaret Bauer, who serves as editor of the review, an award-winning publication that is part scholarly journal and part literary magazine. “(The exhibition) is kind of the other side of that … where you’re creating art from a poem.”

The exhibition, which began in 2010, is an idea City Art Gallery owner Torrey Stroud credits to Louis St. Lewis, whose mixed media work “I Think of Music” is featured in this year’s exhibit. St. Lewis, a Triangle area artist and writer, suggested a collaboration with NCLR. Bauer, the Rives Chair of Southern Literature in East Carolina University’s department of English, recommended Applewhite, the namesake for the review’s James Applewhite Poetry Prize.

“In his poems the images that he writes about are so vivid that an artist would be able to read it and have a great image form in their mind that they could formulate and create,” Stroud said. “Images are so strong in his poetry. ... He understands eastern North Carolina.”

He should. Applewhite grew up in Stantonsburg in Wilson County. While his brother, Henry, was a painter, James was drawn to poetry.

“I became a verbal person early on,’” he said, “so the sounds and cadences of speech are my medium.”

Applewhite went on to become a professor of creative writing at Duke University. He has received the Associated Writing Programs Contemporary Poetry Prize, the Jean Stein Award in Poetry from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry.

Applewhite, 84, whose latest collection of poems, “Time Beginnings,” was published in 2017, said it is an honor to have artists respond to his writing.

“I love the interaction of visual art and poetry,” he said. “That’s quite an innovative thing.”

The exhibition includes drawings by Michael Dorsey, former dean of the ECU School of Art; ceramic work by Canadian-born artist Colleen Black Semelka; and a painting by best-selling author Clyde Edgerton.

Edgerton, a musician and artist whom Stroud describes as a Renaissance man, created a painting in response to “Trees Stars the Seasons.” It is based on a photograph by his daughter, Catherine, whose painting of the same photograph also is represented in the exhibition.

ECU graduate Jordan Parah titled her aluminum sculpture “The Linear Violin” in reference to Applewhite’s “Thinking Music.”

North Carolina Literary Review Art Editor Diane Rodman will select one work of art to represent each of Applewhite’s poems in the next issue.

“It’s always so interesting to see what they come up with; we’ve had quite a variety of responses,” said Bauer.

“In North Carolina, nothing surprises me,” she said. “These people are so talented. If you’re an artist in this state, you probably have three different talents.”

Applewhite, too, appreciates the thoughtfulness that is evident in the exhibition.

“For me it’s really a high point of the year to go down and read a few poems in the gallery and be recognized as a poet while I’m appreciating and delighting in the visual art,” he said.

“I’m continually surprised by their creativity in response to, in some respects, my creativity,” Applewhite said. “It’s been sort of synergistic interplay between visual and verbal, and I really like that.”

An opening reception for the exhibition will be held from 6-8 p.m. Thursday at City Art Gallery, 511 Red Banks Road. Call 353-7000 or visit cityartgreenville.com.

Impasse continues over state budget, pay after brief session

RALEIGH — An effort by Republicans in the General Assembly to overturn Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes on teacher pay and the budget fell short on Tuesday, prolonging a spending impasse that includes funds for a new medical school building at East Carolina University.

On a party-line vote, the Senate failed to override Cooper’s veto of a measure that would have enacted pay raises for teachers, teacher assistants, school custodians and other staff at least at levels contained in the larger two-year budget Cooper also vetoed last June.

Senate Republicans would have needed one or maybe two Democrats to vote with them for the override. With Senate Democrats showing during the teacher pay vote they were united supporting Cooper, Republicans decided to call off a scheduled veto override vote on the broader budget during the brief one-day session.

Cooper and other Democrats have said the average educator pay increases offered by the GOP were feeble compared to what the governor sought.

“Today was a win for Senate Democrats, but more importantly it was a win for fighting for meaningful investment in public education, including raising teacher pay,” said Senate Minority Whip Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County after the session, which was completed in about three hours. Now the legislature will not return to work until late April.

The level of teacher pay, the absence of Medicaid expansion and presence of corporate tax cuts in the budget measure led Cooper to veto the budget bill almost seven months ago, prompting a stalemate in which attempts at compromise sputtered. State government continues to operate despite the lack of of a budget deal, thanks in part to several separate “mini-budgets” that were approved and included pay raises for state employees. Cooper signed most of them into law.

Pitt County’s Democratic senator, Don Davis, has faced pressure from some political and business leaders in the Greenville-area to vote with Republicans because the budget contained $315 million over six years to build a new medical school at East Carolina University.

“Today was no more than a display of political gamesmanship,” Davis said following the session. “Everyone knows I remain committed to a new ECU Brody School of Medicine. I voted to sustain the veto of a bill that would lock in lower pay raises for our teachers, short-change noncertified school personnel as well as punish retirees who are not keeping up with the cost of living.”

Davis said the budget bill sent back to the Rules Committee and remains eligible for consideration this session. But K-12 educators and staff still do not have increases for this school year given Tuesday’s override failure, save for experience-based raises already approved.

“We are not asking for anything that we do not deserve or that we can’t afford,” Erica Johnson, a teacher assistant and local North Carolina Association of Educators leader in Alamance County, said at a news conference Tuesday before the session began. “This is about choosing to treat educators with respect and dignity, or choosing to give corporate tax breaks.”

Had the teacher pay bill veto ultimately been overridden, K-12 instructors would have received an average 3.9% raise through mid-2021. Cooper wanted twice that amount.

Senate leader Phil Berger said after the session it is possible the budget override still could happen later this year: “It’s my hope that at some point we will find a single Democrat that will stiffen their spine and stand up.” But the override failures could serve as political ammunition during the fall elections in which all 170 seats are on the ballot, with the party winning majorities gaining the power to perform redistricting in 2021.

Four Senate Democrats actually voted for the final budget in June, before Cooper’s veto. But Democrats have rallied around Cooper, particularly since House Republicans rammed through a budget override vote in a half-empty chamber in September.

The governor, Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore and their surrogates have argued over why no budget agreement has been reached, accusing each other of failing to negotiate in good faith. Republicans have blamed Cooper for failing to let go of his demand to expand Medicaid as part of any budget agreement.

“Senate Democrats have now given their votes to Gov. Cooper, who likely has convinced them that somehow they would still get what was in the budget and he would get his Medicaid expansion,” said Berger, a Rockingham County Republican. “Instead, they and North Carolina get neither.”

Cooper has said there was no Medicaid “ultimatum” and pointed to his willingness to negotiate teacher pay separately from the budget. Republicans should “end their partisan obstruction,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said Tuesday.

Tuesday’s actions mean Republicans have yet to override any of Cooper’s 14 vetoes since early 2019, after Democratic seat gains following the 2018 elections ended the GOP’s veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Senate Republicans were unable to override another Cooper veto on Tuesday, this one on the legislature’s annual regulatory overhaul measure.

Lawmakers did manage to approve unanimously one bill Tuesday that gives an additional $2.4 million this fiscal year and next to cover a shortfall for scholarships for the children of wartime veterans. The bill now goes to Cooper, who is expected to sign it.