Keyser woman seeks foreign aid to build bridge
After contacting officials in Charleston on several occasions and receiving no help, North End resident Karol Ashenfelter is seeking foreign aid to help solve the problem of evacuating the North End of Keyser in an emergency situation. 

Should a train derail, some 500 residents on the North End could be stranded, because the only two railroad crossings at Main and East streets are close enough together to be simultaneously blocked. Ashenfelter emailed the presidents of China and Russia on Thursday to ask them to build a bridge spanning the Potomac River from Maryland to the North End of the city.

In 1977, the self-appointed mayor in the Mingo County community of Vulcan appealed to the Soviet Union to help build a bridge across the Tug Fork from Vulcan to Kentucky. State and federal officials had previously turned down his pleas, according to the Charleston Daily Mail.

The Soviets sent journalist Iona Andronov to Vulcan, but shortly before Andronov arrived, the state had decided to build the bridge, according to the Daily Mail. The Soviets took credit for the turnaround.

“It worked once for a small town in the ’70s so I thought if it worked once why not try again,” said Ashenfelter.

“I have called Charleston numerous times and they aren’t returning my calls,” said Ashenfelter. “I’ve been suggesting that someone come in and look and figure out the best route for evacuation. No one has even come down to look at it. It’s very dangerous. If we have a chemical leak we are done. There is no way out but to swim.”

Ashenfelter said she has been fighting to get a solution to the problem for two years, since construction began on the new Memorial Bridge, to no avail. The steps to the bridge, which were the only means of escape, were removed two years ago, according to Delegate Gary Howell, who has also spoken with officials in Charleston regarding the issue.

Although the steps couldn’t provide access for emergency service vehicles, they would at least allow some residents to leave the area.

“The fact that it has risen to a level where a resident would contact the president of China and Russia shows the level of frustration that those living in the North End live with every day,” said Howell, who noted that residents probably think about how they would escape while sitting at either one of the crossings waiting for the train to cross. “This must be rather embarrassing for the governor (Earl Ray Tomblin) that this went this far.”

First-responders have passed stretchers across stopped trains to get to people on the North End in an emergency, Keyser Mayor Randy Amtower told the Daily Mail.

Amtower doubts that Ashenfelter will get help from the presidents of China and Russia. He addressed the North End evacuation issue with legislators during a Lobby Day presentation earlier this year.

“At this point, asking anyone for help can’t hurt,” said Amtower in an interview with the Times-News. “Do I think that the presidents of China and Russia will build a bridge to the North End of Keyser? No. But I do think it will bring attention to the situation.”

Both Howell and Ashenfelter agree that the only viable option is another bridge that would run from Main Street into Maryland. A bridge would cost roughly $3.5 million, according to Howell, who noted that the government probably has enough in its rain day fund, which is used for emergencies, to cover the costs.

“It’s not that the money isn’t available. It’s getting the government’s authorization. They can make it happen anytime they want to,” said Howell. “I don’t know if it’s because they don’t see it as a real problem or not. If there was anything I could do legislation-wise to push something through, I would.”

Howell noted that he has been speaking with Jimmy Gianato, the state director of homeland security, about the possibility of finding grants to train fire department personnel in case of a train derailment. Although it would not provide a solution, it would help in case of a disaster, said Howell.

There hasn’t been a bridge directly to the North End in 60 years and thus far there hasn’t been an incident, but at least during that time the steps provided somewhat of an escape, he said.

“The state probably should have planned for steps in the new bridge design. Now we are left to fix the mess,” said Howell.

The only ways to cross the railroad tracks should a derailment occur are to traverse the river, split the train, which may take time, or go through a large drainage pipe, according to Howell. The drainage pipe often fills with water, requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle to access and can’t fit emergency service vehicles.

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