COLUMBIA, SC. – The man at the helm of the children’s train ride that crashed and killed a 6-year-old boy said Wednesday that the wreck hurt him emotionally and physically.
“I’m as much a victim here as anyone else,” said Matt Conrad, flanked by two attorneys, his right arm in a sling. “I’m suffering, too.”
Conrad, who had not spoken out publicly until the Greenville news conference, said he was unprepared for the onslaught of media attention he’s received since the wreck Saturday at Spartanburg’s Cleveland Park. Benji Easler was killed and 27 other passengers injured when the nearly 60-year-old train derailed on a bridge.
Standing by statements he’d made in an online trains forum about repairs he made to the train and its tracks last summer, Conrad also said he had absolute confidence in both when he was driving the engine.
“They were safe, and that train stopped very nicely,” he said, of the brakes. “I’m always evaluating the track. … If I had felt anything, anything at all that would have told me there’s a problem, I would have stopped.”
Police said Tuesday that Conrad told an officer accompanying him to a hospital, “I was going too (expletive) fast.”
On Wednesday, Conrad’s attorneys said their client was in shock when he made that statement and now feels mechanical error caused the crash.
A day earlier, county parks officials disputed several of Conrad’s online assertions well before the crash that the train involved in the wreck hadn’t run in years and that there had been “no appreciable” maintenance on the park’s tracks since 2002.
Spartanburg County parks spokeswoman Nisha Patel said the train was running during summer 2009, was shelved for refurbishment — done by Conrad — in 2010 and that there had been regular inspections to ensure safety of the tracks.
Authorities have not said what caused the crash and say their investigation is continuing. Witnesses have said the train sped up during its third lap around the circuit.
Visitation for the boy was planned Wednesday evening at Corinth Baptist Church in Gaffney, with a funeral planned for Thursday.
On Wednesday, one of the families injured in the crash filed a lawsuit, accusing state and county officials of negligence.
“I think the family is shocked by what happened and what they’ve learned over the past few days and feel like they are ready to bring a lawsuit to try to bring light to what has happened,” Spartanburg attorney Tom Killoren, who represents the family, said prior to the filing.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in circuit court in Spartanburg County, accuses the county, its parks commission and the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation of negligence in the crash.
Park employees should have warned passengers about potential dangers of the ride, while state officials should have properly ensured that it was safe before letting anyone on it, the lawsuit alleges.
Killoren represents Brooks Harris, who was with his wife and two children on the ride when it toppled off the bridge.
A spokeswoman for the county parks commission said she couldn’t comment on the lawsuit. A state labor department representative did not immediately return a message.
On Monday, state officials fired the inspector who approved the ride for operation. They said he admitted falsifying a report for an inspection done March 16.
Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation chief Catherine Templeton said Donnie Carrigan could not have tested the Spartanburg ride because a battery in the train was dead, making it inoperable. Templeton also said the department was reviewing other facilities inspected.
WASHINGTON – The flowering trees that symbolize friendship between the United States and Japan are blooming for the 99th time in Washington in the wake of one of the world’s worst natural disasters.
Before the two-week National Cherry Blossom Festival opens Saturday, organizers will hold a fundraising walk and vigil Thursday evening among the trees for victims of Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami. An estimated 18,000 people have been killed in the disaster.
“It’s important that we’re taking time to reflect,” said festival director Diana Mayhew. The celebration is a symbol of spring each year and now of the rebirth and rebuilding for Japan, she said.
“Our relationship with Japan is at the heart,” she said.
The tradition began with a gift of trees from Japan in 1912. Then-first lady Helen Taft and the wife of Japan’s ambassador planted the first two trees. About 100 of the original 3,000 trees are still growing, while thousands of others have been replaced or grown from the original trees’ genetic line.
During World War II, the festival was suspended. Some trees were vandalized in those years, according to National Park Service records. After the war, the festival grew as Japan was rebuilding and a Washington group was formed to stage the festival each year.
Now it draws about 1 million visitors and has become big business for Washington’s tourism industry. Nearly half the visitors travel from out of town, according to the city’s tourism bureau. A study of last year’s festival shows it generated about $126 million in hotel stays and other revenue.
The Stand with Japan vigil begins at 6:30 p.m. Thursday on the Washington Monument grounds. Money raised will go to American Red Cross relief efforts. Festival sponsors Safeway and Macy’s each announced $100,000 donations to the fund Wednesday.
Many of Washington’s 3,000 Yoshino cherry trees that circle the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial were beginning to bloom Thursday morning. The National Park Service has predicted they’ll be in peak bloom next Tuesday through Friday.
“Nothing is in full bloom yet,” said Park Service spokesman Bill Line, who noted that cold overnight temperatures in recent days would preserve the flowers longer — unless any storms bring strong winds that can blow them away.
National Cherry Blossom Festival: http://www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org/
NEW YORK – TripAdvisor advised its members Thursday that “an unauthorized third party” had stolen part of the website’s member email list, but said that no passwords were taken.
The website said in an email that most members would be unaffected by the incident. “Only a portion of all member email addresses were taken, and all member passwords remain secure,” the website’s CEO Steve Kaufer said in the email, though he added that some members may receive unsolicited emails or spam as a result.
He also said that the company had “confirmed the source of the vulnerability and shut it down” and that the incident is being investigated by law enforcement.
TripAdviser’s consumer reviews and links to travel booking sites can be viewed without providing an email address. But individuals who want to post reviews or questions must create an account using an email address to become a member. TripAdvisor does not collect credit card or financial information.
The website has 20 million members. A spokesman declined to provide details on how many email addresses were stolen.
When consumers look for a hotel and select Check Prices, they can choose to continue their search and book on the websites of these Gogobot partners.
The booking engines open one at a time in separate windows.
Travis Katz, Gogobot’s founder and CEO, says users requested a booking service to supplement the trip-planning advice they get from their Facebook friends and the Gogobot community.
Katz says he was surprised to find the variations in hotel pricing among these online travel agency and metasearch providers.
“There are deals to be found and you just have to look for those deals,” Katz says.
Gogobot began its soft launch on Nov. 15 and Katz says the hotel booking engine feature is Gogobot’s “second revenue stream,” following the implementation of a vacation-rental distribution partnership with HomeAway in January 2010.
Users clicking on the Vacation Rentals tab on Gogobot can select this sort of accommodation if they prefer it over hotels.
“Users are slowly discovering it,” Katz says of the vacation rentals option.
Katz says there have been some surprises since the soft launch.
When consumers post questions about trips, in addition to getting answers from social networking friends, local people at the destination and “travel mavens, people who’ve traveled to everywhere” are chiming in, Katz says.
“We’re actually seeing a community of people sharing tips with one another and it’s happening organically on the site,” Katz says.
Meanwhile, Gogobot is planning some relatively minor tweaks to the site.
It plans to start notifying seeming destination experts — people who seem to be answering a lot of questions about Hawaii, for instance — when there is a pertinent question, if they opt-in to the notification service, Katz says.
Other travel question and answer sites do this, as well.
Gogobot also intends to provide badges or some other symbolic form of recognition to site users whose contributions of answers have been noteworthy.
Providenciales is one of the most stunning Caribbean islands and is absolutely perfect for families! Grace Bay is one of the nicest beaches I have ever been too, with powdery white sand and crystal clear turquoise water – simply stunning!
The luxurious Grace Bay Club, a renowned and Turks Caicos resort is located right on the ocean and offers beautiful accommodations (all with over-sized terraces or patios) ocean views, kitchenettes, washer/dryers, flat screen TVs and ocean views. From April 1, 2011 through December 15, 2011 the resort is offering a family-friendly package where children stay free! The package is for 4 nights and prices start at $1,209 per person.
For more info, visit Grace Bay Club.
Yosemite National Park partly reopened Thursday to daytime visitors after a severe winter storm knocked out power throughout the California park over the weekend. But Yosemite continued to limp along without electrical power, and some of its most popular spring venues, such as campgrounds and the Badger Pass Ski Area, remained shut.
The park reopened California Highways 120, 140 and 41 on its south and west entrances to visitors between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday, though a storm warning remains in effect until Friday morning, according to a news release. Chains were required for all vehicles. Restaurants and other services were limited although room reservations would be honored, the statement says.
The park hopes to reopen more fully Friday and throughout the weekend, depending on weather conditions. More snow is forecast in the area through Saturday. Yosemite Valley lodgings, including heated tent cabins at Curry Village, are expected to be open to visitors starting Friday, with generators providing the juice for heat and lights. Campgrounds are expected to reopen Monday.
Roads into the park had been shut since a storm Saturday dumped three feet of snow in the area. The storm also downed key transmission lines in an area along Highway 140 on the Merced River known as the Ferguson Slide. The lines were the key to providing electricity to El Portal and the entire park.
“Mother Nature has flexed her strength with this series of storms,” said Nicole Liebelt, a spokeswoman for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Crew members had to be brought in by helicopter to the remote area to work on the problem, she added. Company officials said they hope to have power restored by late Friday.
Yosemite typically greets about 145,275 visitors in March.
For updated weather and access information, check “Current conditions in Yosemite National Park.”
WASHINGTON – Air traffic safety is under increased scrutiny by federal authorities following an incident in which two passenger jets landed without controller assistance at Reagan National Airport because no one could be reached in the airport tower.
An aviation official said that an air traffic supervisor — the lone controller on duty around midnight on Tuesday when the incident occurred — had fallen asleep. The official, who spoke on grounds of anonymity because an investigation is ensuing, said the incident has led the Federal Aviation Administration to launch a nationwide inquiry into airport tower staffing issues.
Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that the pilots of the two planes were in contact with controllers at a regional Federal Aviation Administration facility about 40 miles away in Warrenton, Va.
He said that after pilots were unable to raise the airport tower at Reagan by radio, they asked controllers in Warrenton to call the tower. Repeated calls from the regional facility to the tower went unanswered, Knudson added.
Responding to the incident, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement that he has directed FAA to put two air traffic controllers on the midnight shift at Reagan National.
“It is not acceptable to have just one controller in the tower managing air traffic in this critical air space,” LaHood said. Reagan National is located in Northern Virginia just across the Potomac River from Washington.
LaHood also said he has directed FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt to study tower staffing at other airports around the country.
NTSB is gathering information on the occurrence to decide whether to open a formal investigation, Knudson said.
Regional air traffic facilities handle aircraft within roughly a 50 mile radius of an airport, but landings, takeoffs and planes within about three miles of an airport are handled by controllers in the airport tower.
The planes involved were American Airlines flight 1012, a Boeing 737 with 91 passengers and 6 crew members on board, and United Airlines flight 628T, an Airbus A320 with 63 passengers and five crew members.
“The NTSB is conducting an investigation and we are doing our own review,” United spokesman Charles Hobart said in an email.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency “is looking into staffing issues and whether existing procedures were followed appropriately.”
It’s unlikely the safety of the planes was at risk since the pilots would have used a radio frequency for the airport tower to advise nearby aircraft of their intention to land and to make sure that no other planes also intended to land at that time, aviation safety experts said. At that time of night, air traffic would have been light, they said.
Also, controllers at the regional facility, using radar, would have been able to advise the pilots of other nearby planes, experts said.
The primary risk would have been if there was equipment on the runway when the planes landed, they said.
But the incident raises serious questions about controller fatigue, a longstanding safety concern, said John Goglia, a former NTSB board member.
“You have to watch your schedules to make sure (controllers) have adequate rest,” Goglia said. “It’s worse when nothing is going on. When it’s busy, you have to stay engaged. When it’s quiet, all they have to be is a little bit tired and they’ll fall asleep.”
DALLAS – AirTran Airways shareholders voted Wednesday to sell the discount airline to bigger rival Southwest for $1.4 billion.
The deal would give Southwest Airlines Co. a foothold in Atlanta — the largest U.S. city it doesn’t already serve — and routes to Mexico and the Caribbean.
AirTran Holdings Inc. said more than 98.6 percent of votes cast and 77.5 percent of all shares were voted for the sale.
Southwest still needs approval from federal antitrust regulators before it can close the deal, which it expects to do in the next three months.
The companies announced the sale last September. Southwest officials have said that rising fuel prices made it even more important to grow and boost revenue at the Dallas-based airline, which already carries more U.S. passengers than anyone.
Southwest earned $459 million on $12.1 billion in revenue last year, while AirTran earned $1.9 million on revenue of $645.5 million.
The two airlines will operate separately until the Federal Aviation Administration allows Southwest to operate them as one, which is expected by early next year.
Southwest has said it will drop AirTran’s fees for checking one or two bags and eliminate the first-class cabin on AirTran planes. The deal could lead to fewer fare sales, as the number of major U.S. airlines continues to shrink.
Southwest CEO Gary C. Kelly said this week that Southwest plans to continue service to all of AirTran’s destinations, some of which are smaller than cities on the Southwest route map. Kelly also said Southwest will keep AirTran’s smaller Boeing 717 aircraft, which would alter Southwest’s all-Boeing 737 fleet.
AirTran directors had unanimously endorsed the sale. Shareholders voted during a special meeting at an airport hotel near the company’s Orlando headquarters.
Shares of Southwest rose 10 cents to close at $12.42, while AirTran shares gained 3 cents to close at $7.35.
Thinking of heading to Europe this year? A tough economy makes it all the more important to plan your trip wisely. Not to worry—I’m here to help! Follow these common-sense strategies, and you’ll be heading overseas in the near future (and with a little extra money in your pocket, too).
By Katye Martens, USA TODAY London is one of the most visited European destinations, along with Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice, according to one travel expert.
By Katye Martens, USA TODAY
London is one of the most visited European destinations, along with Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice, according to one travel expert.
Know which destinations are in demand
I spoke with representatives from three major Europe vacation providers to find out which destinations are attracting the crowds this year. If your preferred destination is on the hot list, you’ll want to start bargain hunting now (if you haven’t already).
“London, Paris, and the cities of Italy—Rome, Florence, and Venice—are always in high demand,” says Paula McKay, president of Go-today.com. “We are also seeing a lot of interest in Barcelona this year.”
“Italy and Spain, [particularly] Venice, Florence, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, and Andalucia, are where we’re seeing the biggest growth,” says Marty Seslow, VP of Marketing, Gate 1 Travel. “Those are not necessarily the destinations that have the best prices or overall value, but they’ve definitely had the best demand.”
“Business to Britain is up 30% so far, year over year,” says Nigel Osborne, president, Virgin Vacations. “U.K. is number one, Italy number two, then France number three.”
Every supplier I spoke with said the royal wedding in London is not showing the increased interest initially expected—most likely as a result of inflated prices. “I think if anything the [U.K.] destinations will get a bump from the publicity, but I just don’t think it’s going to be around that date,” says Seslow.
If you’re planning a vacation to Britain, France, Italy, or Spain, the bargains do exist, but only for the most dedicated of sleuths.
Track down the best deals
“If the deal is right, people will travel,” says Osborne. Take this as your own personal mantra, and let the deals be your guide.
The earlier you get started, the better—Osborne recommends booking your vacation three to five months in advance, where as Seslow suggested five to eight months’ lead time. The main reason? Oil. With fluctuating fuel prices, it’s a good idea to lock in your airfare once you’ve found a price that fits your budget, as it’s likely only to go up as summer approaches. Last-minute deals will be scarce this year, as there’s been no diminished interest in travel, and thus no incentive to move unsold inventory.
AIRFARE 101: How to find the best airline deals
Key planning strategies
Seasonality trumps all. “It’s all about season,” says Seslow. “If someone is willing to travel during a shoulder or low season, they’re definitely going to get a much better price. You can still be in Europe in November and in March, which is considered low season, and the weather is still good and the crowds are lower.” Summer will always be the busiest, and subsequently the most expensive time to travel. If you have flexibility in your schedule, take your vacation during a different season and take advantage of the savings.
Look for new routes. “London fares are all over the place at the moment because Delta announced expansion [there] from Boston, New York City, and Washington,” says Osborne. “Continental has increased capacity as well with the new United merger. Travelers will be able to get some fairly good deals across the Pond.” Check your preferred airline to see if new service is being offered in the coming months, as expanded routes tend to be coupled with affordable introductory fares to drum up new business.
Broaden your airport search—even if it means an extra flight. “If folks are living in a major gateway, like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, they have competition and multiple choices,” says Seslow. “But in secondary markets, that competition dwindles. We’ve found there are a decent number of [travelers in smaller cities] who wind up buying a low-cost domestic ticket on their own, to Atlanta, New York, or Chicago from their smaller town and then take advantage of the better options from the bigger town. That’s always something that’s been a possibility, [but] it seems like it’s becoming increasingly a better option.” So if you’re traveling from Pittsburgh to Paris, for example, don’t just look at flights between the two, as you may actually spend more money than, say, taking Southwest from Pittsburgh to Chicago or New York, and then a major carrier to Paris.
Maximize your hotel schedule. “Hotels tend to give better rates if you arrive on a Sunday,” says Osborne. “Their local leisure traffic stays Friday and Saturday night and they leave, and the business [travelers] don’t arrive until Monday. So most hotels have empty Sunday nights and they like to get people to stay [then].”
McKay also suggests looking at a variety of hotel classes, as you might be surprised by what you can afford. “Look at location and star classification, and decide what fits your travel style best. While the lead-in price might be really cheap, there is usually great value when upgrading to a four-star property,” she says. Looking at what each hotel offers (taking amenities, daily breakfast, and the like into account) can help you determine the best fit for your budget.
Consider cruising. “The major cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean, have more ships over in Europe,” says Seslow. “If [travelers] book a cruise as their vacation, they can hit multiple destinations, meals are included, and they’re spending a lot less money than the overpriced hotel accommodations in many of these main destinations. And you’re paying upfront in U.S. dollars, so there’s no currency exchange fees or issues.”
Finally, do a little pre-sightseeing legwork. “It’s best to purchase sightseeing tours in advance of your trip,” says McKay. “You’ll avoid long lines on the ground, saving valuable vacation time.” You may also get an advance-purchase discount by ordering attractions’ admissions before you depart.
Get great values once you’ve arrived
It’s great to find a deal, but it’s even better to be a cost-conscious consumer once you’re in-country. Follow these recommendations and you’ll get the most out of your trip abroad.
• Avoid public transit or taxi sticker shock by using hop/on-hop/off buses like your personal chauffeurs. “Work it out within your schedule as a part taxi service,” says Osborne. “That way, you don’t have to buy a tube card or take a taxi.” Study the hop/on-hop/off bus schedule and sightseeing map, then plan your day’s explorations accordingly.
• If you have a multi-city itinerary, choose rail over low-cost carriers. You’ll see the countryside, have easier point-to-point connections, and enjoy fee-free travel. Ryanair is notorious for nickel-and-diming travelers—with the train, you may have a longer trip, but the convenience of downtown train terminals, no baggage fees, a snack car, extra legroom, and other amenities make the experience an overall better value.
• Plan your meals wisely. “Everybody wants to try a fancy restaurant in a new city,” says Osborne. “Go for the luncheon special rather than dinner and it’s usually half the price.” Osborne also recommends European department stores for an “elegant self-service lunch” on a budget. Harrod’s, Marks and Spencer, and Printemps Paris all offer refined lunch counters. You can also check with your store of choice to see if you can snag a meal at a bargain.
SmarterTravel.com features expert travel advice and unbiased coverage of travel deals.
© 2011 Smarter Travel Media LLC. All Rights Reserved
Spring has sprung, and if you’re itching to get away from home for a bit, you’re not alone.
Some unbeatable travel deals have made their way online this week, and whether you are in the mood for some relaxed fun in the sun or an excitement-packed city getaway, there’s something for you.
Hotwire is featuring a slew of hotel deals for travelers looking to escape to warm spring destinations.
You can score a stay in California , Phoenix or Las Vegas for under $70 per night! Visit calming waters in Newport Beach, picturesque golf courses in Scottsdale, Ariz. or win big in the desert oasis of Sin City.
Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.