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Recreation and Park director steps down

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
September 11, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — After months of criticism and rumors that his job was in jeopardy, the embattled head of The City’s Recreation and Park Department, Yomi Agunbiade, is leaving the troubled department.

Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office met privately with Agunbiade Tuesday night, according to Jim Lazarus, vice chair of the Recreation and Park Commission.

Agunbiade then reportedly told Recreation and Park staff Wednesday morning that he was stepping down from the job, according to Isabel Wade, executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council, a city parks-advocacy group.

Commissioners were not informed of the decision or the reason behind it, Lazarus said.

Newsom has asked Agunbiade to remain in his position while a panel of key city staffers identifies a replacement, according to the statement released from the Mayor’s Office Wednesday.

However, talk at City Hall suggests that Phil Ginsberg, Newsom’s former chief of staff, could be tapped to replace Agunbiade, at least until a long-term director can be found, multiple sources confirmed.

Newsom appointed Agunbiade — a former sewer engineer who also worked in the capital divisions of The City’s Department of Public Works and Recreation and Parks Department — to head the park department in 2004.

He has been an unpopular leader, taking heavy criticism from parks advocates for his lack of rapport with the public, as well as his handling of a number of bond-funded projects that were designed improperly, behind schedule or over budget.

And while Newsom put a complimentary spin on the news of Agunbiade’s departure, saying that he had “seen many significant improvements to our park system,” it had long been rumored in City Hall that the Mayor was displeased with his performance.

In the wake of a closed-door performance review last month, a number of those advocates wrote to the Board of Supervisors this week asking for his removal.

“Mr. Agunbiade has not fulfilled the necessary role of accounting for the performance of this department, and cannot assure its future,” wrote resident Linda Harte, one of the letter writers.

The Recreation and Park Commission did make any recommendations regarding his employment, according to Lazarus.

Agunbiade has also been at the helm of the department through a number of high-profile crisises.

The department drew fire after a Siberian tiger escaped her enclosure at San Francisco Zoo and mauled a 17-year-old patron to death on Christmas Day, 2007.

Then, on April 18, a dog-walker was killed in Stern Grove by a limb that fell from a redwood tree arborists had tagged as a potential hazard.

In July, Recreation and Park spokeswoman Rose Marie Dennis filed a complaint against Agunbiade, charging that he harassed her regarding her appearance and religious beliefs in a series of notes over a multi-year period.

“I think he finally saw the handwriting on the wall, or perhaps the mayor pushed him out,” Wade said.

As general manager, Agunbiade was responsible for overseeing the operation of the department, which includes roughly 900 personnel, according to the controller’s office. He was earning $198,822 per year in the post – the top of the salary range for the general manager’s job, according to the controller’s office. He was an at-will employee, not under contract, according to the City’s human-resources department.

Officials did not confirm whether Agunbiade would be offered another position within city operations.

“Yomi’s a career civil servant — it wouldn’t surprise me if the Mayor asked him to go back to the Department of Public Works,” Lazarus said.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 11, 2008 at 9:21 PM

OSHA fines company where 18-year-old employee fell into sulfuric acid

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
February 7, 2008

REDWOOD CITY — The circuit-board company where an 18-year-old employee drowned in a vat of sulfuric acid in September did not have adequate protection around its chemical vats, one of 17 health and safety violations, according to a report released Wednesday.

Fernando Gonzalez, 18, died at after slumping head-first into a vat containing sulfuric acid. His death kicked off a California Department of Occupational Safety and Health investigation, which found that the company did not install covers or guardrails on several chemical vats used in circuit-board production, according to a report from OSHA investigator Michael Frye.

The report also found that Coastal Circuits’ vats of sulfuric acid were 24 to 32 inches tall, far below the 36-inch state requirement. Gonzalez was not wearing safety glasses, a respirator or a smock when he died, although those items were available at the factory, Frye said.

Coastal Circuits has fixed eight of the violations and will remedy the remainder immediately, company spokesman Sam Singer said. The firm has until Feb. 18 to correct the problems and pay $3,800 in fines.

The company, where several of Gonzalez’s family members work, “is still emotionally scarred by Fernando’s death,” Singer said.

But the violations do not explain exactly what led Gonzalez to plunge into the vat before he drowned, OSHA spokeswoman Kate McGuire said. Redwood City police Sgt. Chris Cesena said he was working alone in the factory at the time he died.

“No one knows what really happened — we can only imagine,” McGuire said.

At the time of his death, police speculated that Gonzalez was overcome by fumes and passed out. No foul play was suspected, and police are no longer investigating the case, Cesena said.

“Measurements … indicated no concentrations of airborne contaminants that would have been high enough to cause a person to lose consciousness or become disoriented,” Frye said.

Other employees reported that there were times when ammonia fumes were irritating, the report said. However, high ammonia levels probably would have forced Gonzalez to leave the work area, Frye said.

The San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office is still investigating the incident to determine whether it will file any criminal or civil charges against Coastal Circuits, Assistant District Attorney Karen Guidotti said.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

February 7, 2008 at 8:32 PM

Tanker crash caused traffic mayhem, headaches

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
January 31, 2008

REDWOOD CITY — The region’s commuters fought tooth and nail to get home Tuesday following the tanker crash that closed U.S. Highway 101 in both directions during rush hour.

For most, the commute home from Sunnyvale or Mountain View that normally takes an hour stretched to nearly three hours as they inched along the highway, dodged around the crash site and hunted for alternative ways home.

Intel employee Elizabeth Mason left San Jose to pick up her kids at 4:35 p.m., and it took her more than 90 minutes to get to the Woodside Road exit. By then the day care center was closed, and it took several phone calls to find someone who wouldn’t also get stuck in traffic trying to pick up the children.

Those who left work later in the evening didn’t fare much better.

Ted Prodromou left his job at Google at 7 p.m. and was snared in northbound traffic. After exiting Highway 101 at Woodside Road, he inched up El Camino Real and got back on the freeway in San Mateo.

“I got home at 9:30, exhausted and with a headache,” Prodromou said. “I kept rolling down my windows to get fresh air, but the air smelled so bad [like chemicals].”

Chris Neil, a division vice president for Maxim Integrated products in Sunnyvale, left work at 7:45 p.m., and knew something was wrong when he hit traffic a half-hour later.

“I could see the sign up ahead telling everyone to get off the road at Woodside,” Neil said. He trekked up to Interstate Highway 280, but it still took him 2½ hours to make it home to San Francisco.

Throughout the night, the California Highway Patrol worked with local police to control the mayhem. By 6:45 p.m., police were running out of emergency flares — used to close onramps and offramps — and were asking for cones, according to the CHP incident log. A number of cars broke down by the side of the highway, according to those reports.

“One poor guy ran out of gas, and was pushing his car,” Mason said.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 31, 2008 at 8:44 PM

Redwood City teen found dead on tracks

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
January 9, 2008

REDWOOD CITY — A local teenager with a history of running away from home was found dead on the Caltrain tracks just north of Whipple Avenue on Monday night.

The victim was identified as 17-year-old Jose Luis Flores by San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault. Flores is the first to die on the rail corridor in 2008.

There were eight deaths — including six suicides and two accidental deaths — on Caltrain tracks in 2007, SamTrans spokesman Jonah Weinberg said.

The San Mateo County Transit District first became aware of Flores’ death approximately 8:15 p.m. Monday night when a train conductor noticed what he thought might be human remains on the tracks, Weinberg said.

“Upon examination, it looked like he might have been hit by a train that went through there at 7:25 p.m.,” Weinberg said. Three other trains passed through the area between the time Flores was most likely struck and the discovery of his body, he said.

The tracks were closed in both directions until 10:30 p.m. to allow coroner’s officials and transit police to collect Flores’ remains and gather evidence, Weinberg said. The cause of death is under investigation.

Family members last saw Flores at their Rolison Road home at approximately 6:20 p.m. Monday, said his cousin, Monica Ibarra.

“He was having problems, since his brother [Ignacio] left to Iraq for the war.” Ibarra said, “Jose has been worried.”

Flores’ disappearance Monday evening was not his first. The teen was reported missing July 23, 2007, and was found safe four days later, on July 27, according to reports from the Redwood City Police Department.

In a prior disappearance — precipitated by Ignacio’s deployment to Iraq, family members said — Flores was later found at Moffett Field in San Jose. He hadalso threatened to kill himself in the past, said Redwood City Sgt. Steve Blanc.

At the time, Blanc told media outlets that Flores had been diagnosed as psychotic, was not taking his medication and might have been using illegal drugs to self-medicate.

Ibarra described Flores as “just like any other teenager,” and said her family was not ready to talk about the death.

Little is known about Flores’ school history. He was a special-education student at Kennedy Middle School in Redwood City, and he attended Menlo-Atherton High School for a time, said Pat Gemma, superintendent in the Sequoia High School District. However, district officials did not know which school he was attending at the time of his death.

Flores’ body was found not far from where another teen, 19-year-old Jose Alvarez, of Hayward, was killed while crossing the Caltrain tracks on April 6, 2006.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 9, 2008 at 8:48 PM

Teen falls into vat of toxic chemical, dies

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
September 23, 2007

Investigators are looking for answers after a local man fell into a vat of sulfuric acid and died at a circuit-board manufacturing warehouse.

The San Mateo County Coroner’s Office identified the man as 18-year-old Fernando Jiminez Gonzalez, Deputy Coroner Richard Vetterli. Although an autopsy was performed on Gonzalez on Sunday, the Coroner’s Office did not expect to release the cause of his death until today.

Gonzalez’s father reported the death after finding his son inside the Coastal Circuits warehouse, located at 1602 Tacoma Way, early Sunday morning, according to Redwood City police Sgt. Steve Dowden. Both men work for the company.

Police believe that, while submerging circuit boards into a large vat of sulfuric acid, Gonzalez became “overcome by chemical fumes, causing him to fall forward into the vat,” Dowden said.

Sulfuric acid, a corrosive liquid found in car batteries and a variety of industrial factories, is used to remove rust from metal — and etch circuit boards. Even in its most dilute forms, the acid can cause burns on the skin and mucous membranes; ingesting it can be fatal, according to a fact sheet from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances.

Gonzalez’s death is believed to be accidental, Redwood City police Detective Eric Stasiak said. If the Coroner’s Office finds any evidence of foul play, the Police Department will reopen its investigation into the case.

Coastal Circuits, a 35-year-old company that moved to Redwood City in 1992, produces custom circuit boards used to test other electronic devices, such as the semiconductors in computer chips, CEO Laura Boozer said.

Boozer would not comment on the incident, adding that the firm will conduct its own investigation once officials learn exactly how Gonzalez died. “Our thoughts are with the family — many of them work with us,” Boozer said. “This is a very tragic situation. We’re trying to get [information], for the sake of the family and our employees.”

Gonzalez worked for Coastal Circuits for “several years,” Boozer said.

The California Department of Occupational Safety and Health will begin interviewing Coastal Circuits employees this morning to determine what may have led to Gonzalez’s death, an OSHA investigator said.

Findings could be available in four to six weeks, but OSHA has up to six months to complete its investigation.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 23, 2007 at 10:48 PM

SUV jumps curb, strikes Belmont students

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Staff Report
May 2, 2007

Children screamed, dove and ducked for cover as a champagne-colored Honda Pilot careened into a group of students outside Ralston Middle School on Wednesday afternoon, trapping three of them underneath the vehicle.

Backpacks were left strewn across the sidewalk and a chunk of bark was torn from the trunk of a tree after the impact. Within a minute of the crash, a school custodian rushed to the scene with a vehicle jack from his own car and hoisted the sport utility vehicle off the students trapped underneath. Thirteen students in all were hospitalized, some with serious injuries, though the injuries did not appear to be life-threatening, officials said.

“As the kids were fleeing, some of them couldn’t get out of the way fast enough and the car came down on them,” said Barbara Beebe, who saw the crash as she picked up her 12-year-old daughter from school. She said the SUV veered up onto two wheels before striking students and a tree at the school’s loading zone, where SamTrans buses pick up and drop off students.

Beebe said the driver — identified as 70-year-old Redwood Shores resident Mauro Yan — was attempting to drive between two of the SamTrans buses when he accelerated over the red curb into a tree, just a few feet from a wall of windows on the side of the school.

Yan, who appeared shaken at the scene as he spoke with police and other officials, was taken away on a stretcher, treated at Kaiser Redwood City and released. A woman answering the door at his residence late Wednesday afternoon said he was OK but did not want to comment on the crash.

Students had been let out at 12:35 p.m. on Wednesday because of a shortened day for state standardized testing. The crash is believed to have happened moments after school let out.

One eighth-grader, who asked that her name not be used, said she heard a loud popping sound and saw the car jump the curb, hitting a group of five students who she said were all eighth-graders, some classmates of hers.

She saw at least two of the boys duck and cover to protect themselves as the SUV flew toward them.

Andre Edwards, the school’s head custodian and track coach, said a student he pulled from under the SUV was bleeding, but conscious.

“You don’t think. You just react,” Edwards said.

Belmont Lt. Dan DeSmidt said by the time emergency personnel arrived minutes after the crash, Ralston staff had already begun tending to the injured students and controlling the crowd of onlookers.

“Our staff was very quick, very calm, very decisive,” Principal Maggie O’Reilly said.

Officers from the Belmont-San Carlos, Pacifica, Redwood City, North County and San Mateo County fire departments, California Highway Patrol and Belmont Police Department took injured students away to awaiting emergency medical personnel.

Fourteen people — 13 students and the driver — were taken in for medical care. Belmont-San Carlos Fire Chief Doug Fry said the injuries ranged from simple cuts and bruises to broken bones and possible head or back injuries.

Victims were taken to five area hospitals, depending on the severity of their injuries. Stanford University Medical Center and San Francisco General Hospital each received four victims in their trauma centers. One student was airlifted to the trauma center at Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley. Two students went to Sequoia Hospital and another was taken to Kaiser in Redwood City.

By Wednesday evening, none of the students were in life-threatening condition, according to DeSmidt. DeSmidt said no charges have been filed, and none are likely until the police department can complete its investigation of the incident.

School prepares to help emotional classmates
As Ralston Middle School students return to school today, staff and counselors will be on hand to help them cope with the shock of witnessing an out-of-control sport utility vehicle injuring their classmates Wednesday.

Students were taking state-mandated standardized tests this week, but those tests will be canceled today and Friday to give students time to reflect on the accident and expresstheir anxiety and feelings, Ralston Middle School Principal Maggie O’Reilly said.

“It’s very shocking to have a car go airborne and then strike their friends,” O’Reilly said. “We will spend the day talking about the incident with the kids.”

School faculty immediately leapt into action following the accident, in which a 2005 Honda Pilot, driven by Mauro Yan of Redwood Shores, barreled into a crowd of students waiting to board a bus and sent 13 of them to area hospitals. Yan was there to pick up a student after classes, but it’s unclear what his relationship to the student or the school is, Belmont Police Department Lt. Dan DeSmidt said.

Although several of the students taken to hospitals were treated for injuries sustained during the accident, others were hospitalized primarily for shock and anxiety, said Doug Fry, Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department Chief. Two of them witnessed the accident from inside one of the buses, O’Reilly said.

Margaret Goldsmith, president of the Ralston Middle School PTA, said parents quickly circulated the news following Wednesday’s accident. Both she and her daughter know all of the students who were involved.

Her daughter is “concerned, but doing OK,” Goldsmith said. “It’s tragic and scary and shocking.”

Belmont Mayor Coralin Feierbach worried about the long-term psychological effects an incident like this would have on the students, particularly so soon after a gunman opened fire at Virginia Tech April 14, killing 33 people, including himself.

“It scares children. They hear that someone comes in and shoots people at school, and then this happens,” Feierbach said.

The accident also raises questions about the safety of after-school transportation for students.

Ralston Middle School’s students were hit while waiting to board the SamTrans buses the school uses in place of typical yellow school buses. The campus has a horseshoe-shaped parking area that is typically packed with buses and parents picking up their kids after school, Goldsmith said.

Feierbach agreed that traffic near the school gets heavy when students leave for the day.

“Maybe we need to look at busing again — maybe that would help,” Feierbach said.

— Beth Winegarner

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

May 2, 2007 at 10:57 PM

Posted in Belmont, Breaking news

Tanker driver has criminal past

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
April 30, 2007

The tanker driver whose accident is expected to wreak havoc on the East Bay-San Francisco commute for months to come — and who has a criminal history including a nearly three-year stint in prison — is likely to face a simple citation or a misdemeanor for his involvement in the collapse and closure of sections of the MacArthur Maze.

Early California Highway Patrol reports suggest James Mosqueda, 51, may have been speeding, but there is no evidence that he was driving under the influence. The speed limit on the portion of the Maze he was driving is 50 miles an hour.

Only Mosqueda was injured in the gasoline tanker accident — he suffered second-degree burns to his hands, arms and face.

“Take away the big dramatics, and we’re talking about a property-damage-only collision,” said Mike Wright, officer with the CHP. Such accidents warrant no more than a citation, he added.

“If someone gets hurt or dies, you can look at a felony, but we’re not looking at that here,” Wright said.

Mosqueda served two years and eight months in prison following a 1996 arrest for heroin possession in Sacramento County, court records show. His criminal rap sheet, which stretches back to 1981, includes arrests for burglary, felony drug charges and possession of stolen property, according to the California Department of Corrections and the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office.

The Woodland resident has been driving trucks for South San Francisco-based Sabek Transportation for 10 months. He was able to obtain his commercial trucker’s license despite a history of criminal activity because the California Vehicle Code does not prevent a convicted felon who has served his sentence from working as a truck driver as long as he has a clear driving record, CHP Chief Steve Vaughn said.

After the accident, Mosqueda walked more than a mile to a gas station on Grand Avenue, where he flagged down a taxi and was driven to Kaiser Hospital in Oakland. He was later transferred to St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco. He remains in stable condition.

Mosqueda’s family released a statement Monday, saying they “are grateful that no one else was hurt and thank God that James is on the road to recovery.”

Caltrans officials could not be reached to determine whether they might hold Mosqueda or Sabek Transportation responsible for damage caused in Sunday’s crash.

Officials with Sabek did not return calls for comment Monday.

This is not Sabek’s first tanker accident in the Bay Area. In June of 2006, a Sabek truck overturned on the freeway connector from westbound I-780 to eastbound I-80 in Vallejo, dumping 4,500 gallons of diesel fuel onto the roadway and into nearby Vallejo Creek, according to a U.S. Coast Guard report.

Although Sabek Transportation assumed responsibility for the creek cleanup, it’s unknown whether the Coast Guard filed charges against the company for the spill, a violation of federal law, according to Dana Michaels, spokeswoman with the California Department of Fish and Game.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

April 30, 2007 at 11:44 PM

Posted in Breaking news, Crime