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Life-saving seconds
New gear gets rescue divers into water quicker in emergency situations
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

In 32 seconds, Waco fire Lt. Mike Herbert went from standing on the bank of Lake Waco in department T-shirt and uniform pants, to ready to wade in, equipped to spend about 20 minutes underwater if needed.

But the goal was to get the job done much quicker, and less than a minute and a half after starting, Herbert pulled a training manikin from the murky waters of the lake.

“Seconds and minutes do matter in rescue attempts,” said Herbert, who has been with the department 26 years. “You can only see about an inch and a half in front of you, so you really have to get in there to feel for what you are searching for fast.”

Equipped with the department’s new Aqua Lung Rapid Diver Pro scuba system, Herbert and fellow firefighters with the newly established Waco dive team worked a training scenario Tuesday afternoon on the shores near Twin Bridges Park. The equipment puts all the elements of a scuba system into a package that can be pulled from a case, strapped on and ready to go quickly enough to give divers a chance to rescue victims in emergency circumstances.

“The Rapid Diver is for quick deployment in an emergency situation, rather than recovery. Like if a car runs off into the lake or river, as long as the current is not too swift to endanger the diver, we will be able to make a rapid rescue attempt,” Herbert said. “We carry it in a battalion chief’s vehicle that would respond to an incident like that, and it is designed to be put on in less than a minute to a minute and a half.”

The Waco Fire Department has one Rapid Diver setup, with one more on order, and dive team members hope to be equipped with one ready to deploy from all 14 fire stations soon.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Dive team members toss a training manikin into Lake Waco. Using the department’s new Rapid Diver system, Lt. Mike Herbert was able to pull on scuba gear and pull the manikin from the water in about a minute and a half.

The department implemented the city’s first dive team in September, complete with about eight divers. But most scuba gear is cumbersome and slow to deploy, so traditional dive team work is focused on recovery rather than rescue.

The new equipment will provide direct access to possible victims in need of help, Battalion Chief Patrick Kerwin said.

“The dive team is so important in the city of Waco, because every year we have multiple drownings and if there is a victim, we can give more comfort to the family with recovering the victim in a shorter period of time than waiting for a dive team to come from outside the city limits,” said Kerwin, the dive team coordinator. “With the rapid dive system, we can have a larger chance of saving a victim than focusing on recovery.”

The city bought the first Rapid Diver system in November at a cost of $1,795.50 to be housed in a battalion chief’s vehicle for emergency rescues. A second unit was ordered this week for a total cost of $1,849 and will be kept on a 26-foot Lake Assault boat that debuted in March to be used on lake patrols.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Waco fire Lt. Mike Herbert (left) situates the department’s Rapid Diver system as Waco fire Batallion Chief Patrick Kerwin points out tools, including a glass breaker and seat-belt cutter. The system arranges scuba gear in a package that is much lighter and easier to don than traditional gear.

Firefighter Toby Craig, who has been a sport diver since 1978, said the dive team provides a service that has been lacking in Waco for years, and the Rapid Divers are a superior option for emergency situations.

“In the last several years, all the drownings we’ve had, we’ve had to wait for hours to get a dive team up here,” Craig said. “We’ve had dive teams come from Austin, Morgan’s Point and other places, and that is a long time to wait.”

Last week, fire crews deployed the Rapid Diver system for the first time when a car was found submerged in the Brazos River, near Brazos Park East. Although no one was found in the car, the first deployment demonstrated the type of situation when the equipment could save a life, said Battalion Chief Don Yeager, who supervised the search.

“We responded on the assumption that the vehicle had gone off into the water, about 20 feet or so from the bank,” Yeager said. “We knew exactly where it was at, but we did not know if anyone occupied the vehicle or not.”

Kerwin said the ability to rescue someone in a matter of minutes is a driving force for the dive team.

“Firefighters definitely have the saying that seconds or minutes save lives, and that is true with the Rapid Diver,” Kerwin said. “When a vehicle is witnessed going into a body of water, the rapid diver can be deployed and firefighters will be able to don the equipment and get in and hopefully save a life.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Divers communicate with their team above water through tugs on their tether.

House passes emergency funding bill for migrant care crisis

WASHINGTON — It took last-minute changes and a full-court press by top Democratic leaders, but the House passed with relative ease Tuesday a $4.5 billion emergency border aid package to care for thousands of migrant families and unaccompanied children detained after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The bill passed along party lines after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quelled a mini-revolt by progressives and Hispanic lawmakers who sought significant changes to the legislation. New provisions added to the bill Tuesday were more modest than what those lawmakers had sought, but the urgent need for the funding — to prevent the humanitarian emergency on the border from turning into a debacle — appeared to outweigh any lingering concerns.

The 230-195 vote sets up a showdown with the Republican-led Senate, which may try instead to force Democrats to send Trump a different, and broadly bipartisan, companion measure in coming days as the chambers race to wrap up the must-do legislation by the end of the week.

“The Senate has a good bill. Our bill is much better,” Pelosi, D-Calif., told her Democratic colleagues in a meeting Tuesday morning, according to a senior Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private session.

“We are ensuring that children have food, clothing, sanitary items, shelter and medical care. We are providing access to legal assistance. And we are protecting families because families belong together,” Pelosi said in a subsequent floor speech.

The bill contains more than $1 billion to shelter and feed migrants detained by the border patrol and almost $3 billion to care for unaccompanied migrant children who are turned over the Department of Health and Human Services. It seeks to mandate improved standards of care at HHS “influx shelters” that house children waiting to be placed with sponsors such as family members in the U.S.

Both House and Senate bills ensure funding could not be shifted to Trump’s border wall and would block information on sponsors of immigrant children from being used to deport them. Trump would be denied additional funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds.

“The President’s cruel immigration policies that tear apart families and terrorize communities demand the stringent safeguards in this bill to ensure these funds are used for humanitarian needs only — not for immigration raids, not detention beds, not a border wall,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.

Three moderates were the only House Republicans to back the measure. The only four Democratic “no” votes came from some of the party’s best-known freshmen: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

The White House has threatened to veto the House bill, saying it would hamstring the administration’s border security efforts, and the Senate’s top Republican suggested Tuesday that the House should simply accept the Senate measure — which received only a single “nay” vote during a committee vote last week.

“The idea here is to get a (presidential) signature, so I think once we can get that out of the Senate, hopefully on a vote similar to the one in the Appropriations Committee, I’m hoping that the House will conclude that’s the best way to get the problem solved, which can only happen with a signature,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

A handful of GOP conservatives went to the White House to try to persuade Trump to reject the Senate bill and demand additional funding for immigration enforcement such as overtime for border agents and detention facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a top GOP lawmaker who demanded anonymity to discuss a private meeting. Trump was expected to reject the advice.

House Democrats seeking the changes met late Monday with Pelosi, and lawmakers emerging from the Tuesday morning caucus meeting were generally supportive of the legislation.

Congress plans to leave Washington in a few days for a weeklong July 4 recess, and pressure is intense to wrap up the legislation before then. Agencies are about to run out of money and failure to act could bring a swift political rebuke and accusations of ignoring the plight of innocent immigrant children.

Longtime GOP Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said Democrats were simply “pushing partisan bills to score political points and avoiding doing the hard work of actually making law,” warning them that “passing a partisan bill through this chamber won’t solve the problem.”

Lawmakers’ sense of urgency to provide humanitarian aid was amplified by recent reports of gruesome conditions in a windowless Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, where more than 300 infants and children were being housed. Many were kept there for weeks and were caring for each other in conditions that included inadequate food, water and sanitation.

By Tuesday, most had been sent elsewhere. The incident was only an extreme example of the dire conditions reported at numerous locations where detainees have been held, and several children have died in U.S. custody.

The Border Patrol reported apprehending nearly 133,000 people last month — including many Central American families — as monthly totals have begun topping 100,000 for the first time since 2007. Federal agencies involved in immigration have reported being overwhelmed, depleting their budgets and housing large numbers of detainees in structures meant for handfuls of people.

Changes unveiled Tuesday would require the Department of Homeland Security to establish new standards for care of unaccompanied immigrant children and a plan for ensuring adequate translators to assist migrants in their dealings with law enforcement. The government would have to replace contractors who provide inadequate care.

Many children detained entering the U.S. from Mexico have been held under harsh conditions, and Customs and Border Protection Chief Operating Officer John Sanders told The Associated Press last week that children have died after being in the agency’s care. He said Border Patrol stations are holding 15,000 people — more than triple their maximum capacity of 4,000.

Sanders announced Tuesday that he’s stepping down next month amid outrage over his agency’s treatment of detained migrant children.

In a letter Monday threatening the veto, White House officials told lawmakers they objected that the House package lacked money for beds the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency needs to let it detain more migrants. Officials also complained in the letter that the bill had no money to toughen border security, including funds for building Trump’s proposed border wall.

editor's pick
Allergan, with Waco plant, could be sold in $63 billion deal
 Mike Copeland  / 

Allergan, the pharmaceutical giant that employs more than 700 at its Waco plant, is poised to sell to Chicago-based AbbVie in a $63 billion deal, the companies announced Tuesday.

Allergan, with a plant in Waco since 1989, makes eyecare brands Restasis and Latisse locally. AbbVie, a spinoff of Abbott Laboratories, made $20 billion selling arthritis drug Humira last year, accounting for about 60% of its total revenue, according to The New York Times. Competing drugs are already available in Europe, cutting into global sales, and are scheduled to become available in the United States in 2023, the Times reported.

AbbVie and Allergan have entered into a definitive agreement under which AbbVie will acquire Allergan in a cash and stock transaction valued at $63 billion, a figure based on the $78.45 closing price of AbbVie’s common stock on Monday, according to a press release from both companies.

The two companies this year will have $48 billion in combined revenues, a presence in 175 countries, “an industry-leading R&D pipeline and robust cash flows,” Allergan CEO Brent Saunders wrote in the press release.

“Our combined company will have the opportunity to make even bigger contributions to global health than either can alone,” Saunders wrote.

He said Allergan’s suite of products to improve appearance and treat glaucoma, dry eye and central nervous system and gastrointestinal problems should fit well with AbbVie’s offerings. The buyout should create more opportunities to engage in research and innovative science, according to the press release.

The deal still requires approval from regulators and from Allergan shareholders and is expected close early next year, according to the companies.

Media reports Tuesday blared news of AbbVie acquiring the maker of Botox, the popular wrinkle-reducing product. Botox is not made in Waco, but Restasis, Latisse, Lumigan, Optive and Refresh Tears are.

Though Allergan is domiciled in Ireland for tax purposes, its corporate functions are headquartered in New Jersey. A proposed $150 billion merger with Pfizer was called off in 2016, about the same time the Obama administration approved regulations aimed at preventing “tax inversions,” mergers that make larger companies subsidiaries of smaller foreign companies in an effort to avoid taxes.

The existing Waco facility opened in 1989 with a 69-acre campus and a total floor space of 407,000 square feet. It has expanded and launched new product lines periodically, but Allergan called off a $200 million, 322,000-square-foot expansion after it held a groundbreaking for the expansion in 2016 that CEO Saunders attended

After the project failed to materialize, Allergan said it would take a more methodical approach to growing the Waco operation.

Kris Collins, senior vice president for economic development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday’s news came as no surprise.

“I’ve been reading about a possible breakup of the company, the selling off of assets. There are many mergers and acquisitions in that field,” she said.

She said Allergan is a notable name and source of civic pride.

“There are not a lot of pharmaceutical manufacturing operations in Texas, and we’re proud to have one of the most renowned brands,” Collins said.

Beyond that, she said, it is too early to comment on the impact.

In an email response to questions, Allergan spokeswoman Amy Rose said the requests for more details “are premature given the transaction was just announced this morning and the pre-integration planning process has not begun. Completion of the transaction is expected in early 2020, subject to the receipt of required regulatory approvals and the approval of Allergan shareholders. Until then, the companies will continue to operate separately, and Allergan sites will continue to operate as normal.”

AbbVie officials did not return calls seeking comment.

AbbVie would pay $120.30 in cash and a portion of AbbVie stock for each Allergan share, for a total value of $188.24, according to the press release. That amounts to a 45% premium to Allergan’s closing price Monday, according to the Associated Press.

AbbVie Chairman and CEO Richard Gonzalez would remain chairman and CEO at AbbVie, and two Allergan board members, including Saunders, would join AbbVie’s board if the buyout goes through.

AbbVie shareholders are expected to own 83% of the combined company, with Allergan shareholders owning the remainder, according to the press release.

Shares of Allergan soared over 25.4% on the news, while AbbVie tumbled 16.3%, AP reported.

editor's pick
Waco leaders hopeful as L3-Harris merger set to become official Saturday
 Mike Copeland  / 

A merger involving L3 Technologies that may toss a lifeline to Waco operations will become official Saturday, after winning approval of the U.S. Justice Department, European Union and shareholders with both companies.

L3 Technologies and Florida-based Harris Corp. will become L3Harris Technologies Inc., making it the sixth-largest defense contractor in the U.S. with about 48,000 employees and customers in more than 100 countries, L3 reported in a news release that appears on its website. The EU gave its approval last Friday, the last hurdle facing the merger deal.

L3Harris common stock will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under ticket symbol LHX. L3 common stock will cease trading at market close on Friday. Each share in L3 will convert to 1.3 shares in L3Harris.

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, a Republican whose Congressional district includes Waco, sees blue skies ahead as L3 and Harris adjust to their combining of forces to benefit both. He also believes Waco stands to improve its recruitment of younger engineers who may choose to work in larger Texas cities.

“It has been a challenge,” said Flores. “But Waco is a much more vibrant community than it used to be. Over time, maybe younger technicians and engineers can grow to choose our lifestyle over that of more crowded places such as Austin, Dallas or Houston. I think we’re getting there, and I think this merger will help. But as I said, it has been a challenge.”

Flores worked behind the scenes to secure a $499 million Defense Department contract to upgrade avionics on 176 C-130 aircraft over the next decade.

“Executives with both Harris and L3, in my conversations, have spoken of the hidden gem that is Waco,” Flores said by phone. “The facilities, the location, the fact it is on an airport — a big airport, at that — and most importantly, the highly qualified workforce” all work in its favor.

The Texas State Technical College airport is the legacy of James Connally Air Force Base, which closed in the 1960s. It has parallel runways 8,600 and 6,291 feet in length and is served by Federal Aviation Administration-licensed controllers from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. The runway can handle wide-body jets weighing up to 450,000 pounds, according to a TSTC online description.


Flores said L3 executives tell him they are pursuing other “Waco-centric” contracts that could generate business locally. L3 now employs more than 700 full-time staffers, has 100 independent contractors on site and is advertising to fill positions, according to news releases and online postings.

“L3 Waco has a Navy contract to provide depot maintenance on a fleet of F-18s, but that work is under review,” Flores said. “The Navy has not delivered any planes, as far as I know, and we are still working with the Navy to see if maintenance is the best approach. This has been going on about 18 months. If the Navy decides that had rather have a new generation F-18 instead of overhauling the existing version, L3 is not likely to see much work.”

Mayor Kyle Deaver said Waco is poised to reap benefits from the merger.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 

The Waco L3 aircraft modification plant will be part of a merger with Harris Corp.

“A lot more work is coming to Waco,” he said. “We were the successful bidder on the ($499 million) project, and we have the expertise and capacity to handle quite a bit more. We’re in a good position to attract it.”

Todd Stoner, an adviser with Disciplined Investors, said he wishes the company well and believes the merger will benefit Waco long-term.

He will not advise his clients to immediately plunk down buy orders.

“I used to have clients who invested in L3, being in the defense and aerospace industry, but there have been struggles the past three years, and the Waco operations have not been getting as much business as they had hoped,” said Stoner, speaking by phone. “The resulting company still is not one of the largest defense companies. It is a smaller player compared with Lockheed Martin, Boeing and United Technologies. The pending merger between United Technologies and Raytheon will have a bigger effect on the industry.”

Raytheon and United Technologies announced they would merge to create Raytheon Technologies, the second-largest defense contractor in the U.S., behind Boeing. The deal is valued at $120 billion.

The all-stock merger of L3 and Harris is valued at $34 billion. Harris reports annual revenue of $6 billion, while L3 enjoyed $10.2 billion in sales in 2018.

“There have been studies showing that the stock of merging companies underperforms a few years,” said Stoner. “The worry is that people get sidetracked, become preoccupied with combining the companies and reorganizing, not growing. It can be a mess for a while. Some companies are good at it. They are serial acquirers. They bring in another company, simplify things, cut expenses, remove overlap. The banking industry comes to mind.”

Conversely, said Stoner, defense stocks generally have performed well as spending has increased and sequestration ended. The Budget Control Act of 2011 triggered automatic cuts in the federal budget beginning in 2013.

L3 and Harris, in news releases, have said they hope to create $3 billion in “free cash flow” following the merger through “organic growth, cost synergies, working capital improvements and capital expenditure efficiencies.”

At the direction of the Justice Department, Harris already has agreed to sell its night vision business as New York-based L3 also produces night vision goggles.

Associated Press —

Cedar Attanasio, file 

Central American migrants wait for food in a pen erected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to process a surge of migrant families and unaccompanied minors in El Paso in March.

editor's pick
Transformation Waco schools show significant progress on STAAR exams
 Brooke Crum  / 

Students in Transformation Waco schools have made significant strides in their performance on state standardized exams in the past two years, even surpassing state average scores on some tests this year, CEO Robin McDurham said at a board meeting Tuesday night.

Three of the five Transformation Waco schools that are part of an in-district charter system designed to improve student achievement showed gains in reading and math scores over last year’s state standardized test scores, according to preliminary data released by the Texas Education Agency.

“We’ve come a long way since two years ago, when all five zone schools were at the bottom 5% in the state,” McDurham said. “The idea that we’re beating state averages in some areas right now — that’s a celebration.”

The preliminary test scores come a year after the TEA approved a plan between the Waco Independent School District and Prosper Waco, a nonprofit, to form Transformation Waco, an in-district charter partnership for the district’s five chronically underperforming schools. The first-of-its-kind partnership in the state shields the schools from closure for two years under Senate Bill 1882, which passed into law in 2017.

Three of those schools — Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School and Indian Spring Middle School — showed improvement in their reading and math scores from last year. But the reading and math scores for both J.H. Hines Elementary School and G.W. Carver Middle School decreased from the previous school year.

Brook Avenue students demonstrated increases in performance in six out of the eight State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness elementary school students take, McDurham said. Meanwhile, Alta Vista performed above the state average score on fifth grade reading and math exams.

Prized pupils

But the real prize of the pack was Indian Spring Middle School, McDurham said.

“Indian Spring was the only school in the district that maintained or increased in every performance category, and they out-performed the state average in eighth grade reading, math and algebra,” she said.

Based on the preliminary data, Alta Vista Elementary School fifth graders made the biggest gains, with reading passing rates increasing by 18 percentage points to 62% passing. Eighth graders at Indian Spring Middle School showed the next biggest gains by increasing their math passing rate by 15 percentage points, up to 76%.

“In Transformation Waco, 100% of our algebra students met the performance standard, beating the state average of 84%,” McDurham said. “We’re really thrilled to have seen that type of progress.”

Hundreds of students in Transformation Waco schools chose to spend their spring breaks at school to sharpen their literacy and math skills in preparation for the state exams. Administrators selected about 90 students from each school who showed the most potential for improvement to attend the academy, bringing total participation to about 450 students in third through eighth grades.

Transformation Waco board member Mary Fisher asked if the board would receive information on how the students who attended the spring break academy performed on the standardized exams. McDurham said that data would be presented to the board in August.

Accountability ratings

But it is too soon to tell how the Transformation Waco schools will be graded by the state in its accountability ratings, McDurham said.

The state determines school districts’ accountability ratings based on three “domains”: student achievement, school progress and closing the gap, according to the TEA website. Student achievement is based on STAAR scores, graduation rates, and college, career and military readiness of graduates. School progress looks at how many students at each campus improved on their STAAR scores and how each campus performed compared to similar campuses and districts. Closing the gap examines how school districts help disenfranchised students achieve academic success.

Accountability ratings will be released Aug. 15.

“This data set is one picture of the accountability measure, but you cannot take this data set and try to project accountability because there are three separate domains in the accountability measure, and growth contributes a great bit toward that,” she said. “This is straight-up how many students met the ‘approaches passing’ standard, as opposed to the whole picture of growth. We can’t, with confidence, tell you what the state rating is going to be until we hear from the state in August.”

Alta Vista44621869701
Bell’s Hill77871088913
Brook Avenue37481159645
Cedar Ridge6157-46965-4
Dean Highland6953-167067-3
Hillcrest PDS7974-57771-6
J.H. Hines5249-35251-1
Lake Air Mont.626647364-9
Provident Hts.7764-137867-11
South Waco54651167714
West Avenue7252-207877-1
Cesar Chavez62675637916
G.W. Carver5853-55753-4
Indian Spring67714617615
Lake Air Mont.85883728311

Waco ISD photo