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History-themed escape room offers exciting experience at Morrill Hall

Kevin Loope and his family only had a little bit of time left to change history, but they were stumped.

They had spent the past hour in a small room solving puzzles and riddles, searching every nook and cranny for clues and running headfirst into dead ends. The trail was cold and the last black grains of sand in an hourglass dropped to the bottom. Time was up and the history books remained unchanged.

But they still had fun, and even learned a thing or two. That's the goal of the “Dr. Barbour and the Devil’s Corkscrew” escape room, the newest attraction at Morrill Hall.

The escape room is for older crowds ages 14 and older and is part of the museum’s effort to offer more adult programs and bring in college students, according to museum volunteer coordinator Sarah Feit. She said half of the escape room groups are University of Nebraska-Lincoln students.

“I knew that I wanted to be a part of it in terms of thinking up fun programs that people in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s and above would want to come to the museum to do,” she said.

The scenario is set in a professor’s study during the end of the 1890s. Groups are tasked with finding the lost notebook of Dr. Erwin Barbour, one of the first directors of the museum. Barbour is famous for being the first director to make a serious effort at building up the university’s then-minuscule fossil collection.

He also likely discovered what would become the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in western Nebraska, according to the escape room’s designer and museum preparator Rob Skolnick. But the credit for the discovery goes to the paleontologists at the Carnegie Museum, who were the first to excavate and recover some of the fossils there.

“They show up and they can't believe their eyes. There are thousands of these bones and it's one of the richest bone beds in the world. It has become one of the most significant paleontology sites in North America,” Skolnick said. “So what has happened here is Barbour missed his chance to get credit for the discovery of this amazing bone bed.”

But, according to Skolnick, the missing notebook contains the proof needed to redeem Barbour. All it takes is a group to find it.

“You get to step back in history and try to rewrite it a little bit,” he said.

The room is an imagined recreation of Barbour’s study. A typewriter sits on one of the four water-stained desks, fossils fill antique barrister shelves and photographs from Barbour’s digs hang from the walls.

With the exception of a few contemporary puzzles, all the fossils and props come from Morrill Hall’s collection. And while Barbour’s notebook prop itself isn’t an authentic artifact, each of its pages are photocopied from the late museum director’s handwritten field book.

“It's not a fantasy that's made up like you're trying to save the world from a mad scientist,” Skolnick said. “This is an absolute piece of history and this stuff happened. Everything you see is real.”

Each of the room’s clues can be solved out of order and participants will still be able to reach the end regardless of what direction they take. While all roads lead to the same conclusion, the experience has some built in roadblocks, courtesy of Skolnick’s design.

“There are a lot of dead ends,” Skolnick said. “My twisted sense of humor is built in.”

The clues target every kind of puzzle solver. Aside from challenging number puzzles, some clues appeal to more detail-oriented people looking to search every dark crevice and look under every rock to see what’s there, according to Feit.

“We have a variety of different clues to try to get you to the end goal. We can play to a lot of peoples' puzzling strengths,” she said.

With an uncompromising time constraint and increasingly difficult puzzles, the odds of a group completing an escape room are not in the guests’ favor. Only about 38 to 40 percent of escape room sessions end successfully, according to Skolnick, and his isn’t any different.

“It'll test all levels and that's pretty much how I designed it,” he said. “Although through the evaluation process, we've had very few negative comments, it's almost all 100 percent positive.”

Loope, a Georgia biologist who came to the museum to spend time with family, said it was the perfect group activity for a museum.

“It’s nice to have something like that there that wasn’t just walking around the museum and looking at exhibits,” he said.

Loope attested to the difficulty of the room, having not successfully completed it himself.

“It’s pretty fast and furious at first, but we hit a wall at the end,” he said. “People can get distracted and it’s tough to coordinate when it gets like that, but it’s still fun and exciting.”

The escape room is open to the public Thursday through Sunday and groups must book 24 hours ahead of time. It will run through the summer before the museum decides whether to keep it, according to Skolnick. He said he can see activities like escape rooms becoming more commonplace in museums and has shown off the room to faculty members from other museums.

“Most of them work for museums and universities and they were all excited, so I wouldn't be surprised if other places will do it,” he said.

Offering an escape room not only gets people in the door to check out the museum, but it also offers them a chance to take a break from looking at exhibits and enjoy themselves, Skolnick said.

“It was fun for me to do as a project. It was a lot of work, it took a lot of my own time but it was well worth it,” he said. “They are not even going to realize they're learning a little natural history, but it's all part of it. You're really surrounded by it. It's authentic, and it's fun.”

Ethiopian Airlines crash kills 157, spreads global grief

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — An Ethiopian Airlines jet faltered and crashed Sunday shortly after takeoff from the country's capital, carving a gash in the earth and spreading global grief to 35 countries that had someone among the 157 people who were killed.

There was no immediate indication why the plane went down in clear weather while on a flight to Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya. The crash was strikingly similar to that of a Lion Air jet that plunged into the sea off Indonesia minutes after takeoff last year, killing 189 people. Both accidents involved the Boeing 737 Max 8.

The crash shattered more than two years of relative calm in African skies, where travel had long been chaotic. It also was a serious blow to state-owned Ethiopian Airlines, which has expanded to become the continent's largest and best-managed carrier and turned Addis Ababa into the gateway to Africa.

"Ethiopian Airlines is one of the safest airlines in the world. At this stage we cannot rule out anything," CEO Tewolde Gebremariam told reporters. He visited the crash site, standing in the gaping crater flecked with debris.

Black body bags were spread out nearby while Red Cross and other workers looked for remains. As the sun set, the airline's chief operating officer said the plane's flight data recorder had not yet been found.

Around the world, families were gripped by grief. At the Addis Ababa airport, a woman called a mobile number in vain. "Where are you, my son?" she said, in tears. Others cried as they approached the terminal.

Henom Esayas, whose sister's Nigerian husband was killed, told The Associated Press they were startled when a stranger picked up their frantic calls to his mobile phone, told them he had found it in the debris and promptly switched it off.

Shocked leaders of the United Nations, the U.N. refugee agency and the World Food Program announced that colleagues had been on the plane. The U.N. migration agency estimated some 19 U.N.-affiliated employees were killed. Both Addis Ababa and Nairobi are major hubs for humanitarian workers, and many people were on their way to a large U.N. environmental conference set to begin Monday in Nairobi.

The Addis Ababa-Nairobi route links East Africa's two largest economic powers. Sunburned travelers and tour groups crowd the Addis Ababa airport's waiting areas, along with businessmen from China, Gulf nations and elsewhere.

A list of the dead released by Ethiopian Airlines included passengers from China, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Israel, India and Somalia. Kenya lost 32 citizens. Canada, 18. Several countries including the United States lost four or more people.

Ethiopian officials declared today a day of mourning, and the United Nations and its agencies will fly flags at half-staff today.

At the Nairobi airport, hopes quickly dimmed for loved ones. "I just pray that he is safe or he was not on it," said Agnes Muilu, who had come to pick up her brother.

The crash is likely to renew questions about the 737 Max, the newest version of Boeing's popular single-aisle airliner, which was first introduced in 1967 and has become the world's most common passenger jet.

Indonesian investigators have not determined a cause for the October crash, but days after the accident Boeing sent a notice to airlines that faulty information from a sensor could cause the plane to automatically point the nose down.

The Lion Air cockpit data recorder showed that the jet's airspeed indicator had malfunctioned on its last four flights, though the airline initially said problems had been fixed.

Safety experts cautioned against drawing too many comparisons between the two crashes until more is known about Sunday's disaster.

The Ethiopian Airlines CEO "stated there were no defects prior to the flight, so it is hard to see any parallels with the Lion Air crash yet," said Harro Ranter, founder of the Aviation Safety Network, which compiles information about accidents worldwide.

The Ethiopian plane was new, delivered to the airline in November. The Boeing 737 Max 8 was one of 30 meant for the airline, Boeing said in July. The jet's last maintenance was on Feb. 4, and it had flown just 1,200 hours.

The plane crashed six minutes after departure , plowing into the ground at Hejere near Bishoftu, or Debre Zeit, some 31 miles outside Addis Ababa, at 8:44 a.m.

The jet showed unstable vertical speed after takeoff, air traffic monitor Flightradar 24 said. The senior Ethiopian pilot, who joined the airline in 2010, sent out a distress call and was given clearance to return to the airport, the airline's CEO told reporters.

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration said it would join the National Transportation Safety Board in assisting Ethiopian authorities with the crash investigation. Boeing planned to send a technical team to Ethiopia.

The last deadly crash of an Ethiopian Airlines passenger flight was in 2010, when a plane went down minutes after takeoff from Beirut, killing all 90 people on board.

KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star 

Nebraska's Johnny Trueblood (4) and Amir Harris celebrate their 93-91 overtime win over Iowa on Sunday at Pinnacle Bank Arena. 

Associated Press 

Wreckage lies at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed shortly after takeoff Sunday at Hejere near Bishoftu, or Debre Zeit, some 31 miles south of Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia.

editor's picktopical
Nebraska hospitals concerned about law enforcement dumping patients to avoid paying the bill

It's an interesting question of who pays the hospital bill of an uninsured suspect brought to an emergency department by law enforcement. 

If the person is in police custody, and someone notices the person has frostbite and needs treatment, does that agency pay for that uninsured patient, or the hospital? What if they're dropped off, and the officer says the person isn't in custody, but asks hospital personnel to call after they are treated and ready to be dismissed, and then arrests the patient? 

Does the hospital get stuck with the bill? 

"I brought the bill just so we could find out, well, who really is responsible, and when does custody start and when doesn't it start," said Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward. 

The bill (LB216) was suggested to Kolterman by the Nebraska Hospital Association because of complaints by some hospitals, especially in smaller communities.

But the questions come up in Lincoln, too. 

"It's a big issue that either costs the taxpayers money through their nonprofit hospital or through law enforcement budgets," said Bryan Health Vice President Bob Ravenscroft. 

He couldn't cite a cost to Bryan Health for patients without insurance brought in by law enforcement, he said. The hospital doesn't go back to track costs for patients who go right to the hospital from an incident to find out if they were later arrested. 

"But we do know it happens," he said. 

There are times when law enforcement from smaller towns bring a mentally ill person to Bryan because they have nowhere else to take them for care, he said. 

The bill would prohibit law enforcement from releasing a person in custody to a health care provider so the agency can avoid the cost of medical services. Nebraska law says once a person is in custody, law enforcement is responsible for the cost of treatment unless the person has health insurance. 

Some hospitals around the state are having problems with law enforcement dropping off people in custody at emergency departments for treatment, but claiming the person is not in custody, Kolterman said. It's happened in Cherry, Dawson, Nemaha, Valley, Saline, Lincoln and York counties, to name a few. 

"The question is, are they doing this to specifically avoid paying for the cost of medical services," he said. 

And then, if the person is violent or causes a problem, who is responsible for the patient?

Lincoln Police Capt. Jason Stille said the laws are pretty clear that if officers cause injuries to a person during apprehension or arrest, the agency is responsible for that person's hospital care. 

The cost of medical bills for apprehensions and other injuries or treatments for people who medically cannot be confined, paid by the department, is sizable, he said. 

There are a lot of variables that have to be considered on the issue of who pays for hospital care, he said. But offloading a suspect at a hospital and saying an officer will pick the person up later to avoid paying for treatment is not how the Lincoln Police Department operates, he said. 

"For the most part I think things work the way that they should work here in Lincoln," Stille said. "We are very in tune to the needs of the hospital making sure that we don't leave a dangerous environment."

Ravenscroft agreed that Bryan has a great relationship with local law enforcement. 

Some hospitals in other areas have had instances, though, in which a person who was dropped off has physically harmed staff or other patients or caused property damage. 

Kolterman said mental illness has played a role in this, as has the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Andy Hale, vice president of the Nebraska Hospital Association, said during a hearing on the bill that a person dropped off by law enforcement could run amok in a hospital when not handcuffed or guarded. 

Hospitals in at least 10 counties have said it's a serious issue, he said. 

A fiscal note attached to the bill estimates the cost to the Nebraska State Patrol resulting from the bill to be $200,000-$700,000 annually, based on recent incidents involving the apprehension of a suspect.

The cost could fluctuate significantly from year to year, the patrol said, and would vary in each law enforcement incident, depending on the severity of injuries or wounds sustained by a person being apprehended and taken into custody. The number of incidents would also affect the costs.

Mel McNea, CEO of Great Plains Health in North Platte, said at the hearing there's an increase in opioid use in Lincoln County, doubling since 2014. When people brought into the hospital are detoxing from drug or alcohol use, they can get violent, he said. 

"We are not equipped to be a detox center, and there isn't (a detox center) in western Nebraska at all," McNea said. 

When a person is admitted and not in custody, they have all the rights of a regular patient, he said. They must have access to a phone, the internet and visitors.

"We actually had one drug deal go down in our hospital because we could not prevent it," McNea said. 

Paula Bagnell, representing hospital nurses, described an incident at Great Plains Health recently in which she came to work in a 32-bed unit of intensive care and progressive care beds at 5:30 a.m. A patient there had been transferred from the jail in the middle of the night because he'd had a seizure. 

The patient — a muscular, 5-foot-11-inch, 250-pound man — was released from custody to be admitted to the hospital. Out of jail, he began calling friends and inviting them to his room. 

The next afternoon, it appeared to Bagnell the patient had taken a hit of methamphetamine, she said. When she tried to address the issue, he backed her out of the room, her hands on his chest, down one hall and up another while she tried to get him controlled so he wouldn't hurt someone in the unit. 

The incident lasted about 20 minutes, she said. Eventually the police showed up and took the patient back to jail.

"It was only by the grace of God that something bad didn't happen that day," Bagnell said. 

Kolterman said the bill needs some work, and it probably won't be prioritized this session. He will talk to Judiciary Committee members and others involved over the interim to get the bill in shape for next session, he said.