THE REGION

D.C. Cracks National Top 5 for Tourism

The nation's capital is now the fourth-most popular tourism destination in the United States, and the hospitality industry is hoping to improve its position by promoting the summer of 2006 as a celebration of American culture.

Representatives from museums, hotels and restaurants gathered at the National Archives yesterday to unveil the region's 2006 marketing strategy, "Washington D.C. Celebrates American Originals." Over the next 12 months, they will spend more than $500,000 on print and online advertising in New York, Philadelphia, the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area and the Carolinas.

The Washington area ranks behind New York, Orlando and Las Vegas among the top destinations for visitors, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. A year ago, the city ranked eighth.

Chertoff Worried About D.C. Preparedness

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says he's concerned about emergency preparedness plans in the District.

Chertoff told a forum on homeland security and preparedness that responding to catastrophes in the nation's capital could prove more challenging than elsewhere in the country.

He said the large federal workforce would face evacuation even as the government struggled to continue operations. Chertoff added that he didn't mean to suggest that a big problem exists in the District, but he said the large federal presence in the city presents special problems.

MARYLAND

Pr. George's Police Search for Sisters

Prince George's County investigators are searching for two Langley Park sisters. Jeanine Rollins, 10, left her home in the 1500 block of Kanawha Road at 9 a.m. Monday and has not returned, her father told police. Jasmine Rollins, 14, left the house Sept. 28 and has not returned, police said.

The father told detectives that Jasmine has left the house several times in the past to be with her boyfriend.

Both girls are black and have black hair and brown eyes. Jeanine is 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 80 pounds. She may be wearing a blue sweater, jeans and white tennis shoes. Jasmine is 5 feet 5 and weighs 130 pounds.

Tax Credit for Telecommuting Approved

The Montgomery County Council approved legislation yesterday to give a tax credit to companies that buy computers for employees who telecommute.

The measure, co-sponsored by council members Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda) and Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), would pay up to half the cost of each computer, to a maximum $2,000 credit.

To qualify, employers must certify that employees would use the computers for work. The employees would have to work from home at least 78 days, or one day a week, each year. .

VIRGINIA

90% of State Schools 'Fully Accredited'

More than 90 percent of Virginia's schools have been judged by the state to be "fully accredited" this year, based on their students' Standards of Learning exam results.

This year, 1,834 schools, or 92 percent, are fully accredited -- up from 86 percent last year. The remainder were judged "accredited with warning," a label meant to urge improvement, or "conditionally accredited," which is reserved for newly opened schools.

To get the ranking, at least 70 percent of students in middle and high schools must pass tests in English, math, science and history. In elementary schools, 75 percent of students must pass reading tests, 70 percent must pass fifth-grade science and history tests and at least 50 percent must pass third-grade science and history tests.

The rankings are separate from those mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, which judge schools based on the performance of specific subgroups of students, including minority groups.

HCA Plans Hospital in Spotsylvania County

Hospital giant HCA announced yesterday that it is planning to open a full-service hospital in Spotsylvania County, bringing competition into the health care market in the Fredericksburg area for the first time. The region of about 250,000 people has one hospital, the 412-bed Mary Washington, which is owned by Fredericksburg-based MediCorp Health System. MediCorp announced this summer that it would open a facility in Stafford County.

HCA Virginia spokesman Mark Faust said yesterday that the company has purchased 60 acres near Interstate 95 in Spotsylvania for the facility, which could open in 2009 if it is approved by the state Health Department.

HCA decided in recent months to pursue a hospital in Spotsylvania after officials invited the company to do so, he said.

Sex-Offender Panel Seeks Stricter Penalty

The Virginia State Crime Commission's sex-offender task force yesterday recommended a mandatory minimum 25-year sentence for first-time sexual offenders who assault children younger than 13. The penalty would apply to the crimes of forcible sodomy, sexual penetration with an object and rape. Currently, perpetrators of such crimes face five years to life in prison.

"We know that the likelihood of them being rehabilitated is extremely small," said the commission's co-chairman, Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach), who is running for attorney general. "The first thing we can do is take them off the streets."

The recommendation was among dozens approved by the task force that will be rolled into two bills focusing on the state's sex-offender registry and civil commitment process, in which certain violent predators are sent indefinitely to tightly controlled treatment programs after completing their criminal sentences.

Driver Killed as Jeep Leaves GW Parkway

A Jeep Laredo traveling south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway crashed into a tree, rolled down a ravine and landed in a pool of water, killing the driver, police said yesterday.

It took rescue workers more than two hours to remove the driver from the crushed vehicle, which crashed at Four Mile Run near Reagan National Airport. The driver was not identified because relatives had not been notified.

U.S. Park Police Lt. Warren Boyer said a National Park Service maintenance worker found the Jeep after stopping to pick up trash in the area. It was not known when the vehicle crashed.

"I'm not ignoring the president. I just understand their policies on official business. He's been here for me."

-- Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore, explaining why he won't attend President Bush's policy address in Norfolk on Friday. -- A1

Compiled from reports by staff writers Michelle Boorstein, Tim Craig, Petula Dvorak, Rosalind S. Helderman, Allison Klein and Jamie Stockwell and the Associated Press.