WASHINGTON -- Eighty-five of 137 whiz kids were eliminated Wednesday at the opening of the National Spelling Bee, including a tearful child who told the judges they misunderstood him and he actually misspelled 'echolalia.'
Andrew Flosdorf, 13, of Fonda, N.Y., went to the judges during an afternoon break and told them that although they thought he spelled the word correctly he had mistakenly substituted an 'e' for the first 'a.'
'The judges said I had a lot of integrity,' said Florsdorf, adding that part of his motive was, 'I didn't want to feel like a slime.'
Chief judge Robert Baker announced the surprise development shortly before the start of the fourth round in the the ornate ballroom of the Capitol Hilton. The contest resumes and ends Thursday.
'We want to commend him for his utter honesty,' Baker said, drawing loud and sustained applause from the audience of more than 500 family, friends and reporters.
Flosdorf's error came in the third round of the 56th annual bee, sponsored by 14 Scripps-Howard and 119 other newspapaers. An estimated 8 million to 9 million youngsters, ages 10 to 14, competed on the local level to reach the finals of this war of words.
Flosdorf said he learned of his mistake when other contestants asked him how he spelled the word, which describes a speech defect. During the break, he checked and realized he had in fact misspelled the word.
When Flosdorf initially spelled 'echolalia,' nearly slurring the final letters together, the judges listened to the tapes several times before they mistakenly agreed he had spelled it correctly.
His parents, Robert and Mary Woods, said their son made the decision himself to go to the judges. 'We're proud of him,' said Woods, director of counseling at Utica College in New York.
Between interviews and requests to appear on network television, Flosdorf said he was a bit surprised by all the attention he was receiving for honesty.
'The first rule of scouting is honest,' said Florsdorf, whose initial tears were soon replaced by smiles. 'Right now, I feel like the most famous loser at the spelling bee.'
The first 11 finalists spelled flawlessly before Jennifer Eley, 13, of Indianapolis, Ind., sounded the ejection bell when she put one too many 'l's' in 'colossally.'
The youngsters are competing for a total of $8,950 in prize money. The winner gets $1,000, an engraved trophy and bragging rights as America's top child speller.
'The spelling bee is part of America,' Dr. Alex Cameron, the bee pronouncer, told the youngsters before serving up the first word. He said their presence in the finals demonstrated 'your ability to spell as well as your character.'
A cool and calm Karen Perfetti 12, of Foxboro, Mass., began the competition by spelling 'hypothesis.' Rudy Evanson, 13, of Reno, Nev., following her to the podium, squinted into the bright lights and disposed of 'resurgence'.
Melissa Scaletta, 13, of Cumberland, Md., was the 33rd contestant and the second eliminated. She tripped on 'megalopolis,' spelling it 'megolopolas.' Standing in the hallway moments later, she tearfully said, 'When the bell sounded, I said to myself, 'Oh no.''
Shortly before the contest began, Laura Broedsder, 14, of Algona, Iowa, sat quietly on the stage and offered a one-word description of the countdown to battle.
'Nerve-racking,' said Miss Broedsder, adjusting the cardboard placard that listed her home town and contestant number. 'We're all anxious to begin.'
Last year, 126 youngsters competed in the finals. They waded through 546 words before Molly Dieveney, 12, a sixth grader from Denver, stood alone and won the bee by spelling the word 'psoriasis.'