The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

December 28, 2011

Top Local News Stories of 2011: Tornadoes, immigration, snow

From staff reports
The News Courier

- — Most years, the staff of The News Courier has a discussion to decide which story was the biggest news of the previous year.

In 2011, there was no discussion: The tornado outbreak of April 27 was the biggest news even not only in Limestone County but also in Alabama.

A list of the Top 10 stories of 2011 follows, with a synopsis of each. Separate stories also will be included in today’s edition on the tornado outbreak and the local impact of the immigration law.

1. The Mega-Outbreak

On April 27, tornado sirens began sounding at about 9 a.m. It is not an uncommon sound in Limestone County, but this day, the warnings came in waves — 92 would sound across northern Alabama, finally ending late in the afternoon when deadly tornadoes tore down TVA lines that powered the sirens.

It was a day when many prayers were answered — dozens of people whose homes blew away around them somehow survived. It was also a day of sorrow: Four Limestone Countians lost their lives. As many as 450 homes were destroyed, leaving their occupants homeless, and another 250 were damaged.

It would be six days before power was restored to most areas of Limestone and Madison counties. It was a surreal time.

Many mourned lost loved ones. Hundreds wandered through the rubble of their homes, wondering how they would rebuild their lives.

Among the seven tornadoes to hit Limestone that Wednesday — of the 62 statewide and 214 across the South — was an EF5, the strongest and deadliest. This twister traveled 132 miles, including 106 in the state of Alabama, and took nearly the same path — from Swan Creek Management Area through Tanner, across U.S. 72 and into the East Limestone community — as the deadly F5 took on April 3, 1974. Many people lost their homes for a second time on April 27. For  a more in-depth look at the April 27 tornado outbreak, see story under Local News.

2. Impact of Alabama’s immigration law

The Alabama Legislature passed a sweeping illegal immigration reform bill in June, and the measure was immediately met with a mix of praise and derision.

Legal challenges from civil-rights groups and the U.S. Department of Justice kept a majority of the law from being implemented until Sept. 28. Though Athens and Limestone County does not have the Hispanic population of other cities in the state, including Albertville and Hoover, the effects of the law were felt here, too.

At least two protests were staged in Athens, including one on Oct. 8 and Oct. 18. The latter protest featured at least 300 people walking through downtown Athens carrying signs and voicing opposition to HB 56.

In November, a Pelham-based radio station launched a walking tour from Athens in which radio personalities visited 14 cities in 14 days to talk to those affected by the law and document their stories.

Earlier this month, a political forum at Athens State University turned tense as those who oppose the law asked Republican lawmakers to repeal it. Lawmakers said the law was passed because the federal government refuses to enforce its own immigration law.

For  a more in-depth look at the state’s immigration law, see story under Local News.

3. January brings rare snow storm

Every few years, North Alabama experiences a rare snowfall. While flakes may fall from time to time, accumulations are unusual. Accumulations of as much as 9 inches of snow are freak occurrences. When that type of snow fell on Jan. 9, 2011, Limestone County was brought to a standstill.

Meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Huntsville said it was the third-largest snowfall on record for North Alabama: first was New Year’s, 1963 and 1964 with 17.1 inches; second was Jan. 7 and 8, 1988, when 9.6 inches accumulated.

On Jan. 10, a state trooper said all roads in Limestone County were considered impassable. Schools were closed and residents were encouraged to remain home.

The snow had other fallout: Many events scheduled across the state for watching Auburn play in the national championship game were cancelled. Auburn played in Arizona and won the title.

Limestone Countians who were still awake watching the snow at 11 p.m. Sunday witnessed a rare phenomenon called “thundersnow,” in which a thunderstorm produces snow. Thunder and lightning were seen and heard in Limestone and Madison counties. This caused snow to accumulate more rapidly, a forecaster said.

4. Woman murdered at abandoned school

A man walking through the park at the abandoned Trinity school site on March 14 found a woman’s coat, purse and, possibly, shoes on the ball field and called police. Athens Police officers found evidence of a struggle outside, searched the buildings in the area, and found the body of an Athens woman. Authorities say the victim, 26-year-old Wendy Defoe Bond, was killed by blunt force trauma, probably on March 13. Her former boyfriend, Lamar Anderson, 45, of Athens, was charged in the killing. He had been charged in the past with beating Bond and he was legally barred from seeing her. Bond had been taking steps to break her ties with Anderson by attending a domestic violence program.

5. Two apartment buildings burn

Separate fires destroyed two Athens apartment complexes in 2011, leaving dozens to find different homes.

Fire sparked by a grease fire on a stove initially destroyed one apartment and smoked out seven others before noon Jan. 5 at Athens Village Apartments. No one was injured. However, the young newlywed s whose apartment burned lost all they owned. Thirteen hours later, the fire rekindled and destroyed the remaining units in the building, leaving the rest of the occupants to find housing.

A March 5 fire at Sandpiper I Apartments on Clinton Street displaced 22 tenants. The fire, reported at 2:30 a.m., destroyed five units of the building. Some of the tenants were able to move back into the building and others were placed elsewhere. Investigators believe the fire was accidental but were uncertain of its precise origin. Victims from both fires, most of whom were uninsured, received assistance from The Red Cross and from clothing and donations from the community.

6. Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in limelight

The overall safety of the nation’s nuclear plants was called into question following the March earthquake and resulting tsunami that devastated Japan and destroyed a nuclear power plant in Fukushima.

Officials with TVA said the Japanese disaster was the result of unprecedented events natural events, though they conceded it did serve as a learning tool.

The April 27 tornadoes that passed near Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant ripped down transmission lines, cutting power to the plant’s three boiling water reactors and nearly all of Limestone County customers. Backup diesel generators were used until full power could be restored to the plant.

A “red” finding issued in May by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission led to increased oversight at the plant. The finding, the most severe issued by the NRC, was appealed by TVA but the finding was confirmed in August.

The plant was then subjected to 95003 inspections, which are the most intensive offered by the NRC. Those inspections will last through the early part of 2012.

The red finding was issued after a coolant valve in the plant’s backup fire mitigation system failed to open. An investigation revealed that a disc inside the valve had malfunctioned.

TVA officials said the malfunctioning valve posed no risk to the plant or to the general public.

7. Huntsville second largest metro area in state

Census data released in March showed the Huntsville metropolitan area, made up of Madison and Limestone counties, is now the state’s second largest. The metro area has 417,593 residents. Limestone Countians make up 82,782 of that. The Mobile metro area, which was previously in second place, has 412,992 people. Jefferson County’s metro area remains the largest with a population of 1.12 million.

8. State trooper indicted in fatal wreck

An Alabama state trooper was indicted on two counts of criminally negligent homicide in November in connection with a wreck that killed an Athens couple in April. Trooper James Heath Moss, 30, of Athens was heading to another accident to provide traffic control on the morning of April 25 when he rear-ended the Mitsubishi Mirage in which Jamie Lee Gossett, 31, and his wife, Sarah Rene Gossett, 38, were riding. Their vehicle was pushed into a field and caught fire. The couple had been on their way to Tanner High School to pick up their daughters when the accident occurred. Moss was driving at speeds of up to 120 mph in the seconds before the crash, based on information from the car’s information module, said attorney Derek Simpson of the Huntsville law firm Warren & Simpson, who has filed a civil suit on behalf of the administrator of the Jamie Gossett estate. Moss, who was released on bond, is not involved in trooper highway duties but continues to work in the office of the state trooper post in Decatur. Criminally negligent homicide is a Class A misdemeanor punishable upon conviction by up to a year in the county jail.

9. Runaway trucker leads officers on chase

A trucker led at least two-dozen law-enforcement vehicles on a three-county chase Oct. 28 before his truck tires, which were blown out by spike strips, caused him to wreck his 18-wheeler at the Alabama state line. Anton V. Barvinok, Ukrainian-American citizen living in Loves Park, Ill., was arrested in Limestone County after he led law-enforcement officers from Alabama and Tennessee on a chase on Interstate 65 about 11:30 a.m. The chase began after he refused to stop for a state trooper in Cullman, who was responding to reports that a trucker was driving erratically.  Officers surrounded the runaway driver as he continued, unabated, along the interstate. Three time officers laid down spike strips to flatten the truck’s tires. Barvinok drove until his tires disintegrated and some of his rims became square. After crashing into a guardrail near the Alabama-Tennessee state line about 12:15 p.m., officers had to use a Taser to make him comply with arrest procedures, and they found a rifle in the cab of his truck. Barvinok was calm and polite but delusional at the scene, making incongruous statements about why he would not stop for officers. He said he did not pull over because “I’m in a battle with good and evil and I won” and because “he was trying to save us from hell.”

Although he said he was hauling “people to go to the sky,” a trooper at the scene said the 40-foot container Barvinok was pulling was empty. Barvinok was charged with reckless endangerment, attempting to elude resisting arrest and carrying a pistol without a permit. He was ordered to undergo a mental evaluation.

10. Auburn Tigers crowned national champs

An Associated Press reporter wrote: “Auburn’s climb to its first national title in 53 years was unprecedented.” While some diehard fans may argue that Auburn should have been crowned national champs on at least two other occasions the Tigers went undefeated, it was the first official title since 1953.

The Tigers finished No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 following a 22-19 victory against Oregon in the BCS championship game.

Quarterback Cam Newton also won the 2010 Heisman Trophy, a feat that mirrored the University of Alabama’s championship win and Heisman Trophy honors in 2009.

And, for those among our readers who are taking note, The News Courier listed Alabama’s victory on its Top 10 news stories of 2010.

See more Top Stories of 2011 in Thursday's and Friday's print editions and online.