published Monday, December 19th, 2011

Tornadoes top Tennessee news story of 2011

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    A two-story home sits in its own basement in Apison, Tenn., on Saturday. Recovery efforts from the series of tornadoes that hit the tri-state region are still under way. Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press

NASHVILLE — Marvin Quinn and Willie, his wife of 57 years, were reading Bible verses last April when a tornado neared their home in Apison just east of Chattanooga.

“I said, ‘Let’s get down and pray; the tornado’s coming,” Willie Quinn said. “And he got down on his knees, and I was bent over and put my hand over his head while we were praying.”

Thirty-seven people across the state were killed in tornadoes April 27-28. The storm system, packing three waves of heavy rains and tornadoes with winds of more than 100 mph, ripped a swath of destruction from the Chattanooga area northeast to Greene County.

The National Weather Service said more than 40 tornadoes lashed the state. In hard-hit Bradley County, the 911 center fielded 3,008 emergency phone calls in the 24 hours following the severe weather.

The devastating system was voted the No. 1 news story of the year in Tennessee by The Associated Press staff.

It was a year of a stunning health announcement, gatherings of protesters, the death of a colorful ex-governor, legislative moves against teachers and even more bad weather: flooding.

The state was stunned Aug. 23 when Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt announced that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia but would continue coaching. As the season unfolded, “We Back Pat” T-shirts were being sold to raise funds for programs supporting people with dementia and Alzheimer’s in the state. Then in early December, Sports Illustrated magazine named her its Sportswoman of the Year.

The 59-year-old has won eight national championships. The story was voted No. 2 for the year.

Coming in No. 3 was a contentious vote in the General Assembly that stripped teachers of their collective bargaining rights. The issue drew protesters throughout the legislative process and at one point sparked an anti-union protest that led to seven arrests.

Also in Nashville, dozens of Occupy Nashville protesters began camping on the grounds surrounding the state Capitol in October. A curfew was announced Oct. 27, and 55 arrests were made during the next two days. But a Nashville judge dropped charges, and similar protests continued elsewhere in Tennessee and persisted into December. The story was voted No. 4, tying with Mississippi River flooding in Memphis and elsewhere in West Tennessee.

A sports story was voted No. 6. Bruce Pearl, who took Tennessee to new heights as basketball coach, was fired and later essentially banned from coaching by the NCAA for three years for lying to investigators during their probe of recruiting violations.

“I’m trying to do the very best I can to lead through this adversity, to be an example of what happens when you’re not forthcoming, when you don’t tell the truth all of the time and be acceptable of the consequences,” he said in August after the NCAA disciplined him.

Gaile Owens, who spent 26 years on death row and came within two months of being executed for hiring a stranger to kill her husband, was freed Oct. 7 after winning parole. Then-Gov. Phil Bredesen had commuted her sentence last year to life in prison. The story was voted No. 7.

“I can’t wait to see my grandchildren, and to fulfill my dream of walking in the park with my family,” she said after her release.

Ned McWherter, who had political prowess matched by an engaging down-home personality that endeared him to Tennessee voters, died April 4. His death was No. 8.

McWherter, governor from 1987 to 1995 following 20 years in the Legislature, turned a phrase as easily as he charmed those at the ballot box.

“I know every hog path in Tennessee,” he once said.

No. 9 was another controversial vote by the General Assembly: Requiring a photo ID to vote beginning in 2012.

Good economic news was No. 10: General Motors announced plans to restart assembly work at its Spring Hill plant.

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