YEAR IN REVIEW
As 2011 inches toward the history book, Times Free Press reporters recap the highlights and low points of the year.
• Wednesday: City, county elected leaders face challenges, change
• Thursday: VW, Amazon openings soften economic blows
• Friday: Reform dominates public education
• Today: Top stories of 2011
It wasn't hard to pick the biggest local news story of 2011.
Of the several hundred voters who responded to a Times Free Press poll online and by mail, well over half marked the April 27 tornadoes as a defining day in the region's history.
"No one could have ever imagined tornadoes around here like that, and to do what they did," said Marlene Fry, commenting on the Times Free Press Facebook page.
"It was more than a tragic story, it was also a tremendous story of recovery, and how complete strangers came out to help victims get back on their feet," Nathan Lewis commented on Facebook.
The year was marked by other tragedies as well. A Chattanooga police officer was slain in the line of duty; the city saw 25 other homicides, many gang-related; and a Signal Mountain mother missing for seven months was found dead on the side of the mountain.
But 2011 also brought plenty of good news to the area. Amazon brought thousands of new jobs, and Volkswagen's plant is now up and running. North Georgia natives stole the spotlight on a series of major network reality TV shows.
And plenty of the year's top stories will carry over into 2012, as Mayor Ron Littlefield continues to fight recall efforts and election season ramps up, bringing issues such as Tennessee's new voter ID law into heated debate.
As the new year rolls over, here's a roundup of the region's 10 biggest news stories of 2011, according to Times Free Press readers.
1. April 27 tornadoes
No one disputed that the forecasts for April 27 looked ominous, with large storm lines creeping across radar maps, prompting officials to call for tornado alerts.
But no one predicted the onslaught of more than 45 tornadoes that tore through the tri-state area over 12 dark hours, wreaking death and destruction.
"I felt like a radar operator who kept watching a squadron of bombers approaching, and there's really nothing you can do about it except take cover," said WRCB-TV Channel 3 chief meteorologist Paul Barys, who stayed on the air for more than 10 hours that day. "I just thought, 'That couldn't possibly be what we think it is.'"
In a single day, 81 people were torn from their loved ones forever, and hundreds more were left injured and homeless throughout Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama.
The storms left millions of dollars in damage, and experts estimate it could take a decade for the region fully to recover.
But rebuilding is well under way. Shops and restaurants are popping back up in the devastated business district along Interstate 75 in Ringgold, Ga., and a handful of homes have been rebuilt throughout the region by volunteer groups and recovery organizations.
Still, the scars are obvious. Wrecked homes and buildings linger on the landscape, and homeowners toil through long insurance disputes and building complications.
And the grief continues to hit in waves as 81 families weather their first holiday season without family members and friends.
"The terror people went through and the level of destruction is the biggest thing to happen to this area since the Civil War," Barys said.
2. Police Sgt. Tim Chapin killed
The morning of April 2, the words every police officer dreads crackled over radios in Chattanooga: "Officer down."
That officer was Sgt. Tim Chapin, 51, a 27-year department veteran who was shot in the head and killed while responding to an armed robbery at U.S. Money Shops in Brainerd.
Officer Lorin Johnston, 45, was wounded during the gunfight with Chapin's accused killer Jesse Mathews - a 26-year-old escaped parolee from Colorado.
Mathews also was shot, but survived. His parents, sister and sister's boyfriend were arrested in the following days and accused of helping him escape from a Colorado halfway house and acquire firearms. Each family member pleaded guilty in federal court this fall.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Mathews, whose trial is set for January 2013.
Chapin - a father of two who was nearing retirement - was the first Chattanooga officer to be shot and killed in the line of duty since Officer Julie Jacks in May 2002.
3. VW builds first Chattanooga-made Passat
Since Volkswagen announced it was building a car plant in Chattanooga in 2008, the key stories have been about the $1 billion investment in the region and the thousands of jobs it would bring.
But this year, the story was the car itself.
In January, the company announced at the Detroit Auto Show that its Chattanooga-made car would be a redesigned Passat, one geared for the American market. The first 2012 Passat rolled off the assembly line in April and the plant held its grand opening ceremony in May.
On top of that, the company managed to produce one of the most popular commercials of this year's Super Bowl, featuring a pint-sized Darth Vader stunned by his connection with the "Force" in the Passat.
4. Gail Palmgren's disappearance
For months, the fliers bearing images of 44-year-old Gail Palmgren's face and her crimson Jeep were plastered around town. But no one could account for why the Signal Mountain mother dropped her two children off at home on April 30, then disappeared without a trace.
Police detailed arguments between the couple in which Signal Mountain police were called to intervene.
On Dec. 1, an aerial crew spotted a glint of red on the side of Signal Mountain. Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond confirmed "this is the Jeep we have been looking for," and the medical examiner confirmed the remains found near the vehicle were Palmgren's.
Officials believe the Jeep veered off the side of East Brow Road and careened down 350 feet, coming to rest on a slope above the W Road. Palmgren's remains are being autopsied, and the event data recorder in her Jeep is being examined to better outline the circumstances surrounding her death.
Her funeral was Friday.
5. Mayor Littlefield recalled
After a drawn-out court battle, Mayor Ron Littlefield became Chattanooga's first mayor to be formally recalled.
The charge to recall the mayor began last year and was driven by Chattanooga Tea Party activists and the groups Citizens to Recall Mayor Ron Littlefield and Chattanooga Organized for Action.
Littlefield - who has been in office since 2006 - fought the petition in court, and a local judge ruled that the recall effort failed to get enough voter signatures.
But a state appeals court threw out the judge's ruling, and the Hamilton County Election Commission voted to certify the petition signatures in November. The commission has since scheduled a mayoral election for Aug. 2, 2012.
Littlefield filed another lawsuit this month to try to block the recall election.
6. Gang violence grows in the city
With at least 60 percent of the city's 25 homicides this year deemed gang-related, officials say they are trying different strategies for cracking down on Chattanooga's 44 documented gangs, which include about 1,100 members.
Along with doubling the size of the Chattanooga Police Crime Suppression Unit this year, city officials formed a "gang task force," a committee that includes the Chattanooga police chief and Hamilton County sheriff, both city and county mayors, and a handful of City Council and County Commission members.
The group is expected to execute a federal plan designed to combat youth violence and gangs in the city.
7. Amazon arrives
Amazon completed its distribution centers in Hamilton and Bradley counties, prompting the largest hiring spike for the area in decades. As many as 4,500 part-time and full-time jobs opened up with the online retail giant.
Also this year, the Seattle-based company finally reached a sales-tax deal with the state after a long legislative battle and will start collecting sales tax in 2014 on products it sells to Tennessee residents.
Amazon's first shipment out of the Chattanooga center was in October, and the centers have been bustling this holiday season, officials say.
After its $139 million investment in Southeast Tennessee, the Seattle-based company announced it plans to build two more centers in Middle Tennessee, possibly bringing 1,300 more jobs to the state.
8. 96-year-old denied voting ID
Dorothy Cooper, 96, sparked a national firestorm in October when she was denied a photo ID at a Chattanooga Driver Service Center.
A new state law requires Tennessee residents to show a photo ID to vote. Cooper was applying for hers - she had missed only one election in her voting life - but was denied the ID because she did not have a marriage license to prove she was the same Dorothy Alexander from her 1915 birth certificate.
Cooper's story made national news, and the Tennessee Democratic Party used her story as a rallying cry against the new law. Democratic Party leaders have claimed the law suppresses poor and elderly voters, while Republicans say it's a safeguard against voter fraud.
Cooper was finally given her photo ID after a second visit to the center several weeks later.
In the largest snowfall event since the Blizzard of '93, nearly a foot of snow piled up around the Chattanooga area on Jan. 9-10, crippling transit and cutting off some people's power for days.
Local public works crews worked 12-hour shifts, struggling to combat the freezing and refreezing on roads with a limited supply of sand and salt.
As schools, government offices and many businesses remained closed, children and adults took a few rare snow days, criss-crossing area slopes with the best sledding in years.
10. Georgia reality TV takeover
On any given night this year, the chances of spotting a North Georgia native on a major TV network were pretty high.
In February, 9-year-old Patrick Sharrock and his parents won the hearts - and volunteer efforts - of hundreds throughout the region when "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" rebuilt the family's Rossville home to be more accessible for Patrick, who has brittle bone disease.
Over the summer, Rossville's 16-year-old Lauren Alaina stole the spotlight as she advanced through the ranks in the 10th season of "American Idol." Though she came in second, Lauren Alaina has just signed on for a national tour with country star Jason Aldean, and her debut album, "Wildflower," was released in October.