The economy hits us all
Of all the big stories of 2008, perhaps the biggest, because it was so far-reaching, was the story of the economy.
Most economists and financial experts agree the nation, if not the whole world, is in a recession — marked by job losses, a slowdown in spending and an overall contraction of business.
Unemployment is up to almost 8 percent, and some predict it could reach more than 10 percent next year.
Foreclosures continue, although the plummeting price of homes has opened opportunities for first-time homebuyers.
The stock market continues its volatile gyrations, but the Dow Jones Industrial Average of blue-chip stocks is hovering around 9,000 points — down from around 14,000 a year ago. That has led to lost value for 401(k)s and other retirement funds, putting many people's future at risk.
A bright spot in the economy is gas prices: They're down. But that's only because demand is down due to a slowdown in the global economy. If the economy starts to rebound, economists and industry analysts predict the price will rise again. Others fear that an expected cut in production by OPEC could reduce oil supplies, which would further boost the price.
As the economy worsens, retail spending continues its downward trend, leading some to predict that many companies will continue to shut stores.
2. A hero's remains found
Army Staff Sgt. Alex Jimenez received a hero's welcome when his remains were brought to Lawrence for a final farewell 14 months after being missing in Iraq.
Jimenez had been missing in action since May 12, 2007, when he was captured in an ambush west of Mahmudiyah, Iraq, along with Spc. Byron Fouty of Waterford, Mich., and Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr., of Torrance, Calif. Anzack's body was recovered from the Euphrates River.
A horse-drawn carriage carried Jimenez' flag-draped coffin through city streets, and thousands of residents and others from across the state attended the service. He was buried at the Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, N.Y.
3. Election 2008
In what turned out to be one of the most historic elections in American history, Merrimack Valley residents came out in droves, some waiting for close to an hour, to cast their votes for the country's first black president on Nov. 4.
More than 63.7 million people nationwide voted for Barack Obama, a 47-year-old Illinois senator whose father was Kenyan and whose mother was from Kansas.
Obama, whose campaign focused on change and hope, pulled off a lopsided victory against Arizona Sen. John McCain. He will take office as the 44th president on Jan. 20, with Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden as his vice president.
Local clerks called it an election for the record books. Precincts all over the area reported their highest turnout in years, with North Andover reporting an 83 percent turnout.
Area black leaders celebrated the victory, saying they felt a renewed hope in the country, but cautioned that people shouldn't get caught up in the moment for too long.
"Health care, two wars, creating jobs. ... If we don't tackle the problems, it doesn't matter who or how historic the moment is. We all lose," said Rev. Lewis Floyd of Third Baptist Church in Lawrence.
4. Fire ravages city block
Early on Jan. 21, a seven-alarm fire ravaged an entire city block, destroying 14 buildings, including the former Millennium nightclub, several Habitat for Humanity homes under construction, an apartment building and a general store. Other buildings on Parker, Market and Springfield streets were damaged or destroyed.
Miraculously, no one was injured in the blaze that frigid morning. Still, the 180 people in 26 apartments who fled to the street in pajamas, bathrobes and blankets were forced out of their homes and lost almost everything.
In the end, the damage was assessed at $4 million.
Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity has been working diligently in the neighborhood to rebuild numerous homes for low-income families. The nightclub site where investigators said the fire started was razed and remains vacant.
Investigators had plenty of leads as they searched for the fire's cause. Space heaters were in the nightclub without a permit three days before the fire. But after the blaze, the heaters were burned so badly, investigators couldn't tell if they were on when the fire broke out. And the building could easily have been broken into.
Officially, no cause was ever determined, and no one was charged after the fire.
5. Solomon fired
Methuen Mayor William Manzi fired police Chief Joseph Solomon on May 7.
Manzi fired Solomon after receiving a report from attorney Michael Marks, who oversaw Solomon's city disciplinary hearing. Marks recommended that Solomon be fired for verbally abusing officers and allowing federal grant money to be misspent. He also said the Police Department broke the law when it used taxpayer money to buy marine equipment from Solomon's sister and brother-in-law.
But Solomon isn't going down without a fight. He is appealing to the state Civil Service Commission. A hearing opened in October, and it has shaped up to be a long, drawn-out process. The hearing has convened several times, playing out like a trial, where witnesses testify.
The hearing took a recess on Dec. 4 and is scheduled to reconvene on Jan. 6, when Solomon's replacement, Chief Katherine Lavigne, is slated to testify on behalf of the city.
Solomon will then begin calling his witnesses. Whoever loses at Civil Service can appeal to the courts, which means it could be a while before the case is resolved.
6. An ice storm to forget
A monster ice storm swept through the Northeast at the end of the year and knocked out power to 800,000 homes and businesses in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
The storm struck on Thursday, Dec. 11. The wreckage forced Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch and President George W. Bush to declare states of emergency.
Schools and businesses shut down and gas stations ran out of fuel as thousands scrambled to fill generators. Some people went to the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning because they brought their generators indoors.
Utility crews fought around the clock to restore power, but it took more than a week to get the lights back on for all of the homes and businesses that were affected. Their efforts were hampered by massive amounts of fallen tree limbs.
Communities opened shelters, and neighbors banded together and helped one another keep warm.
Cities and towns racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills for overtime for workers who labored during the storm, and for damage.
7. Hollywood comes to the Valley
Forget Los Angeles. Valley residents needed only to take a drive down the street in some cases to spot movie stars like Cameron Diaz, Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson this year.
Thanks to a 3-year-old state film tax incentive program and growing enthusiasm from local communities, more films are choosing to set up shop here.
The former Lucent plant on Route 125 in North Andover, with its 600,000 square feet of vacant space, has seen most of the movie business, landing on a short list of prime filming spots across the state. Filming has also drummed up business at local restaurants, shops — even the airport.
And with celebrities came drama.
While filming "The Proposal" on Cape Ann, star Sandra Bullock was the victim of a minor drunk driving accident in April. Lucile Gatchell, 64, of Gloucester, later pleaded guilty and was placed on probation for driving her station wagon across the center line and into an SUV Bullock was riding in.
Everyone caught the celebrity bug, with Andover even giving native Michael Chiklis, of "The Shield," a key to the town.
"The Box," "The Proposal," "This Side of the Truth," "The Surrogates," "The Proposal," "Don McKay," and "Edge of Darkness" all filmed in the area in the last year or so. Most of those movies will be released in 2009.
8. Celtics go from worst to first
In the last eight years, the New England Patriots have won three Super Bowls and the Boston Red Sox have won two World Series championships.
But seeing a championship ring on the finger of Boston Celtics team captain Paul Pierce seemed unreal. In the 2006-2007 season, the team posted the worst record in basketball and its players were riddled with injuries.
At the beginning of the 2007-08 season, the Celtics brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to help Pierce get the team back on track. They were nicknamed the "Three Amigos" on ESPN commercials and posed for the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Beyond the commercial success and the hype of the trio, the team was suddenly winning again, and made it to the post-season. After several nail-biting play-off rounds against the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Detroit Pistons, the Green Team found themselves facing their arch nemesis Los Angeles Lakers for the championship. In a six-game series, the Celts had their 17th championship in hand, and their first since 1986. And when the rings were passed out in Boston in October, Pierce was brought to tears.
Boston sports fans are hoping for the same turnaround success with the Boston Bruins. In 2007-2008, the team finished at the bottom of its conference. This season, the team is ranked No. 1 in all of hockey.
9. Patient stabs, kills therapist
The North Andover teenager charged with first degree murder in the stabbing death of his therapist in his Walker Road home is sitting in a cell at the Middleton Jail awaiting a Jan. 23 appearance in Salem Superior Court.
Thomas Belanger, 19, of 3 Walker Road is accused of stabbing Diruhi Mattian, 53, to death at his home the night of Feb. 6, after she responded there to try to take a knife away from him and bring him to a hospital.
But when Belanger found out her intentions, he became angry and stabbed her in the upper torso. She stumbled into the foyer of his building and called 911 on her cell phone before bleeding to death.
He was indicted by an Essex County grand jury in June and arraigned in Salem Superior Court.
He was held at Bridgewater State Hospital and his lawyer told Lawrence District Court Judge Michael Brooks that Bridgewater officials had recommended Belanger be found incompetent to stand trial.
But a spokesman for the Essex County District Attorney's Office said the issue of Belanger's competency has not been adjudicated yet and that he had not been examined by a state expert.
10. Fight brews over $178k found in safe
In November 2008, a mystery surrounding a hidden fortune unraveled after an old safe was found by Lawrence firefighters in a vacant lot.
Turns out, the safe was removed from a Methuen shoe store and had $178,496 cash tucked inside.
Two people now say the safe and the money is theirs: Ken Daher, whose mother, Sally Daher, ran the shoe store decades ago, and Manuel Ovalles, a Lawrence tow truck driver who hauled the safe out of the store and dumped it in a vacant lot next to his Cross Street home.
Firefighters spotted the safe while on routine patrol in Ovalles' neighborhood. Apparently, nobody knew the money was inside.
Who gets the found fortune is now a court matter. Police Chief John Romero said the money won't be released until he receives a court order or a settlement is reached.