The devastation from wildfires that roared out of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, torching hundreds of buildings and leaving 14 people dead, has been voted the top Tennessee news story of 2016, according to an annual Associated Press survey of reporters, editors and broadcasters.
Forest fires had been burning for weeks amid drought conditions that persisted in eastern Tennessee through the fall. They were largely considered to be under control until hurricane-force winds kicked up the night of Nov. 28, whipping flames into the popular tourist town of Gatlinburg and to the doorstep of the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge.
Thousands of people raced through the inferno to try to reach safety as flames dripped from tree branches and the air filled with embers.
“The wildfires did tremendous material damage, but they also took the lives of 14 people,” said Greeneville Sun Editor Michael Reneau. “Conversely, the disaster showed what kind of spirit exists in East Tennessee and across the state, as the outpouring of support for Sevier County continues.”
Maria de Varenne, the director of news at the Tennessean, said the “fire of the century” was her choice for the top story because of the number of people affected and the economic impact.
A school bus crash in Chattanooga that left six children dead was the No. 2 news story of the year. Investigators have said the driver was off of his route and speeding Nov. 21 when the bus carrying 37 students hit a mailbox and utility pole, rolled onto its side and then crashed into a tree.
Driver Johnthony Walker, 24, faces charges of vehicular homicide, reckless driving and reckless endangerment. Walker plans to plead not guilty, according to his attorney. The wreck has led to renewed calls in Tennessee and around the country for mandatory seatbelts on school buses.
The expulsion of state Republican state Rep. Jeremy Durham from the Tennessee House was voted the No. 3 story of the year. Durham, who was once a rising GOP star, became the first sitting lawmaker thrown out of the General Assembly in 36 years during a special legislative session in September.
Durham had already lost his Republican primary in August following a scathing attorney general’s report detailing a series of sexual harassment allegations during his four years in the Legislature. The House took the additional step of ousting Durham before the end of his term to prevent him from qualifying for a state pension.
The death in June of Pat Summitt, who became the winningest coach in Division I college basketball history at the University of Tennessee, was voted the state’s No. 4 story of the year.
Summitt lifted women’s college basketball to national prominence while staring down players and officials with her icy glare over 38 seasons at Tennessee, including eight national titles.
The renewed rape trials and convictions of two former Vanderbilt football players whose previous convictions had been thrown out in 2015 was voted the fifth-biggest story of 2016, followed by the University of Tennessee’s $2.5 million settlement of a Title IX lawsuit filed by eight women who said the school fostered a hostile sexual environment through a policy of indifference toward assault complaints against athletes.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s veto of a bill seeking to make Tennessee the first state in the country to designate the Bible as the official state book came in at No. 7. The governor rejected the bill over concerns that it would violate the constitutional separation between church and state and because he said it would “trivialize” a sacred text by placing it alongside other symbols like the official state rock, reptile and songs. A veto override bid fell short.
State legislation concerning LGBT issues was voted No. 8. A new law allows counselors to turn down patients based on religious reasons or personal principles, but legislation to require students to use restrooms corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificates failed.
The ninth top story of the year was the National Labor Relations Board’s declaration that Volkswagen is violating federal law by refusing to bargain with the United Auto Workers union. The German automaker is challenging that finding in federal appeals court in Washington.
The No. 10 story was the retirement of Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, a Blountville auctioneer who was a leading figure in the GOP takeover of all three branches of Tennessee state government after becoming the first Republican speaker of the Senate since Reconstruction in 2007.
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