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The Top 10 stories of 2018, our selections

The Top 10 stories of 2018, our selections

2018 was a year of tragedy, financial challenges, politics -- and a new train station
The Top 10 stories of 2018, our selections
The memorial to the Oct. 6 crash victims as seen in mid-December
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ/DAILY GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

CAPITAL REGION - A lot of what fills the daily paper is forgotten within a day or two. But some events change our world or the way we see it forever -- for good or ill.

Here is our assessment of the top stories of 2018, the ones that changed the world, reminded us of life's unpredictability and frailty, or -- literally in one case -- made the earth move.

1. LIMO CRASH

The Columbus Day weekend limousine crash in Schoharie that killed 20 people devastated families and communities, especially in Amsterdam, where many of the victims lived. The tragic crash, which was the worst U.S. transportation incident since 2008, brought to light gaps in federal regulations for stretch limousines that few people had considered before.

Seventeen young adults -- including newlyweds and parents of small children -- who had hired a limousine to take them to a Cooperstown brewery for a birthday celebration were killed when the 2001 Ford Excursion went through a stop sign at routes 30 and 30A at high speed, crossing a parking lot and crashing into a ravine. The driver was also killed, along with two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store.

Prestige Limo, of Wilton, was operated by Nauman Hussain, of Cohoes, who has been charged by state police with criminally negligent homicide, based on their determination that the limo failed mandated inspections due to faulty brakes and other issues, and because the driver did not have the proper license to transport so many people.

The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting an investigation, and earlier this month wrote a letter to the Schoharie County district attorney expressing frustration at being given access to the limousine and other evidence, due to the criminal investigation. Federal legislators have proposed new legislation to subject stretched vehicles to federal safety standards -- and questions have also been raised about how the limo in the Schoharie crash remained on the road, despite failing a state commercial inspection.

One lawsuit has already been filed by a victim's estate, and more are expected.

2. SCHOOL SAFETY THRUST INTO SPOTLIGHT

Since the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, school safety has never been far from the public's mind. But mass killings by students at high schools in Florida and Texas last winter and spring brought a new round of student activism and safety concerns.

Students in local high schools -- as in schools across the country -- engaged in student walkouts in the spring and spoke out on their safety concerns. School districts, meanwhile, are publicly re-examining the idea of having armed school resource officers or security personnel in their schools, with residents speaking out on both sides of the issue in school districts including Saratoga Springs and Niskayuna.

Schools also dealt with a wave of threats of violence on school campuses locally and nationally, resulting in more fear and concerns about how districts handle such situations. 

3. GE's CONTINUED DOWNWARD SPIRAL

General Electric in August reduced a Schenectady workforce that has seen repeated layoffs over the past two years, cutting 225 jobs and reducing the Schenectady area workforce to about 4,000. The international industrial giant, founded in Schenectady and, by far, the city's most-prominent business with a century-plus of history, cited a decline in power equipment sales and issues facing the international power industry, including many countries reducing their reliance on large-scale power plants. The firm also cited competitive price pressures.

The struggles are companywide. GE's stock price has fallen dramatically, hurting the investment portfolios of many GE retirees and others who always thought of GE was a blue-chip stock they could rely on for steady values and returns. And in June, the company announced it would cut its dividend to just a penny per share, from 12 cents. 

4. ST. CLARE'S PENSION CRISIS

Growing frustration over the St. Clare's Hospital pension fund boiled over in October, when the beneficiaries -- warned in early 2017 that the pension was underfunded and would eventually run out of money -- got letters saying the fund was essentially broke. Their benefits would end or be significantly reduced, they were told. Because St. Clare's, which closed as part of a state consolidation plan in 2008, received a religious institution exemption from having to pay into the federal pension guarantee system, the 1,100 beneficiaries now have no federal protection, and may have no recourse.

The hospital was affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, and as public sympathy for the former hospital employees grew, the diocese became more sympathetic to their plight, though it continues to deny financial responsibility. Just before Christmas, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger met with about 120 of the pensioners, some of whom emerged optimistic.

5. MIDTERM ELECTIONS

The "blue wave" of Democratic election victories across the country in November claimed a local Republican incumbent, as voters in the 19th Congressional District elected Democrat Antonio Delgado over one-term Congressman John Faso. Delgado, an attorney who lives in Rhinebeck, grew up Schenectady. On Jan. 1, the 41-year-old will become the first African-American to represent part of the Capital Region in Congress.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, easily won a third four-year term, despite three former aides pleading guilty to or being convicted of corruption charges tied to Cuomo's efforts at new economic development across upstate. Cuomo, who has denied presidential ambitions, has been talking about a lot of national issues. He says he wants New York's public policies to reflect opposite values from those of President Donald Trump.

6. LIGHTNING STRIKES SARATOGA SPRINGS CITY HALL

Late on a rainy Friday night in August, lightning struck the roof of Saratoga Springs' historic City Hall, igniting a fire on the third floor. Rain and firefighting efforts resulted in extensive water damage in parts of the building, forcing it to be closed.

City officials initiated an emergency plan to move most city business to the Recreation Center on Vanderbilt Avenue. Fast-response cleanup crews came in, but the water damage was extensive.

The City Council, in November, approved an $11.2 million plan to repair the building, including modernizing its plumbing and electric systems, that will probably keep City Hall closed for most of 2019.

7. SCHENECTADY LANDSLIDE

On Jan. 28, a late-night slope failure behind property on Barney Street sent mud and water crashing into the back of 223 Nott Terrace, just blocks from downtown. Three residents were injured, including 20-year-old Iquann Cornish, who was encased in mud up to his neck for nearly an hour before firefighters were able to extricate him. Mayor Gary McCarthy declared a state of emergency and an investigation was launched.

Afterward, three houses on Barney had to be demolished due to instability of the steep slope behind their homes. The city paid $94,500 for slope stabilization, and a subsequent report found a broken water line may have contributed to moisture in the soil destabilizing the slope. The victims, including Cornish, have filed notices of claim against the city and county.

8. AMSTERDAM LANDS $10 MILLION STATE GRANT

In September, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul came to Amsterdam to announce the city had received one of the state's coveted $10 million downtown revitalization grants. A committee formed by the city is working on what specific projects should be funded with the money.

Categories under consideration by the former mill city include waterfront revitalization; making the downtown more vibrant by restoring the traditional downtown traffic patterns undermined when the Riverfront center was constructed in the 1970s; developing a recreational complex or other year-round attractions; and encouraging diverse mixed-use development. The grant is already leading to other funding: The state Canal Corp. announced this month it was awarding $150,000 to improve pedestrian connections to the Mohawk Gateway Overlook pedestrian bridge.

9. GLOBALFOUNDRIES CUTS 455 JOBS LOCALLY

GlobalFoundries, which operates the Fab 8 plant in Malta, has been an economic force in the region since it opened in 2012. The firm announced in August it was backing off efforts to research, develop and produce 7-nanometer circuits on computer chips. It cut jobs worldwide, which meant the elimination of 455 jobs in the Capital Region, including 31 in the advanced research center at SUNY-Polytech in Albany, and 421 at Fab 8. Most of those layoffs are taking effect this month; about 3,000 people continue to work there, making 14-nm chips for smartphones and other uses.

10. NEW SCHENECTADY TRAIN STATION

After a decade of waiting, Schenectady city officials in October enthusiastically greeted the opening of the new downtown train station -- one that reflects the monumental architecture of the former Union Station, rather than the bland one-story building Amtrak used from the 1970s until last year. The new station -- which cost $23 million for demolition, viaduct repair, and new construction -- has gotten rave reviews. Now, officials hope to see more passengers use the station.

Reach Daily Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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