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Year In Review: Biggest News Stories Of 2021

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Before we turn the calendar to 2022, let's take a look back at a few of the biggest stories in Pittsburgh over the past year. In another year dominated by COVID-19 headlines, there have been other stories that have impacted us in many different ways.

CLICK HERE for our 2021 Pittsburgh Sports Year In Review.


JANUARY: Riots at the U.S. Capitol

"These protesters have breached the Capitol and they are literally steps outside the House of Representatives. There are people actually in the Senate, members in the House chamber that have been ordered to hide under their desks. The Sergeant at Arms… there are guns drawn. There's a standoff going on as we speak at the door of the House floor as protesters are trying to break in." -- Congressman Mike Doyle, representative of the 18th District of Pennsylvania

Security forces respond with tear gas after the US President
WASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, UNITED STATES - 2021/01/06: Security forces respond with tear gas after the US President Donald Trump's supporters breached the US Capitol security. Pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol as lawmakers were set to sign off Wednesday on President-elect Joe Biden's electoral victory in what was supposed to be a routine process headed to Inauguration Day. (Photo by Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Lawmakers from Pennsylvania were in the U.S. Capitol when anger over the results of the 2020 Election boiled over on Jan. 6, 2021. Riots broke out and protesters entered the building by force. In addition to Congressman Doyle, who was ordered to shelter-in-place, Congressman Mike Kelly and Senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey were working in the Capitol that day.

Current state Sen. Doug Mastriano and former state representative Rick Saccone were among the protesters that day last winter. Sen. Mastriano was urged to resign by at least nine state Senate Democrats, but remains in state government. Saccone did end up resigning from his role as a adjunct professor at St. Vincent College.

Over the last year, several Pennsylvania residents have been arrested and indicted by the FBI for their role in the Capitol Riots. Rachel Powell, who has become known as the "Bullhorn Lady," was indicted in March. The Mercer County woman was charged with physical violence, destruction of government property and obstruction. As her case stands, she and her lawyers are now considering a plea deal. Also, Harrisburg resident Riley Williams is accused of stealing the laptop off of the office desk of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.



FEBRUARY: South Side Chamber of Commerce Burns Down

"The people that built it and the industry that built it, the steel mills, the glass mills, it's a piece of history that is lost and will never be replaced. It's absolutely heartbreaking," -- Pittsburgh City Councilman Bruce Kraus

east carson street fire (1)
(Photo: KDKA Photojournalist Ian Smith)

Flames raged and black smoke poured from a historic building on East Carson Street on the afternoon of Feb. 8, 2021. The smoke plume could be seen across the river and from Mt. Washington. The building housed the offices of the South Side Chamber of Commerce, a barbershop and apartments.

Fortunately, no one was injured. The firefighters who went into the building were given a "mayday" call and escaped just before the structure partially collapsed.

The fire was a big blow to the South Side community. The restored, turn-of-the-century building was at least 130 years old. The South Side Chamber of Commerce had its data backed up, but still lost its computers and printers. It also lost decorations for the Pittsburgh Marathon and Christmas. What was left of the building was demolished in the snow the day after the fire.



MARCH: The Fight Over Tolling Bridges

"The toll rates are arranged between $1 and $2 typically. It could be a couple cents higher or lower. That range is going to shrink and become a little bit more accurate." -- PennDOT Ken McClain

i-79 bridgeville bridge toll (1)
(Photo: KDKA)

Some state lawmakers and concerned drivers began a fight against PennDOT's proposal to toll nine bridges across the state. Cash-strapped PennDOT said, in Allegheny County, the money would be used to replace the northbound and southbound bridges on the I-79 mainline over State Route 60 and would also widen I-79 from two to three lanes in each direction.

But, in mid-March, the fight became political.

State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc, of Cambria County, introduced a bill to require legislative authorization of any proposed transportation project with a user fee. Truck drivers also pushed back against the plan, and an online petition against it gained nearly 3,000 signatures by the fall.

Bridgeville, Collier and South Fayette, all three along I-79, have sued PennDOT. Municipal officials say PennDOT and the Public Private Transportation Partnership failed to follow its own procedures.



APRIL: Derek Chauvin Found Guilty

"There's no room in our career for that. I'm not gonna stand for that. I can't back that behavior and I won't." -- Uniontown Police Lt. Tom Kolencik

Derek Chauvin
(credit: CBS)

Nearly a year after George Floyd's death in Minneapolis sparked protests and calls for police reform across the country, a jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The verdict was read on April 20, 2021.

The high-profile trial was watched closely across the country, including here in Pittsburgh. After the verdict, reaction poured in from local police, lawyers, lawmakers and even the Pittsburgh's sports community.

"This verdict was a big step in accountability and justice for Black people in this country. We must continue to press forward and demand true equality for everyone. We must fight to demand change. And we must do everything we can to stop this from happening over and over again!" Pitt Men's Basketball head coach Jeff Capel said.

"This is a very powerful moment for America. To be honest, when the trial ended, my stomach was in knots just wondering what was going to happen. And I think millions of people across America — for whatever race, creed, color or whatever — we're wondering what was going to happen," B-PEP Chairman and CEO Tim Stevens said.

"We come to work to do a job and protect and serve the community, not to go out and hurt anybody. We are the protectors," Shaler Township Police Chief Sean Frank said.

The Chauvin trial also brought back haunting memories here in Pittsburgh of the Jonny Gammage case. Gammage was beaten and suffocated by five police officers during a traffic stop along Route 51 in 1995.

"In terms of what took place with my cousin, I just hope that one day that one of those officers will come and tell the real truth," Ray Seals, Gammage's cousin, said after the Chauvin verdict was handed down.


MAY: Historic Win For Ed Gainey

"This election made history, and I'm ready to go to work building a Pittsburgh where all can belong, contribute and succeed," Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Ed Gainey

bill peduto ed gainey vote 2021 primary election
(Photo Credit: KDKA)

In the May Primary, state Rep. Ed Gainey pulled off a historic win, defeating incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto. With the Democratic nomination secured, Gainey was poised to become the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh.

Gainey credited a broad-based coalition that gave him the victory over Peduto.

"We brought together a lot of different coalitions. You heard me talk about when I first ran. We wanted to unite Pittsburgh. We want to bring this city together so we intentionally reached out to everybody," Gainey told KDKA political editor Jon Delano shortly after winning the Democratic nomination. "And we saw that coming together. Even on election night, it was amazing just seeing the diversity of people that were at the election night party."

Gainey grew up in East Liberty and attended Peabody High School before attending Morgan State University, where he got his degree in business management.

Near the top of his list of priorities are police-community relations and crime rates.

"We're not going to over-police communities," he said. "We have seen the trauma that has been brought to Black and brown communities. We will change that. And we believe that social workers need to go out on calls, and we're serious about that and will develop that."

He will start on that agenda in the new year after defeating his Democrat-turned-Republican opponent Tony Moreno with 70% of the vote on Nov. 2.



JUNE: Horrific Crash on the North Side

"You wake up every morning and you don't know what's going to happen to you, whether you're walking down the street or giving blood, it's a tragedy. First responders did everything they could to save the individuals that were in the building." -- Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich

car pulled out biomat crash
(Photo Credit: KDKA Photojournalist Tim Lawson)

Three people died when the driver of a car careened off of Western Avenue in the city's Manchester section and barreled into the Biomat USA Plasma Center on June 12, 2021. About 10 employees and five donors were inside the building when the crash happened on a sunny weekend morning.

Two of the three people killed were employees at the center, the other was the driver of the car.

Witnesses who were fortunate to not get hit say they saw the car come soaring off the West End Bridge.

"It sounded like a train accident. That's how loud it was. They had to be going 100 miles per hour to go through that wall. It went all the way to the back of the building," witness Jason Bestz said.

Laura Elaine Meneskie, 35, and Parveena Begum Abdul, 55, were the employees killed. The driver was later identified as 50-year-old Ronald Morgan, of McKeesport.

Laura's family remembered her as a "wonderful, caring, loving person... who touched everybody's life that she was in."



JULY: Police Step Up Security on the South Side

"Without changes, someone is going to get seriously hurt or killed." -- Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich

(Photo Credit: Meghan Schiller/KDKA)

When COVID-19 restrictions began to ease over the summer, it resulted in an uptick of crime and violence on Pittsburgh's South Side. The busy nightlife hotspot became overcrowded, which resulted in fistfights, pedestrian accidents and gun violence.

After a series of weekend shootings and other violent incidents, city leaders began implementing traffic restrictions. Pittsburgh Public Safety and PennDOT announced traffic adjustments for East Carson Street on weekend evenings. Leaders called the situation on East Carson "dangerous and untenable."

However, the restrictions left South Side business owners unhappy.

"If it's hard to get down here, I wouldn't come here. There is no incentive to. We are already dealing with the violence part and now you are throwing another blow to us when that's not really the solution," said Twelve Whiskey BBQ owner Christie Neff.

Other measures were taken, including the State Liquor Control Enforcement cracking down on alcohol offenses and increased police patrols. Also, Uber and Lyft were banned from picking people up, and parking and deliveries were prohibited.

The restrictions finally began to ease in the fall, and Pittsburgh police decided to put a Zone 3 substation along the corridor.



AUGUST: Pittsburgh Public Schools in Turmoil

"The school board has been working on transportation since even before the school year ended. It just became apparent, with the lack of drivers that we would have, if we started school on Aug. 25 [that] 9,000 of our children would not be able to get to school." -- School board president Sylvia Wilson said.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

As the new school year approached in August, Pittsburgh Public Schools found themselves scrambling to make sure students had transportation to school.

With a start date set for Sept. 3, the district said 650 students fell into the "seat gap."

The 650 seat gap happened as bus companies and the district were struggling to find bus drivers.

"Even in the best of times, there is a driver shortage. This event has maybe been four to five years in the making as far as bus drivers. The pandemic has exacerbated that," said then-Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet.

More turmoil rocked the district in late August when Hamlet was cited by the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission.

Hamlet was cited for several things, including keeping more than $6,000 in honorariums paid to him on various trips, receiving and keeping thousands of dollars in travel expense money reimbursements from conference hosts already paid by the school district, time spent out of the state and country on personal business as workdays instead of properly using vacation days, and receiving money from the district for unused vacation days.

The findings resulted in Hamlet's resignation in September.

More on Pittsburgh Public Schools

AUGUST: Hurricane Ida

"I said, 'Dad, we are stuck on a bus and the water keeps rising and I don't know what to do.' And he said, 'I'll be there.'" -- Shaler Area senior Paige Klinefelter

Tropical Weather Atlantic
This satellite image provided by NOAA shows a view of Hurricane Ida, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Forecasters warned residents along the northern Gulf of Mexico coast to rush preparations Saturday ahead of an intensifying Hurricane Ida, which is expected to bring winds as high as 130 mph (209 kph), life-threatening storm surge and flooding rain when it slams ashore in Louisiana on Sunday. (NOAA via AP)

Late in August, Hurricane Ida made landfall along the Gulf Coast as a major Category 4 storm.

Locally, all eyes would be on Ida's path and the impact that would be felt across western Pennsylvania as the remnants of the storm moved inland.

In the early morning hours of Sep. 1, Ida's remnants arrived in the Pittsburgh area, and conditions developed and deteriorated quickly.

Heavy rainfall prompted flooding in the South Hills, and evacuations in Bridgeville.

A bus would become stuck in rising flood waters in Shaler Township, with 41 people, including 40 students needing to be rescued by first responders.

Shaler Area School Bus Trapped On Seavy Rd.
(KDKA Viewer Tim Crust)

Oakdale Borough would find itself under several feet of water, with the area experiencing its worst flooding since Hurricane Ivan's remnants moved across western Pennsylvania in 2004.

By the next day, flood waters started to recede and cleanup efforts got underway, but numerous neighborhoods, towns, and boroughs throughout the area certainly won't ever forget the day that Ida's remnants wreaked havoc on the Pittsburgh region.



SEPTEMBER: Tragedy at Haunted Hills Hayride

"He was learning responsibility. He was excited about his future. He has so many goals. He was a child with so much passion and dreams to look forward to." -- Steven Eason's mom Shantel Pizaro

Steven Eason
(Photo Credit: KDKA)

Steven Eason was just 15 years old when he was shot to death while trying to break up a fight at the Haunted Hills Hayride attraction in North Versailles on the evening of Sept. 11. Another teen was critically injured, and still, no suspect has been caught.

Around 50 to 100 people were at the Haunted Hills Hayride when the shooting happened between the ticket booth and red barn.

A few weeks after the shooting, Eason's devastated mother pleaded with the public for help.

"Talk to your children, come forward with anything they may know," Pizaro said. "If you guys have any cell phone video or photos from the evening, please come forward to the Allegheny County police. Any little bit helps. Anything from that night. You may see someone in the background that may not have been with your group of people. Anything, anything you have from that evening will help."

The shooting hit the Central Catholic community especially hard. Eason was a student there and a member of the school's track team.

"Steven was a dedicated student, a talented member of the track team, and a blessing to have at Central Catholic. He will be deeply missed by all of us at Central Catholic and we offer our condolences and prayers to his family and friends," Central Catholic said in a statement.

The school held a balloon release in memory of Eason a few days after the shooting.

Eason was also a twin. Pizaro said part of her pain would be knowing her son's twin sister would celebrate her milestone 16th birthday without her brother.

"[She] no longer has her twin by her side," she said.

SEPTEMBER: Kodiak's Great Escape

"We found one small area in [Kodiak's] habitat where the heavy gauge-wire netting has been compromised. Every day, all of the habitats and birds are checked for their safety and security. Except for this one area, all of the netting is in perfect condition." -- Dr. Pilar Fish of the National Aviary

(Photo Credit: National Aviary)

Kodiak, the handsome Steller's Sea Eagle, is a Pittsburgh celebrity after his great escape from his habitat at the National Aviary on the North Side on Sept. 25.

Kody, as he's known affectionately at the Aviary, is a nearly 4-feet long, dark brown, yellow-beaked bird. That made him pretty easy to spot and Pittsburghers called in sighting after sighting to the National Aviary.

On the day of his escape, Kody was spotted not far from the Aviary on the North Side. Jared Latchaw said he was driving when he saw the large, majestic bird in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I turned the corner, there was this big bird. I thought it was a chicken at first. It was really cool. I stopped and watched it for like 10 minutes," Latchaw said.

The National Aviary even closed its doors for several days in order to focus on recapturing Kody.

After missing for more than a week and sightings on the North Side to North Park, Kody was captured outside a home in Pine Township. It was even caught on video!

WEB EXTRA: Kody's Capture Caught On Camera --

(Video provided by KDKA Viewer Heather Galleher)

Kody was unharmed and unphased by his little adventure, but the staff at the National Aviary was thankful and emotional to have him back home.

"I just really want to say a heartfelt thank you to the entire community that was behind us, that were sending in tips, that were talking to us, supporting us through this entire effort. We would not be here, successful, without you. Thank you very, very much for helping bring Kodiak back home to us," Cathy Schlott, the director of Animal Programs and Experiences at the Aviary, said with tears in her eyes.



OCTOBER: Postal Worker Shot And Killed

"The mail guy was one of the most loved guys in the neighborhood." -- neighbor Ken Bock

Louis Vignone
(Photo Credit: KDKA)

Louis Vignone, a beloved postal worker, was shot and killed while delivering mail along his route in Collier Township on Oct. 7. The suspect, Eric Kortz, was Vignone's former neighbor.

Kortz told police that he shot Vignone because he thought the mail carrier and his family poisoned him and his family with cyanide when the two were neighbors, according to court documents. Kortz is facing federal charges for the crime, including a count of murder of an employee of the United States.

The murder of their mail carrier in their own neighborhood left the Collier Township community in disbelief.

"Just why? Who? I don't know, he was just doing his job. Why?" said witness Debbie Bock.

"The mail guy was one of the most loved guys in the neighborhood, everybody talks to him," said Ken Bock. "He's been here for as long as I can remember, and I've lived here 20 years."

Vignone, 58, was a husband, a father, and was nearing retirement when he was gunned down.

Later in the month, the Collier Township community of Rennerdale held a memorial service for Vignone. They remembered the mail carrier everyone loved.

"He was always a smiling face. Every dog in this neighborhood loved him and that's not how it usually is for mailmen. He always has dog bones on him. He was just somebody you could always say hi to," Andy Giroski, the president of the Rennerdale Volunteer Fire Department, said.

Kortz could be facing the death penalty.

OCTOBER: Tornado Outbreak

"We were about to take a shower, then the first lightning struck and it hit my dad's car. The second lightning struck and it hit the attic, then the third lightning struck, and the house just started leaking." -- J.J. Jacquel of Hampton Township

(Photo Credit: Mike Darnay/KDKA)

A tornado outbreak on Oct. 21 caused widespread damage and destruction.

Tornadoes were confirmed in New Galilee, Franklin Township, Hampton Township, Peters Township, Hopewell Township, Mt. Nebo, Butler, one east of West Finley and one in East Finley.

In Hampton Township, the powerful winds ripped a roof right off a home near Linden Drive and plopped it on the pickup truck in the driveway. Nearby a downed tree landed on a home. Power lines were down, trees lost limbs and debris was strewn across streets and yards.

It took days for National Weather Service representatives to assess all the damage.

"That's not supposed to happen here. We're in a valley. Tornados don't come through here," Brittany Wannamaker, of Hampton, said.

Despite the extensive damage and cleanup process, no injuries were reported.

Look through our photo gallery of the damage.


NOVEMBER: Deadly School Bus Crash on I-79

"It's sad this situation had to happen, but he loved his job. He loved what he did. We're going to try to live it on for him and try to make a name out there for him." -- Lindsay Thompkins' sister, Shereka Simmons

muddy creek i-79 school bus crash
(Photo: NewsChopper 2)

Brylee Walker, 14, and Lindsay Thompkins, Jr., 31, were killed in a devastating school bus crash along I-79 in Butler County on Nov. 3. The crash happened near Route 422 in Muddy Creek Township.

Video from NewsChopper 2 showed that the school bus rear-ended a tractor-trailer.

Thompkins was driving the bus and Walker was one of the students on board. The students were on their way home from a day of classes at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, Beaver County. Several other students were injured.

Walker's classmates have pulled together to remember her since the crash. They have hosted a remembrance luncheon and done food collections for the holidays.

Thompkins was remembered as a loving brother and someone who cared about his community.

"He loved what he did. We're going to try to live it on for him and try to make a name out there for him," Simmons said.



DECEMBER: Pittsburghers Lend A Hand To Kentucky

"I didn't even know the street I was on. It looks like a war zone, a bomb had been dropped and went off. The courthouse, which is a historic courthouse, is gone. The candle factory, there's nothing standing. It's completely flat." -- Angelina Johnson of Beaver County

kentucky tornadoes mayfield
(Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On Dec. 10, a monster tornado ripped through Mayfield, Kentucky. Gov. Andy Beshear called it "the worst tornado event" in the state's history.

Angelina Johnson, a native of Koppel, Beaver County, moved to Millersville, Missouri, with her husband about five years ago. She said they had to take cover when tornado sirens started going off, but she said her town was spared. However, Mayfield, which is an hour from Millersville, wasn't.

Amid the devastation, Johnson and her neighbor decided to take a drive to help in any way they could.

"We took a lot of bottled water, clothing, food, necessities, things people need. They're in dire need," said Johnson. "These people have no power, no gas, they are relying on what we are bringing to them."

Dozens of people were killed, including children, and more were injured.

Other Pittsburghers have jumped into action to help Kentuckians in their time of need.

Paula Bauerle, a Red Cross volunteer from Pittsburgh, headed to Kentucky to help. She is providing assistance at a shelter in Madisonville.

"I want to be here to make their Christmas Day the best that it could possibly be," she said.



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