It almost feels like it’s now become the norm for, at the end of each year the world to sigh collectively – “what a year that’s been.”
Whether the world is genuinely becoming a more terrible place, or whether we feel increasingly jaded by bad news stories given the relentless onslaught of information is up for debate.
But what does seem clear is that there are those news events which have the power to seemingly unite the world, thanks to their sheer strangeness, or uniqueness – the sense that this is something the like of which planet Earth has never seen before.
Often it’s the element of human tragedy that makes these stories so compelling, and, in the best cases, the ability for those involved to overcome some struggle.
The last decade has witnessed several defining movements - from the Arab Spring, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, rising populism and a reinvigorated focus on the climate crisis. But some individual stories have also had the power to elicit what feels like a global response.
Here are some of the wildest, most tragic, and most endearing stories of the last decade – the times when it felt impossible not to follow the story.
1. Iceland volcano, 2010
No sooner had the decade begun than Eyjafjallajökull erupted – prompting travel chaos, an apocalyptic atmosphere and a pronunciation challenge for non-Icelandic newsreaders everywhere.
Having laid dormant since 1823, the eruption, in the south of Iceland, saw ash shoot 30,000 feet into the air, creating a dark cloud that quite literally hung over Europe and caused the widest disruption to air travel since WWII.
Over a period of six days, hundreds of locals were evacuated and tens of thousands of flights were cancelled.
Simon Calder, our veteran travel writer, was forced to travel home on a container ship after finding himself stranded in Norway. He shares his memories of the Eyjafjallajökull episode.
“Disruption is a daily hazard in air travel, but this was a whole new scale: the skies of northern Europe completely closed to passenger aviation for almost a week because of fears that dust could damage aircraft engines and endanger travellers.
I calculate that eight million passengers, booked on over 50,000 flights, found their flights cancelled.
I was one of them: I was skiing in Norway when I saw a headline on the front of the Dagbladet newspaper reading: “Vulkan-Aske fra Island STOPPER fly Norge.”
You didn’t need to speak Norwegian to realise that air travel was beginning to unravel.
I had flown to Oslo as an airline passenger on SAS, but travelled back as freight on a container ship. By the time the vessel arrived in Immingham, it was clear that this was the worst crisis in European aviation since the dark days following 9/11.
The following days were characterised by stories of desperate travellers, growing frustration at what was increasingly seen as a gross overreaction, and various airlines failing to respect their obligations under European air passengers’ rights rules.”
2. Chilean mine cavers, 2010
In the first but by no means the last enthralling cave disaster of the decade, 33 men became trapped for a staggering 69 days after a collapse at the copper and gold mine in which they worked.
A true testament to the strength of the human spirit, the miners sent videos to the surface via a mini-camera, and were said
Their eventual rescue, after two months, involved Nasa, and was watched by over a billion people worldwide, according to Chile’s state broadcaster - but it did take 23 hours.
Mexican film-maker Patricia Riggen directed the 2016 film, The 33, and tells The Independent why the story spoke to her.
“The idea of brotherhood was what drove me to tell this story. That is why I find these 33 men admirable.
“And the world united in that moment to make this true miracle of humanity and technology and chance happen. It was the fact that they kept it together under the worst circumstances ever imagined, and helped each other, that they were able to stay alive.
“And above ground people did the same, uniting forces, bringing everyone together: government, technology, resources, the love of the families, and the faith that they were still alive.
“I love telling stories about the human spirit. About the best we have in ourselves. About humanity, which for me is the ability to rise to the circumstances and reach beyond ourselves for a greater good— to help a loved one, or a complete stranger. This is what makes life truly worth living. It’s what makes us humans. The Chilean miner’s story is one that we can all be proud of as humans.”
3. Fukushima, 2011
Its modern image created largely in the shadow of the devastating twin atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japan found itself victim to another nuclear crisis - this one triggered by the 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake.
That tremor and subsequent tsunami killed over 15,000 people and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant - displacing hundreds of thousands of people. This was a modern-day Chernobyl, in the internet era. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) which operated the plant, spent months denying a meltdown had occurred, and public mistrust remains high. In September of this year, the Japanese government announced it might have to soon release one million tonnes of contaminated water into the sea.
In November 2011, eight months after the accident, journalists were, for the first time, allowed to visit the site.
Writing for The New York Times, Martin Fackler wrote that:
“About three dozen journalists sat on two buses. We wore protective suits, double gloves, double layers of clear plastic booties over shoes, hair covers, respirator masks, and carried radiation detectors. As we drove to the Fukushima plant, we passed through a police checkpoint, and saw three towns – Naraha, Tomioka, Okuma – empty of all inhabitants. Among the abandoned homes was a flower shop with plants, withered and dead, still on display.
At the base of the reactor buildings, there were crumpled trucks, contorted metal girders and frames of buildings, a huge storage tank dented and bent, and pipes twisted by the forces of nature. The damage reached up to the second storey, attesting to the tsunami's 14-metre size. A four metre-high sea wall has been built with rocks in black nets. Tepco said it was a makeshift defence against another tsunami. The reading here was 300ms.
The nuclear crisis minister, Goshi Hosono, came to address the men here. “Every time I come back, I feel conditions have improved,” he said. “This is due to your hard work.” He said he is aiming for a cold shutdown by the end of the year. All good news, then? Not quite. There are still 30 years of work after that, he said, referring to the dismantling of the reactors.”
4. Killing of Osama bin Laden, 2011
In what would become a defining moment of Barack Obama’s presidency, and after 10 years in hiding, Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was located to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Killed and buried at sea, the circumstances of his death were a foreshadow of the 2019 killing of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - likely also to become one of Donald Trump’s key legacies.
Sohaib Athar, a software expert, had recently moved to Abbottabad, in the eastern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region, and inadvertently live-tweeted witnessing the May 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound, conducted by Seal Team Six.
He tells The Independent he has no regrets about tweeting that night.
“I was mostly amused - not by the raid of course, that was serious stuff - but by the irony of moving from Lahore to Abbottabad for some peace and quiet and landing in the middle of an international incident.
“I don’t regret tweeting that night - it gave me a fresh perspective on how the multiple sides of a story are perceived by people from different parts of the world, and how easy it is for all sides involved to force a certain narrative on the world by a deliberate choice of words and cherry-picking.
“I live in Islamabad now, but still have a tiny home in Abbottabad, and my coffee shop is still operational, so I visit every few months.
“The media coverage that the incident received, and is still receiving, enforced an image of Pakistan that is reinforced at every 'anniversary'. Pakistan is a mostly normal country if events are not sensationalised disproportionately. Abbottabad moved on a couple of weeks after the incident, the rest of the world still calls it news.”
5. Haiti earthquake, 2010
Already suffering from decades of political and economic turmoil - 70 per cent of the population was living under the poverty line at the time - the devastating tremor killed a quarter of a million people, and left a further 1.5 million living in makeshift camps.
Naromie Marline Joseph Fatal, a psychological support worker with MSF in Haiti, tells The Independent about that day, and the months and years that followed.
“I experienced the earthquake the same way that everyone else did, I was helpless. I thought that an atomic bomb had gone off, the noise was so loud.
“I saw buildings and trees collapsing, one after another… and the hospital, a five-storey building, was trembling. I couldn’t go anywhere - I lay down on the floor and clenched my fists. God, help me!, I prayed.
“In the days that followed, tractors picked up bodies as if they were rubbish. Four years later I spoke to a psychologist myself, to chase those images away.
“After the earthquake… psychological support was needed on a massive scale. The level of need was huge – there were bereaved parents, depressed people, the shock of the deaths.
“I began working full time with MSF, as they were the only organisation who were taking care of people with psychiatric needs. It needs to be said that what happened pushed people who were already fragile over the edge.
“It was an event that touched all of humanity, 300,000 dead is unthinkable. International aid and media attention were particularly strong over the five years following the earthquake.
“We’ve heard a lot of talk about reconstruction. Me, I haven’t seen it yet. We’re still waiting.
6. Flight MH370, 2014
When Malaysia Airlines flight 370 went missing on 8 March, 2014, the world was transfixed. Immediately as it became clear the flight was nowhere to be found, Twitter was awash with wild theories, and overnight, we all became aviation experts.
For those who had seen Lost, the story seemed eerily familiar - so I’m told. Had the plane actually disappeared?
But despite the best efforts of Malaysian authorities to insist the plane would be found, and all 227 passengers and 12 crew were still alive, it was soon clear this was either a tragic accident or mass murder.
Again, Simon Calder reflects on this truly mysterious event.
“Before 8 March 2014, aviation had a long history of planes disappearing mysteriously. But none was on the scale of MH370.
The Malaysia Airlines jet had taken off from Kuala Lumpur on a routine flight to Beijing. The first the world knew that anything was wrong what when air-traffic controllers in Vietnam were unable to make contact with the Boeing 777. After some fictitious reports that it had landed in southern China with technical problems, MH370 was declared missing and presumed to have crashed in the South China Sea.
The manifest showed there was 239 people on board (though some say there may have been at least one more, hiding in an under-floor bay before perpetrating an act of mass murder).
For a week, rescuers conducted a fruitless search in the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam. Then, at a dramatic press conference in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, announced that the aircraft had remained aloft for hours after it disappeared. An analysis of automated signals by Inmarsat revealed the 777 must have flown along one of two arcs: northwest across southern China towards the Caspian Sea, or south across the Indian Ocean to an area west of Australia.
The authorities concluded that the former was impossible without the plane being spotted, and Australia took control of the search operation. From an air force base north of Perth, reconnaissance flights begin of the presumed crash area. Plans were made for an unprecedented, and ultimately unsuccessful, sweep of the ocean floor. Fragments of the aircraft started washing up on Indian Ocean beaches – though analysis of the species of barnacles that had grown up on the aircraft’s “flaperon” failed to help locate the wreckage.
One person very close to the saga believes the plane will be found in the southern Indian Ocean once undersea drone technology makes it feasible to deploy 100 or more unmanned devices to plumb the depths for signs of former life.
Investigators have evaluated many explanations to explain the disappearance, but all of them have deep flaws. The least unlikely is that the aircraft’s commander, Captain Zaharie Shah, intentionally hijacked his own aircraft in order either to take his own life and kill everyone on board, or to land or ditch the plane and survive.
Could a passenger or member of cabin crew hijacked the plane? Was MH370 hijacked remotely in a sophisticated act of cyberterrorism. Could a stowaway concealed in the avionics bay by the flight deck have seized control, either in a suicidal mission or with the intention of landing at a remote island?
Only when divers assess the wreckage will a narrative start to emerge – and even then, the grieving relatives may never know the full story of how and why their loved ones died.
A disappearing plane; the destruction four months later of another Malaysia Airlines 777 by a Russian-built anti-aircraft missile over Ukraine; and the two Boeing 737 Max disasters, in which computer software overpowered the pilots – while aviation became ever safer between 2010 and 2019, anxious passengers may not feel that way.”
7. Thai cave boys, 2018
It would be remiss not to mention the second inspiring cave rescue of the decade - the Thai teenage football team who went missing for 18 days when their coach took them on a post-training adventure. Heavy rains soon led rapidly rising waters soon blocked off their entrance into the Tham Luang Nang Non cave, and again the world was transfixed, first in fear - no contact was made for the first week, until the boys sent a note - and then in optimism, when an international band of cave divers, entrepreneurs and NAVY seals worked on various plans of action.
One Thai NAVY Seal died during the efforts, and while two British divers were instrumental in ultimately retrieving the boys, an international team worked together to secure their route out.
Ben Reymenants, a Belgian cave diver based in Thailand, was involved in the initial search and rescue operation.
“First minute I was like, wow, this is stunning, it’s a really beautiful cave, in a not so happy situation – and then I saw the water, which resembled a Colorado river, brown mud and the high force coming out of the cave and my initial thought was – there’s no way. This will never work,” he reflected in a documentary, 13 Lost – the Amazing Cave Rescue.
With a 30-year-old hand-drawn map his only assistance, Ben soon found out that no one had ever dived the cave before.
“I quickly found out why - it was really dangerous conditions, current, lack of visibility, entanglement, more restrictions, not very human friendly.
“I had very little hope for the kids.
Children tend to survive longer than adults in extreme exposure conditions, as long as they don’t panic… I wanted to keep an open mind, but I didn’t want to turn it into a suicide mission.
Before the diving even begun, “that’s when all my hopes sank. It was like a giant cup of cappuccino you’ve just stirred around… this deadpool pulling you in. High pressure on you, physically, mentally as well, because they’re all looking at you like they’re you’re going to save the kids.”
But the children were ultimately saved, miraculously extracted from the labyrinthine cave network, (and no thanks to Elon Musk’s submarine design), and the world collectively exhaled.
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