• By The Associated Press
  • Saturday, December 29, 2018 11:35pm
  • News

Deadliest shooting at an American high school: Parkland, Florida.

Deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century: Paradise, California.

Deadliest attack on Jews in American history: Pittsburgh.

The cities of Parkland, Paradise and Pittsburgh became synonymous with tragedy in 2018, a year when the nation seemed to careen from one deadly horror to another. Yet in every calamity, there were people who showed their humanity, their selfless strength and their sense of duty amid the suffering.

As the year draws to a close, Associated Press reporters on the front lines of some of the year’s heartbreaking stories offer up accounts of compassion and decency.

‘I CHOSE TO ACT’

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said no class in any seminary could have prepared anyone for the role he was thrust into.

Myers was leading Shabbat services when gunfire erupted inside his Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27. After helping others to safety, Myers turned back and raced up the stairs to a choir loft, where he called 911. Seven members of his Tree of Life congregation and four others in the building were killed.

As the Jewish community grieved, Myers took a leading role during public memorials and presided over seven funerals in the space of less than a week.

“I really had two choices when it came down to how to respond,” Myers said. “One of them was … curl up with a bottle of scotch. The second choice was to act upon it. I chose to act upon it.”

His response inspired Tree of Life congregants, including retired psychiatrist Joe Charny, 90.

“There’s no question that he’s been super, and it’s hard to imagine that anybody could have done a better job,” Charny said. “He has the right touch. He has maintained through all this a sense of humor. I don’t know how he’s done that.”

Myers has vowed to no longer use the word “hate.”

“To me, that’s the mission that has come out of this, that for 11 beautiful people to have not died in vain,” the rabbi said. “The conversation about hate speech in America must be elevated and it must gain attention, because that type of speech leads to action such as what happened at my synagogue.”

— AP writer Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

A MORBID BUT CRITICAL TASK

It was the week before Thanksgiving when Craig Covey got the call for what would be his most difficult mission as a search-and-rescue team leader: picking through the ashes of Paradise for human remains.

It was a morbid but critical task.

A wildfire that swept through on Nov. 8 all but obliterated Paradise, once home to 27,000 people. To find and identify the 86 dead, authorities had to call on searchers like Covey to gather up what amounted in some cases to little more than teeth, bone fragments or artificial hips. Then they had to rely on the expertise of rapid-testing DNA labs, forensic anthropologists and other specialists.

“It was apocalyptic up there,” Covey said several weeks after returning home to Costa Mesa, California.

Covey’s team is deployed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to disasters across the country and beyond. Earlier this year, his team helped rescue an exhausted 82-year-old man who had been flushed out of his car by floodwaters and pinned in some trees amid Hurricane Florence in North Carolina.

Paradise was different, but brought rewards of its own.

“We weren’t shaking hands with people,” Covey said. “But we were making a difference for folks, for closure, who are missing their families.”

— AP writer Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, California

DOGS IN TUNE WITH HUMANS

When classes resumed in late February following the massacre of 17 students and staff at Parkland’s Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, a therapy dog by the name of Fergie was brought in.

Fergie, an 8-year-old cross between a golden retriever and a poodle, zeroed in on one young man and sat on his feet the entire class, barely moving, said Aneysi Fernandez, volunteer coordinator of the nonprofit group Canine Assisted Therapy.

“It turned out that was one of the students who lost most of his friends in the shooting,” said Fernandez. “Some of our dogs like Fergie are very in tune with human emotions.”

Several therapy animal groups helped out in those dark days after the Feb. 14 mass shooting. The dogs — and in some cases, donkeys and horses — went into the cafeteria and classrooms. They were also at vigils and marches.

Fernandez’s organization sent 35 therapy dogs and their handlers into the school. All of the animals were trained and selected for their calm, happy demeanor.

Some Parkland students specifically asked for a dog to shadow them during classes, saying that the animals’ presence eased the stress of returning to a place where such a horrible thing happened.

“It’s nice not to be asked any questions, to not have to relive the event,” Fernandez said. “Everyone grieves differently. Students who didn’t want to talk could pet a dog.”

Ten months after the tragedy, a dozen dogs still show up at the school every day, mostly to sit by the side of those teens who need a calming presence.

— AP writer Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Florida

‘IT’S IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD’

It was known as the Wall of Forgotten Natives, a sprawling homeless encampment that sprouted along a Minneapolis freeway sound barrier over the summer.

Most of those living there were American Indians, who make up an outsized portion of the homeless population in the city, and the tents stood on what was once Dakota land.

University of Minnesota medical and law student Kristina Tester grew up nearby and began helping at the camp as part of an elective rotation for her degree. She began doing clean-needle exchanges and continued on as a volunteer for months after her assignment ended.

“There’s really not much of a difference between myself and any of the residents who are here at the homeless camp, other than sort of luck of the draw and geographic-political lottery,” she said.

The 26-year-old Tester said she organized groups of university students to do laundry for camp residents. She also served meals about once a week with neighbors. Recently she delivered cookies and blankets made by high school students.

Tester, who is non-Indian, said she did it because “it’s in my neighborhood.”

At its peak, the encampment had 300 people, but they began moving into a temporary shelter across the highway as winter approached.

Maggie Thunder Hawk, 56, an Oglala Lakota from Wanblee, South Dakota, picked up two blankets that Tester delivered.

“If it wasn’t for her, we’d be cold, because she brings us warm blankets,” Thunder Hawk said.

“I love her.”

— AP writer Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis

In this Dec. 13 photo, Kristina Tester, left, hands out cookies made by high school students to residents of a homeless camp made up mainly of Native Americans in south Minneapolis. Tester, who is both a medical student and a law student at the University of Minnesota, grew up near the camp. She began helping at the camp this summer as part of an elective rotation with the Native American Community Clinic in Minneapolis, and continues to volunteer. (AP Photo/Jeff Baenen)

In this Dec. 13 photo, Kristina Tester, left, hands out cookies made by high school students to residents of a homeless camp made up mainly of Native Americans in south Minneapolis. Tester, who is both a medical student and a law student at the University of Minnesota, grew up near the camp. She began helping at the camp this summer as part of an elective rotation with the Native American Community Clinic in Minneapolis, and continues to volunteer. (AP Photo/Jeff Baenen)

In this Oct. 28 file photo, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, of Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Congregation hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman during a community gathering held in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

In this Oct. 28 file photo, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, of Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Congregation hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman during a community gathering held in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

More in News

Vice President Tyson Cox speaks during a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in Soldotna, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Assembly to discuss short-term rental tax on Tuesday

The resolution describes a proposed tax of up to 12%

Photo provided by Special Olympics Alaska Central Peninsula
The Special Olympics Alaska Central Peninsula team stands together for a photo during the Summer State Games in Anchorage.
Area athletes claim 45 medals at Special Olympics Alaska Summer Games

The Central Peninsula team fielded 17 local athletes in the competition

tease
Homer, Seldovia to celebrate summer solstice

Events will be held starting June 20

A freshly stocked rainbow trout swims in Johnson Lake during Salmon Celebration on Wednesday, May 10, 2023, at Johnson Lake in Kasilof, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Slow sockeye fishing at Russian River, good rainbow trout at Kenai Lake

A Northern Kenai Fishing Report published by the State Department of Fish… Continue reading

Council member James Baisden speaks in favor of an amendment to the City of Kenai’s budget that would add funds for construction of a veteran’s memorial column in the Kenai Cemetery during a meeting of the Kenai City Council in Kenai, Alaska, on Wednesday, June 5, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai budget amendment allocates funds for veterans’ columbarium in cemetery expansion

A columbarium is an aboveground structure that houses cremated remains

Council member Alex Douthit speaks in favor of an amendment to the CIty of Kenai’s budget that would reduce funds allocated to the Storefront and Streetscape Improvement Program during a meeting of the Kenai City Council in Kenai, Alaska, on Wednesday, June 5, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Funding reduced for City of Kenai’s storefront improvement grant program

Just over a year after the City of Kenai established its Storefront… Continue reading

Mount Redoubt can be seen across Cook Inlet from North Kenai Beach on Thursday, July 2, 2022. (Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion file photo)
Hilcorp only bidder in Cook Inlet oil and gas lease sale

8 million acres were available for bidding in the sale, spread across Cook Inlet and the Alaska Peninsula region

Council member Phil Daniel speaks during a meeting of the Kenai City Council in Kenai, Alaska, on Wednesday, June 5, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
City of Kenai approves budget

A draft of the document says that the city expects to bring in around $19.5 million in the next year, and spend $20.2 million

A sockeye salmon rests atop a cooler at the mouth of the Kasilof River on Monday, June 26, 2023, in Kasilof, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
A sockeye salmon rests atop a cooler at the mouth of the Kasilof River on Monday, June 26, 2023, in Kasilof, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Kasilof River personal use setnet opening delayed

Low counts for Kenai River early-run king salmon motivate restriction

Most Read