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2010: A quake, a meltdown, a dramatic rescue

December 22, 2010 GMT

The disruptions of earthly existence came from some unlikely places in 2010: ash from an Icelandic volcano; the contents of an airline passenger’s underwear; a website called WikiLeaks spilling the secret cables of international diplomacy onto front pages across the world.

More than ever, for good and or bad, history became an experience shared worldwide, from the horror of Haiti’s earthquake at the start of 2010 to the thrill that coursed across the continents in October as Chilean miners trapped underground for 10 weeks were winched to safety.


The year opened with two images — one of triumph, another of tragedy. The world’s tallest skyscraper, more than 160 stories high, was inaugurated in the Persian Gulf state of Dubai, only to be eclipsed within days by the elegant white presidential palace of Haiti, collapsed in an earthquake that killed 230,000 people.

And near year’s end came another defining image, this time from a London street — Prince Charles and his wife Camilla looking shocked and frightened as a mob inflamed by Europe’s deepening financial meltdown besieged the couple’s Rolls-Royce as they headed to the theater.

Here’s a look at the things that the world saw — and will remember — from 2010.


TERRORISM. It struck far and wide — in Kampala, the Ugandan capital; on a Stockholm street; in the Moscow subway. Other bombings claimed many more lives in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Authorities on three continents aborted a multipronged terror attack aimed at the U.S. from Yemen, seizing two explosive packages addressed to Chicago-area synagogues and packed aboard cargo jets. A car bomb was planted at Times Square in New York City but didn’t go off, and in November the FBI said it thwarted a plot by a Somali teen to bomb a crowd of thousands in Portland, Ore.

The year 2009 had closed in the shadow of the so-called Christmas Day bomber, a Nigerian student who tried to blow himself up on a Detroit-bound airliner with explosives hidden in his underwear. That made 2010 the year of the pat-down and full body scan as airport security was pushed yet another notch higher.

In Europe, attitudes toward Muslims appeared to harden. Parties advocating a crackdown on Islamic activity came off the fringes and scored wins in elections. To some degree the discourse mirrored events in the U.S., where angry confrontations arose over an imam’s plans to build a mosque and community center near the site of the 9/11 attacks.


A Christian pastor in Florida briefly grabbed the world’s attention by threatening to burn a Quran — a Muslim holy book — on Sept. 11. He didn’t, but the mere threat provoked riots in some Muslim countries.


CONFLICT AND DEFENSE. In Afghanistan, the U.S. escalated its war on the Taliban and suffered rising casualties to more than 480 troops confirmed dead as Christmas approached, the worst year since the 2001 invasion, compared with just over 300 in 2009. In August, the last combat brigade withdrew from Iraq, with all remaining U.S military personnel to be gone by next December. But a similar broad pullback from Afghanistan looked unlikely before 2014.

Iraq’s March election ended inconclusively, and it took nine months of political haggling to swear in a government and give Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a second term. Meanwhile the fragile calm was repeatedly broken by bombings and shootings, one of the worst of them an attack on a Christian church in Baghdad in October that left 68 dead.

U.S. President Barack Obama signed a nuclear arms reduction deal with Russia, but his effort to broker a deal between Israel and the Palestinians sank into limbo after the U.S. gave up on pressuring Israel to stop building settlements.

Israel’s alliance with the U.S. was shaken by the feud between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the settlements, and Netanyahu’s government drew more international rebuke in May because of a botched raid on a Turkish ferry trying to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine civilians died in the attack, and days later Israel eased the blockade.

The Middle East neared year’s end with no major flare-up of violence, but on the Korean peninsula, hostilities worsened. In March a South Korean warship was sunk with 46 lives lost — South Korea accused North Korea of torpedoing it — and in November, North Korean artillery shells hit an island, killing two South Korean marines and two construction workers, and destroying many homes and stores.

In Thailand, political strife led to a two-month standoff with soldiers and police in the heart of Bangkok. Parts of the stock exchange were torched, along with a huge shopping mall and other landmark buildings.


DISASTERS. Natural and manmade, they took their toll. Heavy floods took some 2,000 Pakistani lives and at one point put a fifth of the country under water. Earthquakes struck not just Haiti but Turkey, China, Chile and New Zealand. Indonesia suffered deadly volcanic eruptions. In October, a deluge of toxic red sludge from an aluminum plant engulfed several Hungarian towns and burned people through their clothes. The BP oil spill in April was the worst in U.S. history.

The interlinked nature of modern life was reflected in a different way when an Icelandic volcano erupted in April, spewing so much ash that flights in northern Europe were grounded for five days and millions of passengers were stranded.


POLITICS. In Myanmar, also called Burma, democracy campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was released after more than seven years under house arrest. It came after the military junta held an election in which neither Suu Kyi nor her party were allowed to participate.

Perhaps the worst political tragedy of the year was a plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and a host of other dignitaries as they traveled to a commemoration of a massacre that had divided Russia and Poland for nearly 70 years. But the unexpected result was a warming of relations between the stricken Polish nation and a sympathetic Kremlin.

In November it was the turn of the U.S. government to feel the heat as WikiLeaks poured out the first of some 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, exposing the inner thinking of leaders worldwide to the mercies of the media, the Internet, Twitter and Facebook.


MONEY CRISIS. Europe’s headlines were dominated by joblessness and the harsh remedies prescribed by its governments. Striking workers shut down much of Portugal. Ireland faced its deepest budget cuts in decades. David Cameron, elected in May as the kingdom’s first Conservative prime minister in 13 years, sharply hiked college fees, provoking the riots that reached Prince Charles and his wife.

The gloomy economic picture in Europe and the U.S. was in striking contrast to countries such as Brazil, China and India, which were once among the have-nots of the Third World and are now industrial powerhouses that registered hefty exports and growth rates in 2010.

In midyear, China officially surpassed Japan to become the world’s second biggest economy, eager to flex its newfound diplomatic muscle and showing little inclination to ease its authoritarian ways. When the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize went to Chinese human rights campaigner Liu Xiaobo, Beijing kept him in prison and pressured 16 governments into boycotting the December awards ceremony.

Brazil, on the other hand, seemed to have little trouble managing both national wealth and a flourishing democracy as its years of dictatorship fade into history. President Luiz Inacio da Silva is stepping down after two terms as a leftist-turned-free marketeer who introduced ambitious programs for the poor and became the country’s most popular leader. Elected to succeed him is another ex-leftist, Dilma Rousseff.


UPS AND DOWNS. South Africa successfully hosted the soccer World Cup, bringing pride to the continent while introducing its global audience to the vuvuzela, the plastic horn whose exuberant braying became the hallmark of the cheerleading.

Africa’s struggle to shake off poverty and bad government had its ups and downs — a coup in Niger, a disputed election in Ivory Coast that led to violence, and a historic step forward in Guinea, where a long era of military rule ended with the West African country’s first election.

Mexico, endured another year of drug war that claimed thousands of lives, yet managed to bounce back from deep recession and celebrated its bicentennial nationwide and peacefully.

Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage, while Colombia and Chile elected new presidents (Juan Manuel Santos and Jose Pinera).


TRIUMPHS. 2010 was the year in which American scientists created the first functional synthetic genome, and the International Space Station set a record for a full decade of continuous human presence. a giant Swiss drill finished Earth’s longest tunnel, and the Large Hadron Collider under the Swiss-French border finally started smashing atomic particles to investigate fundamental mysteries the universe.

But the year’s most memorable drama of human ingenuity and compassion unfolded far to the south, in the Atacama Desert of Chile. There, on Oct. 13, a thin metal tube came up from the depths carrying Florencio Avalos, the first of the 33 miners to be rescued. They had been trapped 700 meters (2,300 feet) underground for 69 days, during the first 17 of which no one knew if they were alive or dead.

“We have done what the entire world was waiting for,” said foreman Luis Urzua, the last man out. “We had strength, we had spirit, we wanted to fight, we wanted to fight for our families, and that was the greatest thing.”