It might be remembered as the year when the unthinkable happened in Spokane.
Things that “can’t happen here,” did in 1994.
A gunman ran amok in a military hospital. A sitting speaker of the House was defeated. A bomber fell out of the sky.
Those were the choices for the top stories of 1994 by readers casting ballots in a Spokesman-Review poll.
More than 125 readers called Cityline or sent faxes to the newsroom to match their choices against the people who write, edit and illustrate the newspaper. Readers and newspaper staff had the same three stories on top.
When former airman Dean Mellberg killed four and wounded 22 at the Fairchild Air Force Base hospital complex, he shattered two long-held images of security. If Spokane was considered safe, the base was considered impregnable.
“We used to live on base. We felt untouchable,” said Rachel Mossor, a Spokane homemaker whose husband was formerly in the Air Force.
“It was so devastating, so close to home,” said Sharon Olp, a customer service representative for a wholesaler. “It could have been me out there. It could have been anybody.”
Rhonda Deniston, a student teacher, said two shocking events at Fairchild, the shooting and the June 24 crash of a B-52, will be forever linked in her memory.
Charlie Johnson and Sharon Wollweber-Johnson said they had to split their votes for the area’s top story between Mellberg’s shooting spree and George Nethercutt’s defeat of Tom Foley.
“The emotions involved in both of those made them both top stories,” said Johnson, a real estate agent. “But I suspect that 100 years from now, the shooting incident won’t be remembered, but Foley’s defeat will be remembered.”
Those two stories competed for the top spot on many ballots.
Joanne McCann, who followed the election closely and attended several congressional debates, said Spokane made national history and garnered world attention in the election with Nethercutt’s run against Foley.
“There was tremendous interest. I was interviewed by a reporter from London after one debate,” she said.
Foley’s loss may have epitomized the nation’s anger with an arrogant Congress, and with Democrats, said Wayne Lythgoe, a retired aerospace worker. He thought the Republican takeover of the state House of Representatives was the second most important story.
Lythgoe said the elections showed that the news media, too, is out of touch and arrogant.
In a separate survey, the newspaper staff’s choices for the top stories were remarkably similar. Most of the same stories were in both group’s top 10. Readers and newspaper staff were asked to vote on 35 stories that received extensive coverage in 1994.
Readers tended to rate the region’s forest fires higher than newspaper staff.
“For a long period of time, it was a preoccupation,” said former police officer Jack Austgen, who moved to Spokane from Detroit in May. “You’d get up every morning, check the paper to see if Leavenworth (Wash.) was still there.”
Dave Walker gave high ratings to stories that showed how the region is changing - a major cocaine bust and a high school counselor’s arrest and conviction for paying students to make pornographic movies.
The drug bust, dubbed Operation Doughboy by narcotics agents, is sending several prominent Spokane residents to jail. “It shows even money can’t protect you,” said Walker, a retired AT&T; technician.
Davenport counselor Charles Jungblom’s actions rocked a small town and was another example of things that people used to say “can’t happen here,” he said.
“The faith those kids put into their school administrators was betrayed,” Walker said.