These 15 stories resonated with Seattle Times' readers in 2018.

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Most of The Seattle Times’ top stories of 2018 had national relevance — but all were uniquely Puget Sound.

The peril of orcas in our waters. An unauthorized takeoff of a passenger plane from our major airport. Hot dogs at our national warehouse-store chain.

Our most-read topic of the year, with no other coming close, was orcas, specifically the story of Tahlequah, a mother who carried her dead calf for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles. Reporter Lynda V. Mapes wrote dozens of stories about the saga; the top four alone garnered millions of page views.

Why? It wasn’t just a story about a whale. It was a story about us.

“Animals sometimes say things more clearly than people, and Tahlequah, clinging to her dead calf, for many people, said it all,” Mapes says. “Every parent, everyone who has ever lost a loved one, no matter where they live or who they are, could respond to this story.”

Explore a selection of 2018’s top stories below based on online readership, and learn about why Seattle Times journalists think they resonated with readers.

These stories only offer a snapshot of important news over the past year and don’t fully reflect some important stories, like Seattle’s attempt to levy a head tax on big businesses; firestorms that cast a smoky haze for weeks over the region; the deaths of notable people, like Paul Allen, Rev. Samuel B. McKinney and Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen; and the Seattle Storm winning the WNBA championship.

15. Seahawks safety Earl Thomas carted off with lower leg fracture, appears to flip off Seattle sideline

Seahawks defensive back Earl Thomas gestures to the Seahawks bench after he went down with a leg injury in the second half of a game against the Arizona Cardinals in September. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

If this was it for the original Legion of Boom — and really, can there ever truly be another? — then it was about as sad an ending as could have been envisioned.

With Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman gone, Thomas had held out all of training camp in hopes of a new contract, finally returning without one to collect $500,000-per-week game checks. Still, when he played, he played well — snagging two interceptions in a key win over Dallas the week before.

On the same field where Sherman and Chancellor played their final Seahawks snaps the previous year, Thomas broke his leg while trying to defend a pass that turned into an Arizona touchdown. The initial shock and growing sadness over his injury turned to downright melancholy when Thomas flipped off the Seattle bench as he was carted off the field, making clear his latent unhappiness with his situation.

The gesture was hardly visible from the press box seemingly a million miles away in cavernous State Farm Stadium, and reporters spent the next few moments seeking out replays.

Seattle won the game, but the story of the night was Thomas, which even Seahawks players understood. “I feel like we were the losers at the end of the day because we lost a Hall of Fame player. We lost a player you can’t replace,” said defensive end Frank Clark.

The Seahawks were 2-2 before Thomas got hurt, and 7-4 afterward heading into the final game of the regular season. While no one would say they weren’t a better defense with him, they have also proven they could move on.

— Bob Condotta, Seahawks beat reporter

14. Why don’t police enforce laws against camping in Seattle parks and streets?

(Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times)

Seattle’s neighborhood internet channels were awash this year in stories and pictures of public camping — just look on NextDoor, neighborhood blogs, or any one of many Facebook pages dedicated to homelessness in the Seattle area. That makes sense — some neighborhoods, like Ballard, saw a triple-digit jump in people camping in cars or RVs. But it angered some business owners and residents, who didn’t understand why police wouldn’t come in and sweep all the tents away. “Isn’t public camping against the law?” many asked.

When we asked readers what they wanted to understand about homelessness, this question was our most popular, with more than 1,700 votes: Why don’t police enforce laws against camping in Seattle parks and streets?

I think it got so much attention — including a higher proportion from the Seattle area than usual — because everyone in the city is trying to figure out how to best deal with camps on the streets in a safe, humanitarian way. City Attorney Pete Holmes has said we can’t arrest our way out of the problem — but it’s unclear what effective alternatives exist.

— Scott Greenstone, Project Homeless engagement editor

13. Seattle dethroned as nation’s hottest housing market after nearly 2 years

(Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

For years, there was only one story in the Seattle-area real estate market: Things keep getting worse and worse for buyers. So it was actual news when Seattle was knocked down to merely the second-hottest market in the country, dethroned by Las Vegas over the summer. It turned out to be the early days of a shift: Home prices have fallen for the past six months, the first downturn in the market since the recession.

A lot of readers were clearly craving some sign that Seattle was not in an inevitable march toward San Francisco- or Vancouver-level unaffordability. On the other side are homeowners who often have a majority of their net worth tied up in their home, follow its value like a stock price, and now might be anxious about another housing bubble.

— Mike Rosenberg, reporter

12. ‘The Property’: A family’s getaway cabin defined its dreams, until a tragic Sunday morning

Jerry Drake, 42, takes a selfie with his wife Jenny, 42, Braeden, 11, behind, Dylan, 2, in her lap, and Zachary, 8, at right, at the family property in Brinnon, Jefferson County. (Photo courtesy of Drake family relatives)

When news broke that five people had been killed in a fire at a small cabin in Jefferson County, the initial narrative for some — spurred by inaccurate television reporting — spiraled out of line with reality, before even the most basic facts had been gathered.

“SQUATTERS,” Jerry wrote on Facebook.

“I figured meth lab hahaha,” said Damian.

Tony shared a frame from “Breaking Bad.”

At the worst moment of their lives, relatives of the Drake family, who were killed in that fire, dealt with not only deep tragedy, but seeing their loved ones cruelly turned into a scandal on Facebook. It intensified their pain.

This story — born, in part, of relatives’ desire to set the record straight — revealed who Jenny and Jerry Drake were and what that little cabin, a single loft room in the woods, meant to them. It represented their values — a loving family owning a little patch of this Earth where their boys, Braeden, 11, Zachary, 8, and Dylan, 2, could roam wild and free.

“The story of the fire itself is traumatic, but that wasn’t the point,” said Emily S. Dabney, Jenny’s sister, in a recent interview. “It shouldn’t be about their death. It’s about their life and their dream.”

The holidays have been hard, Dabney said. The Drakes loved gathering with extended family. When they arrived at relatives’ homes, the family burst into the door loud, and with energy.

“There isn’t anything you can do that doesn’t tie back to that loss,” Dabney said of the season.

Hopefully, the story resonated with readers and helped them better understand a remarkable young family of Pokémon chasers, monster-truck lovers and road-trip adventurers. Hopefully, it spurred them to feel empathy for the loved ones the Drakes left behind.

At the very least, perhaps we can all agree to hold our tongues.

As Dabney put it: “I don’t think people think enough about what they say. Words mean so much.”

— Evan Bush, reporter

11. Costco changes up food-court menu, but the $1.50 hot-dog deal remains

Some changes at Costco’s food court, but not the hot dog!  (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

It was a couple of retired Seattle Times editors who first raised the alarm about a change to the food-court menu at Costco. “Flea-sized tip,” read the subject line of the email from one, relaying the news that the Polish hot dog was going away. It was late June, heading into arguably the peak of hot-dog season, and this had the makings of the perfect summer story.

Coverage of Costco frequently draws a large readership, as the company has an avid following — many of whom had no doubt already noticed the change. We reached Costco’s chief financial officer, Richard Galanti, who probably had more important things to do but took the time to confirm and explain the fate of the Polish. He assured people that the regular all-beef hot-dog combo at Costco remained on the menu at the same $1.50 price offered since 1985.

Still, a great hue and cry went up around the internet and beyond. Galanti said his staff sent him some of the 250 news clips from around the country they’d seen in the week following the Times story. But Costco was unmoved. Galanti is a numbers guy. The regular hot dog was the much more popular item, he said.

— Benjamin Romano, reporter

10. Washington state voters agree to regulate guns, including semi-automatic rifles

Initiative 1639 sponsor Paul Kramer, left, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Grandmothers Against Gun Violence President Margy Heldring talk during an election-night party in November.  (Jason Redmond / Special to The Seattle Times)

This was the only state with a gun-control measure on the November ballot. And it won easily, with 59 percent of the vote, by the time all votes were counted.

The result showed a new political reality, at least locally, in the wake of countless mass shootings and the rise of pro-gun-control activism among young people. Supporters raised $5.5 million during the campaign, dwarfing the $622,000 contributed to the opposition, largely by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.

Reporting in Central Washington, we found a deep antipathy for Initiative 1639, which some saw as coming into their homes and telling them what to do. But the yes campaign brought new voices into the debate, like 22-year-old campaign manager Stephen Paolini, himself a gun owner and the son of an NRA gun-safety instructor. He and others in the campaign argued that the sweeping initiative — which among other things proposed raising the age of buying semi-automatic rifles and holding owners responsible if their weapons get into the wrong hands — was not against guns, but for responsible gun ownership.

The debate is not over, however. The initiative faces at least one lawsuit from the NRA, the Bellevue-based Second Amendment foundation and others seeking to block the initiative. They argue, among other things, that it violates the constitutional right to bear arms.

— Nina Shapiro and Daniel Beekman, reporters

9. African-American man fighting for his life after unprovoked racist ‘rage’ attack in Auburn

LaDonna Horne stands at the bedside of her son, DaShawn Horne, who was brutally beaten in Auburn on Jan. 20, 2018, and was treated at the intensive-care unit at Harborview Medical Center.  (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

DaShawn Horne is a former Federal Way football star and mail carrier.

Horne met a woman at a Seattle nightclub on Jan. 19 and spent the night with her at her family’s Auburn home. The next morning, as Horne was about to climb into a Lyft, the woman’s brother attacked him with a baseball bat and beat him into unconsciousness, telling Horne, “This is what happens when you bring black people around here.”

Horne, now 27, suffered a traumatic brain injury and spent 103 days at Harborview Medical Center, the first two months in a coma. He lost his senses of smell and taste, and suffers from aphasia, a loss of the ability to understand or express speech due to brain damage.

In November, Julian Tuimauga was sentenced to 13.3 years in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree assault with a deadly weapon and malicious harassment, the state’s hate-crime statute.

Stories about hate crimes and racially motivated attacks have always resonated with readers. But this one was particularly brutal and jarring because of the perpetrator’s ugly, unbridled racism and the life-altering injuries sustained by Horne. Another element is the fact that the number of hate crimes has skyrocketed across the country since the 2016 presidential election. In Seattle, for example, the number of reported hate crimes almost doubled, from 118 incidents in 2016 to 234 in 2017.

The largest number of hate crimes reported in Seattle involved crimes directed at someone’s race and/or ethnicity.

— John de Leon, metro editor

8. Washington state lawmakers make speedy move to shield their records from the public

Sen. Sam Hunt, right, D-Olympia, confers with Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, in February at the Capitol.  (Ted S. Warren/AP)

In Olympia, state lawmakers often pass bills to little fanfare or public reaction.

But in 2018, legislators put themselves in democracy’s hot spotlight — and not in the ways they’d wanted — with their bill to exempt the Legislature from Washington’s Public Records Act.

Lawmakers have long claimed to be exempt from the voter-approved public records law, which requires public servants to release documents such as calendars, emails and reports on harassment or abuse.

But a court ruling in January found lawmakers had violated the Public Records Act by withholding records. Several news organizations — including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times — brought forth the lawsuit. The case has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Lawmakers didn’t want to wait to see what the state Supreme Court might decide.

Instead, legislative leaders in February introduced a bill to remove themselves from the Public Records Act. Senate Bill 6617 made some documents going forward — such as emails from lobbyists and final harassment reports — public. But it kept other communications secret, including all past records, and provided no independent judicial review — making the Legislature its own gatekeeper.

Lawmakers introduced and passed the bill within 48 hours with veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate. It bypassed the traditional lawmaking process, and rank-and-file legislators were not given the chance to make changes to it. Only a handful of Washington’s 147 lawmakers were willing to give their thoughts on the bill before voting on it.

The people of Washington took notice. Nearly 20,000 wrote, called or emailed Gov. Jay Inslee, nearly all of them urging him to veto the bill. Others wrote their lawmakers directly, and the editorial pages of newspapers around the state joined together to oppose it.

Facing tremendous public backlash, Inslee vetoed the bill and lawmakers — for the time-being — backed down.

— Joseph O’Sullivan

7. Horizon Air worker takes plane from Sea-Tac Airport, crashes on island in South Puget Sound

Like many breaking-news stories, a tweet first alerted me to the Horizon Air chaos. It was from a fellow Seattle journalist who was stuck on a plane about to take off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. I thought it was a run-of-the-mill complaint about plane delays, a popular hobby of traveling journalists. But it was much more: She wrote that her captain said someone had taken off unauthorized. Something was wrong.

I live near the newsroom, so I headed back to the Times building. I have lots of experience with trying to make sense of confusing and ever-changing situations, but this was different. We had to piece together what was happening at the same time as government agencies. Another reporter was able to listen to the employee — later identified as Richard Russell — as he spoke to air-traffic controllers. We soon heard from witnesses who had seen a plane go down in Pierce County.

Through the evening we spoke to eyewitnesses, aviation experts and airline officials. One witness told me that he saw two fighter jets trailing the Horizon plane and that it was “unfathomable.” Others in the newsroom did the heavy lifting over the weekend, trying to figure out who this man was, how he was able to get into a plane and take off, and what it all means for airlines and airport security.

It was an odd story that turned tragic. We have audio of Russell describing some of what he saw as he flew over Puget Sound. Mount Rainier, the Olympics, these gems of the Pacific Northwest must have been so beautiful from the cockpit. But what was he really thinking? Was he scared? And why did he decide to take off that evening? We’ll never know.

— Reporter Paige Cornwell with reporter Agueda Pacheco-Flores

6. ‘Suddenly, there is a Confederate flag flying’ in Seattle’s Greenwood area — well, not quite

Rebecca Morris wanted to know why somebody was flying a Confederate flag in her Greenwood neighborhood. It wasn’t a Confederate flag; it was a Norwegian flag.  (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

The story came in as a news tip from a woman who said somebody was flying a Confederate flag. What? In liberal, liberal Seattle?

I drove out to the neighborhood, and it was pretty obvious this was the Norwegian flag. The guy flying the flag explained how he was proud of his heritage. The woman who mistook the flag’s origins took a second look and said that maybe “we’re so stressed by all things political that we see things that aren’t there.”

The story went around the world. I was contacted by media from Norway. It got linked on numerous sites.

There are certain stories such as this one – that combine an innocent mistake with a serious matter (flying a Confederate flag when racial tensions are in the news) – that readers can’t help but to engage.

The Times’ former Metro editor sent me the original tip. We instantly both knew the story would resonate, although how much it resonated surprised me.

— Erik Lacitis, reporter

5. ‘It’s surreal’: Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market sold to fish-throwing employees

The fish business by Rachel the Pig under the Pike Place clock is both a legacy market business and a major tourist attraction. Four of the fish mongers purchased the business and it will remain in its prominent place.

It’s not often employees have the opportunity to buy the business where they work. They did so.
The fish they toss are not sold to shoppers. While their pitching and catching is stellar, the fish get bruised. Those fish wind up being tossed to the grizzly bears at Woodland Park Zoo — after so many frequent-flier miles.

— Alan Berner, photographer, and Christine Clarridge, reporter


4. Seahawks owner Paul Allen gives $100,000 to help Republicans keep control of U.S. House

Billionaire Paul Allen’s gift drew attention. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

This was kind of a gut-instinct story. I knew when I saw the donation that it surprised me, and probably would surprise a lot of readers. It definitely was read with a hyper-partisan lens in terms of reactions. We’re so polarized in the Trump era that of course anyone perceived as a major GOP benefactor is going to get heat from our Seattle readership.

The other part of the story was that it was a definite shift in Allen’s political giving from past years, and one of the largest donations to that Protect the House PAC, right amid the midterm elections. Because Allen is a billionaire and in particular because he owned the Seahawks, the story was bound to draw eyeballs.

Allen died on Oct. 15 at 65 from complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, just two weeks after announcing he had restarted treatment for the cancer that he had previously fought off in 2009.

— Jim Brunner, politics reporter

3. Rare brain-eating amoebas killed Seattle woman who rinsed her sinuses with tap water. Doctor warns this could happen again

An MRI of the Seattle woman’s brain in January 2018. Doctors initially thought the ringed lesion on the left was a tumor, because the woman had a history of breast cancer. (Dr. Daniel Susanto / Swedish Medical Center)

This story started off as a news tip from one of the researchers, but quickly took on a life of its own. It took a few weeks for me to learn all about the woman’s case and translate that information into a complete story.

I think stories about human health resonate with readers because they’re pretty universal in the fact that we all have a body to look out for. I received dozens of emails and messages from readers asking questions on how to avoid infection from brain-eating amoebas because people care about staying healthy and alive. Although the woman’s case was rare, I really got the impression that readers appreciate learning about potential health risks in everyday life. Also, in general, a unique health anomaly and a headline containing “brain-eating amoeba” draws some attention and conversation.

— Hannah Rodriguez, reporter

2. ‘Unwanted subject’: What led a Kirkland yogurt shop to call police on a black man

Byron Ragland speaks in front of a frozen-yogurt shop in Kirkland in November. The police department there apologized after officers helped the owner of the Menchie’s shop expel Ragland from the business because employees said they felt uncomfortable. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The story of the black man having the police called on him just for sitting in a Kirkland yogurt shop resonated for an unconventional reason — which is that nothing really happened. Nobody was arrested, or slammed on the hood of a patrol car. There was no dramatic video. No one even really did anything technically wrong. The outrage of the story was in its ordinariness.

— Danny Westneat, columnist

1. After 17 days and 1,000 miles, mother orca Tahlequah drops dead calf, frolics with pod

Talequah the mother orca whale J35 clings to her calf in an eighth day of mourning as she swims in Swanson Channel, BC on Tuesday, July 31. 2018. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Animals sometimes say things more clearly than people, and Tahlequah, clinging to her dead calf, for many people, said it all.

Here was a mother unwilling to let go of her baby, which lived only half an hour in a population of critically endangered animals that has not had a successful pregnancy in three years.

Every parent, everyone who has ever lost a loved one, no matter where they live or who they are, could respond to this story. It captured the attention of millions around the world.

Of course, for people in the Northwest who care about the orca and the persistence of wild nature in a rapidly growing region, the story had yet another layer of meaning.

This was a terrifically hard story to cover, and not just emotionally. Documenting what was going on with Tahlequah, a wild animal swimming more than 1,000 miles over the course of 17 days, took hustle not only by me, but by whoever was running the newsroom when news broke at any hour. I remain grateful for the team inside the newsroom that brought this story to the world, and to the scientists and conservationists who took us out on their boats to help us bear witness to Tahlequah and her loss.

I will never forget my last sight of her, swimming off by herself in a remote cove, still with her calf. Its white patches glowed in the summer sunset as Seattle Times photographer Steve Ringman shot as many frames as he could in the fast-fading light. The opportunity came after an all-day search. Finally, Taylor Shedd of Soundwatch cut the engine on his boat, and pointed. There she was, in the distance. Steve made the picture, the searing image we were looking for. I texted in my report on the day, sending it with a quarter-bar of cell service minutes from deadline. All these stories were like that. The story about the day Tahlequah finally dropped her calf broke within minutes of our last deadline on a Saturday night and was managed by our chief political writer, Jim Brunner, who was holding down the night weekend shift. So Tahlequah was all of our story at The Seattle Times. She continues to be all of our story in a region reckoning with the plight of the southern residents. There are only 74 left.

— Lynda Mapes, environment reporter

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