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2001: Unforgettable

Nikki Cecka hands baby Cameron to dad, Whidbey 24 crewman David Cecka. - Ken George
Nikki Cecka hands baby Cameron to dad, Whidbey 24 crewman David Cecka.
— image credit: Ken George

It was a year that will not be forgotten.

The year 2001 will undoubtedly be remembered as a year of great tragedy in the nation and no less on Whidbey, where the presence of the Navy base is a very visible reminder of world conflict and the possibility that terror could hit home.

The grief was compounded in Oak Harbor by the death of four prominent community members when a sight-seeing plane crashed in Mexico.

The nation’s slumping economy, worsened by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, caused budget problems for both the Island County commissioners and Oak Harbor city council.

It was also a year of great patriotism. Whidbey residents responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by embracing Old Glory.

Members of the media from around the world reported on the yellow ribbons that Oak Harbor residents tied in honor of the Navy VQ-1 aircrew held in China after a mid-air collision. The Whidbey 24 returned home to a hero’s welcome in Oak Harbor.

Here’s a look at the unforgettable year, in review:

January

Oak Harbor School District Board of Directors selected long-time resident Gary Wallin to replace Jim Slowik, who resigned two months earlier.

Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen notified four employees that they were being laid off because of the city’s financial emergency. Those laid off included a two staff members in the police department, a clerical person in the fire department and a supervisor in the city hall.

Firefighters were called to a fire at a Scenic Heights home too late to save the older house from being destroyed by flames. Luckily, nobody was injured, but renters David and Sandra Horning were left homeless.

February

Oak Harbor and Freeland counselor Glenn Jolley was arrested by Oak Harbor Police for fondling a patient. He was eventually tried on charges of rape, indecent liberties and attempted indecent liberties and was found guilty of indecent liberties. He is due to be sentenced Jan. 3.

Navy Petty Officer Paul Green, 32, was found guilty during a court martial proceeding of murdering his wife, Petty Officer Linda Roy, at their home in Oak Harbor in the fall of 1999. He had strangled her and then drove her body to the gate of the Navy base. Green was sentenced to 37 years in prison.

Navy Chief Petty Officer Mike Goodwin was named sailor of the year, a Military Service Award sponsored by GEICO insurance company. He and his wife, Brenda, traveled to Washington, D.C., in April to meet President Bush.

March

The 6.8 Nisqually earthquake is felt by Whidbey Island residents, but only caused minor cracks in a couple of buildings, along with some broken glass and china. Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Navy officials, as well as many residents, were on a demonstration ferry ride when the quake hit. The earth-shaker caused million of dollars in damage in the Seattle area.

For the first time in 30 years, Oak Harbor voters passed a school levy. In fact, the voters approved two school propositions that helped start a hot lunch program and increased school funding by $2.3 million for more teachers, aides and longer school days. A third proposition for a $7.9 million stadium project failed.

Oak Harbor teachers united against the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the state achievement test administered to fourth, seventh and tenth-graders. A leader of the teachers’ union contended that the test forces teachers to teach to the test and oversimplifies the challenges faced in public education.

Deputy Rob Hardcastle saved a suicidal woman who tried to jump from the Deception Pass bridge. Hardcastle spoke to the troubled Bellevue resident for about 20 minutes while traffic backed up for miles on either side of the bridge. When the woman let go of the rail and begin to fall, the veteran deputy quickly managed to grab her and pull her to safety. He was later awarded a Washington State Life Saving Medal.

Kathy McClymont, the director of the Island County Emergency Dispatch Center in Oak Harbor, died suddenly and unexpectedly after collapsing at home. She was eventually replaced by Tom Shaughnessy, who resigned as director of the Island District Economic Development Council to take the job.

Oak Harbor’s only commuter airline, Harbor Air, lost its gate at Sea-Tac Airport for failure to pay lease fees. The Gig Harbor-based company eventually stopped flying and closed the Oak Harbor Airport facilities because of financial trouble.

April

The 24 members of an Oak Harbor-based aircrew aboard a Navy EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance plane was held by the Chinese government following a mid-air collision with a Chinese intercept jet. The pilot was forced to land the damaged plane at a Chinese airstrip. The international incident brought hoards of media people from across the globe to Oak Harbor. Residents tied yellow ribbons all over town in support of the VQ-1 aircrew. Gov. Gary Locke came to Whidbey to comfort the crew’s frightened family members. The Chinese released the crew after 11 days. They returned to a grand homecoming ceremony at the base, complete with hundreds of well-wishers and a media circus. Several members of the crew were interviewed by Larry King, live from Oak Harbor.

Oak Harbor’s annual Holland Happening festival was transformed into a homecoming parade for the Whidbey 24 crewmembers. Texas rich-guy Ross Perot sent the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders to Oak Harbor to enliven spirits.

Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen chose former Federal Way Administrator Ken Nyberg as her new city supervisor. He quit a few months later.

Cohen merged three city departments into a single one in order to increase the efficiency of the permitting process. The planning, engineering and building departments are combined into a single department called “permitting and development services.” The change eventually leads to long-time planning director Tom Burdett’s resignation.

May

Problems with Island County’s new $5 million Law and Justice building in Coupeville leave many employees cold, cramped and unhappy. Public works staff methodically worked through many of the problems from a list of over 200 complaints. A Coupeville antiques dealer also raised questions about how the county disposed of the furniture in the annex building, which is currently being remodeled.

Coupeville High School Principal Fred Dahlem left after three years to take a job in Everett. He was replaced by Coupeville Middle School Principal Phyllis Textor.

Marine researchers announce that Rosie the gray whale is actually a guy. A biologist used DNA samples from the whale, which was found on a Greenbank beach in 1999, to determine the sex of the giant mammal. Island County Beach Watchers worked hundreds of tireless hours to clean the 32-foot skeleton, which now hangs in the Coupeville wharf.

June

Members of the VFW in Oak Harbor raised money to send a Pearl Harbor survivor Richard Skidmore on one last trip to the site of the infamous Japanese attack.

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and Oak Harbor businesses stepped up to sponsor the city’s Fourth of July fireworks display after the Chamber of Commerce made pleas for funding.

Oak Harbor City Administrator Ken Nyberg announced that the city will not renew Tony Barge’s contract as police chief. Barge had worked in the department for 30 years. While Capt. Rick Wallace has served as interim chief, the city advertised nationwide for the position. Six candidates came to the city and went through a rigorous interview process this winter.

July

A Sedro-Woolley father and son drown in Crescent Harbor when their boat overturned in high winds. A third man was saved by a fast-thinking Navy man who paddled out to the man on a piece of driftwood. Friends of retired Navy man George Helland and his 13-year-old son, Clifford, put up a driftwood cross on the shore as a memorial. A week later, North Whidbey resident Marvin Searle drowned in the same waters while trying to swim out to his boat.

Members of the volunteer Island County Law Library Board and the county commissioners locked horns over the issue of space for the library. The board members were angered after the library space was twice reduced and given to the prosecutor’s department. A lawsuit is pending.

Coupeville School District officials announced that a decrease in enrollment will compound budget problems the district already faces because of state cuts in education spending. The student enrollment for the coming school year is 30 fewer than the year before, meaning a loss of $120,000.

August

Jerry Lee Farrow, 23, of Michigan was arrested for shooting his girlfriend and mother of his child, 23-year-old Petty Office Faith Ellison, in the head at her Oak Harbor home. He was charged with second-degree murder with a deadly weapon and convicted in a trial in December. He will be sentenced in January.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen of Everett vowed to fight President Bush’s plans for base closures after he is appointed to the House Armed Services Committee. Whidbey Island Naval Air Station is one of the bases he said he’ll try to protect.

Island County commissioners granted pay raises to elected officials in five county departments. The auditor, assessor, treasurer, clerk and coroner’s salaries are hiked from $54,892 to $58,121.

September

The county Health Department looked at taking legal actions against the owner of the Wagon Wheel Mobile Home Park for poor septic-system management. Health officers urged the commissioners to take strong action against Al Verbarendse for allegedly creating a health hazard by improperly disposing of human waste. Verbarendse denied any wrongdoing.

Whidbey Island residents were shocked at the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Naval Air Station Whidbey Island went on highest alert. Traffic at the gate backed up for miles. The Red Cross was inundated with donations and people offering to give blood. Dozens of worried investors called their advisors. The police started getting calls about suspicious Middle Eastern people. An antique fire truck in front of the Oak Harbor fire department became a spontaneous memorial.

Four prominent members of the Oak Harbor community were killed when a sightseeing plane went down in Mexico. Ted Zylstra, Mary Kearney, and Lois and Dwight Mitchell were remembered by family and friends city-wide.

Three boaters accidentally breached security at the Navy Seaplane Base when they motored a 37-foot houseboat into Crescent Harbor, docked the boat at the Navy marina and walked on base. The accidental intruders only discovered they were in an off-limit area when a cashier at a gas station yelled at them.

October

Coupeville resident Bret Evans was killed when a five-seat airplane crashed after take off from Decatur Island in San Juan county. The 39-year-old father of two was installing carpet at a home and was on his way home when the West Isle aircraft was apparently hit by a downdraft. The pilot and an Anacortes man were also killed.

A story in the Washington Times revealed suspected terrorist activity around the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley held a press conference to explain that the cases were investigated by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and most turned out to be unrelated to terrorism. Hawley did release a sketch of a suspicious man who requested maps of the area around the base just prior to Sept. 11. The man was never found.

November

County voters joined with statewide voters in passing property-tax-limiting Initiative 747 during the general election. Former city employee Eric Gerber was elected to the Oak Harbor city council, while incumbent Richard Davis held onto his seat. In Coupeville, Robert Clay won a council seat and incumbent Phil Williamson kept his seat by the slimmest of margins.

Three crew members on a EA-6B Prowler from the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station survived after their jet crashed during a routine flying mission over the Olympic peninsula.

Oak Harbor businesses and civic groups hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for the needy and lonely at the Elks Club. The Coupeville community put on the annual dinner at the town’s rec hall.

The North Whidbey Physicians Clinic was told to move to Skagit County after a state audit revealed that the clinic should not have been operating within the Island County Public Hospital District. The hospital district officials refused to negotiate to keep the popular clinic in Oak Harbor.

December

Oak Harbor nursing student Stephanie Colwell-O’Neal was killed in a crash on slush-covered roads.

Both county and Oak Harbor officials were faced with balancing budgets that were heading toward red ink because of the slumping economy and Initiative 747. County officials end up dipping into the reserve fund and cutting back on expenses. Oak Harbor officials created a 6 percent utility tax and raised property taxes by “unbanking” last year’s unused capacity.

Two customers at Market Place Foods in Oak Harbor intervened in an armed robbery and aided the police in catching the bad guys.

Community Events, April 2014

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