Disaster and drama were prevalent on the pages of The Chronicle throughout the year, but no story touched Bay Area readers in 2014 quite like the shocking death of comedian Robin Williams.
The comic actor’s suicide was chosen by Chronicle reporters and editors as the biggest news story of the year, beating out California’s historic drought and the magnitude-6.0 Napa earthquake, which were chosen as the second and third most impactful stories.
The Chronicle’s annual top 10 list is full of the unusual and extraordinary — and, let’s face it, most of the news is bad — but the glorious World Series victory by the Giants stands out as an oasis of good. It finished fifth on this list, which also includes stories about the arrest of state Sen. Leland Yee, Bay Area gentrification, defects on the new Bay Bridge eastern span and the recent protests against racial injustice.
One should keep in mind, lest anyone think The Chronicle’s staff is dwelling on the negative, that shining a light on incompetence, wrongdoing and tragedy can lead to positive changes in attitudes, policies and procedures. The Williams story is tragic, but it highlighted the ephemeral nature of fame and fortune and inspired people to talk about and get help for depression.
The following are The Chronicle’s top 10 stories in 2014:
1Robin Williams’ death: The discovery of Robin Williams’ body inside his Tiburon home Aug. 11 was a shattering blow to his fans, especially when it was revealed that he had committed suicide. The manic genius of comedy had risen from small clubs in San Francisco to become a worldwide television and film star, but he remained a local guy until the end. He would show up at local comedy clubs and could often be seen riding his bicycle near his home.
The death brought to the surface the 63-year-old performer’s struggles with depression, and alcohol and cocaine addiction. It was also revealed that Williams had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Flowers piled up at makeshift memorials at his home in Tiburon and the house in San Francisco featured in the film “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the 1993 comedy in which he starred.
His children issued heart-wrenching statements about their father, describing him as a warm, kind, gentle and generous person.
“I feel stripped bare,” said his daughter, Zelda Williams, who could have been speaking for the entire world.
2 Drought: California suffered throughout the year from one of the worst dry spells in the state’s modern history, a three-year period that has depleted the water supply.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency early in the year, and things got worse from there. This past year was the third-driest on record, behind only 1924 and 1977. It was also the warmest year on record in the state, according to California Climate Tracker.
The drought led to drastic reductions in water allotments, forced residents to ration water and caused farmers to leave vast tracts of land fallow.
The water battles are expected to continue despite recent storms. Plenty of rain has fallen, but the amount of snow that has dropped in the mountains this winter is still less than the historical average.
3 Napa earthquake: The region’s strongest earthquake in a quarter century rumbled through Napa at 3:20 a.m. Aug. 24, sending glass shards flying, wine barrels tumbling and large chunks of historic downtown buildings crashing into the street.
One woman was killed in Napa and as many as 200 people were injured in the magnitude 6.0 quake, which also fractured utility lines, toppled chimneys and uprooted foundations in nearby Vallejo. The quake caused more than $400 million in damage, three quarters of it in Napa.
The Napa Valley’s fabled wine industry took an $80 million hit in shattered barrels, bottles and equipment. At least 120 of the valley’s 500 vineyards, wineries and production facilities reported quake damage to their wine or structures, most of it caused by tumbling barrels.
4 Leland Yee’s arrest: The saga of state Sen. Leland Yee is a kaleidoscope of racketeering, bribery, weapons trafficking, money laundering and a few other schemes and intrigues, according to FBI records. It all started after a five-year FBI probe led to the March 26 arrest of Yee. He and 28 other defendants were later charged with corruption by a federal grand jury.
The FBI investigation began with alleged Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, who is accused of agreeing to launder $2.3 million in criminal proceeds, and then proceeded to include Keith Jackson, a former San Francisco school board president, and Yee. The FBI says Yee and Jackson solicited contributions to the senator’s unsuccessful campaign for San Francisco mayor in 2011 and his recent campaign for California secretary of state in exchange for promises of political favors. The San Francisco Democrat, suspended by fellow lawmakers after his arrest, has pleaded not guilty.
5 Giants’ World Series title: It’s like the clockwork in a cuckoo clock. The Giants keep winning the World Series — every other year. They beat the Kansas City Royals 3-2 in Game 7 of the Series in October, the third world championship in five years for manager Bruce Bochy’s team.
The star this time was Madison Bumgarner, who won Game 1 of the Series, tossed a four-hit shutout in Game 5 and then shut the door on the Royals in the final game on short rest, a feat that won him Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year award.
“Sometimes we sit around wondering if Madison is human,” reliever Jeremy Affeldt said after the game.
6 Protests over police killings: Thousands of demonstrators blocked streets and highways, broke windows and played cat-and-mouse with police in San Francisco, Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley for weeks in December to protest grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for the killings of unarmed black men.
The sign-waving throngs marched, chanted and, at times, confronted merchants who got in their way during a series of actions designed to draw attention to the deaths of Eric Garner, in New York, and Michael Brown, in Missouri, and the decision not to prosecute the officers who killed them.
The protesters, at various times, blocked Market Street in San Francisco, shut down East Bay freeways and chained themselves to the front doors of Oakland police headquarters. Their message, scrawled on dozens of signs: “Black lives matter.”
7 Gentrification in S.F., Oakland: Anger is percolating in the Mission, Excelsior, Richmond, Cole Valley and Sunset districts of San Francisco as technology workers with lots of money replace longtime blue-collar residents.
The most dramatic transformation is occurring in the Mission District, where increasing rents and soaring real estate prices are changing the community into a more upscale district. Latino families are being replaced by highly educated white and Asian tech workers willing to pay $3,500 or more a month in rent. Longtime institutions along 24th Street are being threatened with eviction.
Oakland, too, is dealing with gentrification. The East Bay’s biggest city has seen a surge in the number of companies and residents relocating from San Francisco.
8 Bay Bridge defects: The $6.4 billion eastern span of the Bay Bridge has been beset by problems, from defective bolts and corrosive leaks to protected birds interfering with the demolition of the old span. It was even found that palm trees recently planted west of the toll plaza are infected with a fungus, pink rot.
One of the most serious discoveries was that nearly all of the 423 steel rods that anchor the tower of the new span are sitting in potentially corrosive water. Some were submerged in several feet of water in part because not enough grout had been pumped into protective sleeves to keep them dry, officials told members of a bridge project oversight committee.
Meanwhile, an investigative report on the quality-control processes for the Bay Bridge project said Caltrans “gagged and banished” at least nine engineers who raised concerns about cost overruns or construction defects on the new span.
9 Yosemite, Weed wildfires: A giant, wind-whipped blaze roared through the Siskiyou County town of Weed in September, one of a dozen late summer wildfires, including two major blazes near Yosemite National Park, that put California firefighters on their heels.
The Boles Fire forced 2,000 residents of Weed and the surrounding communities to flee as homes and buildings erupted in flames and crews struggled to control an inferno that caught them by surprise. Fanned by gusting winds, the Boles Fire jumped Highway 97, raced into the community and damaged or destroyed 100 structures before firefighters had a chance to respond.
The fire engulfed homes, the town mill and businesses in Weed. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries or fatalities, but it was the culmination of a bad fire week. It came on the same day that the Courtney Fire tore through a community 14 miles south of Yosemite, where weary firefighters were just getting a handle on the 4,772-acre Meadow Fire. More than 1,000 people were forced to flee the Courtney Fire, which destroyed 33 homes and 28 outbuildings near Oakhurst, in Madera County.
10 Levi’s Stadium’s opening: It was a chaotic opening for the 49ers’ new stadium 36 miles south of San Francisco. Thousands of the 70,799 fans who packed Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on opening day were furious.
The problems during the regular-season opener were echoes of previous complaints of gridlocked traffic, overwhelmed transit service, and parking and access problems during the first four events at the stadium, starting with a San Jose Earthquakes soccer match. Oh, and the stadium’s turf had to be replaced three times because of faulty installation.
Then, just as the problems seemed to ebb, a video of a brutal beating of a fan at the Oct. 5 game began circulating, adding thuggery to the stew of problems for the more than $1 billion stadium.
Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @pfimrite