Florida stories that made shockwaves in 2019

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s been an engrossing year, punctuated by unforgettable events, many of which happened in the Sunshine State.

Here’s a look at some of the Florida stories that made it to the top of the News4Jax homepage in 2019 -- some having a direct impact right here in the River City.

Boeing 737 crashes to a halt in St. Johns River

A military-chartered jet carrying 143 people landed hard, then bounced and swerved as the pilot struggled to control it amid thunder and lightning, ultimately skidding off the runway at Naval Air Station Jacksonville and coming to a crashing halt in the St. Johns River.

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Courtesy of Naval Air Station Jacksonville

It meant chaos and terror for passengers in the Boeing 737 as the plane jolted back and forth and oxygen masks deployed, then overhead bins opened, sending contents spilling out.

Amazingly, all the people on board survived.

“I think it is a miracle,” said Capt. Michael Connor, the base’s commanding officer, hours after the plane landed. “We could be talking about a different story this evening.”

The St. Johns Riverkeeper said that environmental damage appeared to be minimal. A Navy spokesperson said 1,200 gallons of fuel were removed, which would mean about 400 gallons leaked into the river. Crews set up booms to contain the spill, and it’s uncertain how much of the fuel was recovered from the water.

READ: Report from National Transportation Safety Board

The aircraft had no prior history of accidents, said NTSB vice chairman Bruce Landsberg.

Days after the crash, the airplane was lifted out of the water onto a barge. It was then towed away from the Navy runway and moved to shore at Reynolds Industrial Park.

Florida abuzz over Gov. Ron DeSantis

Gov. Ron DeSantis is arguably one of the most popular governors the state has seen in decades. Nearly two-thirds of Floridians approve of DeSantis’ job performance as his first year in office comes to a close -- slightly more than liked his performance earlier in the year, according to a recent Mason-Dixon poll.

DeSantis gets high marks throughout the state, including a 56% approval rating from voters in heavily Democratic Southeast Florida. His strongest support is in North Florida, where 72% approve of the governor’s performance.

Highlighting the state’s accomplishments in 2019, Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran dubbed DeSantis the “Education Governor," according to Florida Politics. Among the initiatives were a $75 per-student increase in the Base Student Allocation. Corcoran also praised DeSantis for a $602 million proposal to raise starting teacher pay in the state.

The Tampa Bay Times said DeSantis is the politician who had the best year in Florida politics. It wrote in part:

“Twelve months into his first term in office, DeSantis’s strategy is working. He pushed through one of the most conservative agendas Florida has seen while still achieving high approval ratings. Republicans across the political spectrum love him. Even Democrats acknowledge he’s better than the (President Donald) Trump acolyte they expected.”

Hurricane Dorian: Close call for Florida, devastating for the Bahamas

All of Florida was, once again, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best as Hurricane Dorian, which intensified into Category 5 strength, set its sights on the state.

WATCH: WJXT original documentary ’96 Hours of Anguish’ highlights destruction, dedication in Bahamas

Florida by and large was spared from Dorian’s wrath, as the storm stayed well off the state’s East Coast. By the time the storm got close to the state, it had weakened to Category 2 strength.

The Weather Authority said a track of just 20 to 30 miles closer to us would have resulted in a completely different outcome.

Dorian is the 35th Category 5 storm to form in the Atlantic since 1924. It’s now the strongest storm on record to occur east of Florida and so far north, with wind gusts of 220 mph.

Dorian devastated the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm, and at least 70 deaths were recorded in the country. In addition, 282 were missing after the storm made landfall. Since then, communities have come together to help those in the Bahamas who were left devastated by Dorian.

Saudi student opens fire at Naval Air Station Pensacola

Three people were killed and twelve others were injured when an aviation student from Saudi Arabia opened fire in a classroom at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

Victims of Friday's morning's mass shooting: Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg, Florida; Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Georgia; and Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, from Coffee, Alabama.

The FBI is presuming the shooting “was an act of terrorism,” according to the FBI special agent leading the investigation. Mohammed Alshamrani, a 21-year-old second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force and a student naval flight officer, opened fire in a classroom building, the FBI said. Alshamrani was killed after two deputies exchanged gunfire with him.

Alshamrani was able to get a state hunting license in July that he used a short time later to legally purchase a 9mm Glock 45 pistol. The shooting sparked a bill -- spearheaded in the House by Democrats Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg and Val Demings of Orlando and Republican John Rutherford of Jacksonville -- that would address foreign nationals who meet current requirements to buy handguns in the United States.

READ: Proposal targets Pensacola shooter ‘loophole’

It would require them to petition the U.S. attorney general before being able to buy guns and would lead to more-rigorous background checks.

Federal law generally prevents people in the United States on non-immigrant visas from having guns. But an exception allows them to have guns if they have valid hunting licenses.

‘Marsy’s Law’ put to the test

A Florida police chief’s decision not to release the names of some of the five women killed in a bank shooting represented the first high-profile test of a law enacted in several states that pits victim privacy against the public’s right to know.

The police chief in Sebring declined to release the names of some of the slain women, citing a provision in the “Marsy’s Law” amendment to the state constitution that voters approved in November 2018. Florida’s law specifically allows crime victims to prevent the disclosure of information that could be used to locate or harass them or their families.

But allowing crime victims to determine what information gets released to the public sets a dangerous precedent, said Barbara Petersen of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation. Petersen maintains police are misinterpreting the new provisions in a way that could deal a major blow to the public’s right to information about its government.

Beyond the concerns of open government advocates, law enforcement officials in some states say Marsy’s Law could hinder their ability to solve crimes if they can’t release some details to the public.

Agencies like the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office adopted an opt-in approach. They will not release crime victims’ personal details unless the victim or their family waives their right to keep the information private.

Others, including sheriff’s offices in Bradford, Clay, Nassau, Putnam and St. Johns counties are following an opt-out approach, therefore, crime victims must ask to keep those details under wraps.


About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident & broadcast news producer who's been reporting & writing for nearly a decade here at The Local Station.