Somali pirates hijack Maersk Alabama ship

Year
2009
Month Day
April 08

Pirates had not captured a ship sailing under the American flag since the 1820s until April 8, 2009, when the MV Maersk Alabama was hijacked off the coast of Somalia. The high-profile incident drew worldwide attention to the problem of piracy, commonly believed to be a thing of the past, in the waters off the Horn of Africa.

Decades of instability in Somalia and the accompanying lack of policing in its territorial waters led to a resurgence of piracy in the region that peaked in the late 2000s. Just a day before the attack, the Maersk Alabama received warning from the United States government to stay at least 600 miles off the coast of Somalia, but Captain Richard Phillips kept the ship about 240 miles from the coast, a decision which was later criticized by members of his crew. On April 8, the crew saw a skiff carrying four armed pirates approaching the ship and initiated the protocol for such an event. Chief Engineer Mike Perry got most of the crew to a safe room and managed to swamp the pirates’ craft by swinging his ship’s rudder, but the pirates were nonetheless able to board and take Phillips hostage. After one of their number was injured fighting with the ship’s crew, the other three pirates fled in a lifeboat, taking Phillips with them in the hopes of using him as a bargaining chip.

Early the next morning, the destroyer USS Bainbridge and another U.S. Navy vessel arrived on the scene. What followed was a three-day standoff, with the pirates holding Phillips in the lifeboat. Attempts to negotiate failed, and at one point the pirates fired (harmlessly) at the destroyer. Finally, on April 12, with authorization from recently inaugurated President Barack Obama, Navy SEAL snipers opened fire on the lifeboat. In a stunning display of accuracy, the SEALS firing from a ship’s deck through the windows of the tiny boat hit all three pirates in the head, killing them, while leaving Phillips unharmed.

The surviving pirate, Abduwali Muse, was taken into custody and later sentenced to over 33 years in U.S. prison—though he was tried as an adult, he and the other hijackers were reportedly all teenagers at the time of the attack. The incident received international attention, bringing the problem of modern-day piracy to many people’s attention for the first time. Phillips’ story was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks. Piracy remained an issue in the region—the Maersk Alabama herself was the target of four more pirate attacks between 2009 and 2011, each of which was repelled by armed security teams.

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GE finally initiates cleanup of polluted Hudson River

Year
2009
Month Day
May 15

After decades of environmental damage and legal wrangling, General Electric finally begins its government-mandated efforts to clean the Hudson River on May 15, 2009. One of America’s largest and most prestigious corporations, GE had dumped harmful chemicals into the river for years and spent a fortune trying to avoid the cleanup.

GE’s plants at Hudson Falls and Port Edward, two towns in upstate New York, dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a harmful compound manufactured for GE by Monsanto, into the Hudson from 1947 to 1977. The State of New York banned fishing in the Upper Hudson in 1976 due to the pollution, and in 1984 a roughly 200-mile stretch of the river was declared a Superfund site, requiring GE to pay for the cleanup. Via lawsuits, lobbying efforts, and public relations campaigns, GE fought back until 2002, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced a final decision that the corporation would, in fact, have to foot the bill. Even then, GE dragged its feet for seven years before dredging finally began.

The dredging, which cost GE $1.6 billion, lasted from 2009 until 2015. By all accounts, significant progress was made, and observers have applauded the return of some of the river’s wildlife. Still, few believe that GE truly cleaned up its mess. Despite the removal of 3 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments, the state has challenged the EPA’s assertion that GE held up its end of the bargain, pointing to studies that show significant levels of PCBs in the Hudson. The state still warns children and those who may bear children against eating fish and other wildlife caught in the Hudson, advising adult men to limit their consumption, as well as counseling citizens to try to avoid swallowing the river’s water.

READ MORE: The Shocking River Fire That Fueled the Creation of the EPA

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Sonia Sotomayor is sworn in as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Year
2009
Month Day
August 08

On August 8, 2009, Sonia Sotomayor is sworn in as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Sotomayor is the first Hispanic justice to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Sotomayor’s mother was an orphan from rural Puerto Rico. Her father had a third-grade education, did not speak English, and died when Sotomayor was 9 years old. Sotomayor grew up in the Bronx and claims that watching the CBS legal drama Perry Mason in her youth led her to aspire to a career as a judge. She received a scholarship to attend Princeton University, where she advocated strongly on behalf of the school’s underserved minority communities, and received her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1979.

READ MORE: How Sonia Sotomayor Overcame Adversity to Become the United States’ First Hispanic and Latina Justice

Sotomayor spent much of her career in private practice but also served on the board of the New York State Mortgage Agency, where she became a vocal proponent of affordable housing and frequently called attention to the effects of gentrification. She also served on the New York City Campaign Finance Board and the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. In 1991, Republican President George H.W. Bush fulfilled her childhood dream by nominating her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Six years later, she was confirmed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Over the course of her judicial career, she issued an injunction that ended the 1994 Major League Baseball strike in favor of the players, sided with an employee of the New York Police Department who had been fired for sending racist materials through the mail, and gained a reputation for dealing bluntly with the lawyers who argued before her.

Sotomayor was the first Supreme Court justice nominated by President Barack Obama, who had taken office the previous January. The choice of a Hispanic woman by the nation’s first non-white president led to a backlash that set the tone for her confirmation hearings. In particular, a comment she had made in 2001 about “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences” being a better-qualified than being “a white male who hasn’t lived that life” rankled her opponents. Nearly every Republican on the Senate Judicial Committee—all of whom were white men—brought up the comment during their questioning, while pundits speculated about Sotomayor’s impartiality and even accused her of being racist. Nonetheless, she was easily confirmed by a Democratic majority and nine of the Senate’s 40 Republicans.

In addition to becoming the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, Sotomayor was the third woman named to the bench. The following year, Justice Elena Kagan would become the fourth. Since her appointment, Sotomayor has been notable for her forceful dissent in several cases regarding racial discrimination, as well as siding with the majority in a 5-4 decision that upheld the Affordable Care Act.

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Blockbuster sci-fi film “Avatar” opens in U.S. theaters


Publish date:
Year
2009
Month Day
December 16

December 16, 2009 sees the U.S. release of the blockbuster science fiction film Avatar. One of the most expensive films ever made, it was also one of the most successful, holding the title of highest-grossing film of all time for nearly a decade.

Director James Cameron was no stranger to massive, ambitious projects, having achieved acclaim and enormous box office success with films like The Terminator and Titanic. A lifelong science fiction fan, he wrote a treatment for Avatar in 1994 but delayed the project because he felt the technology required did not yet exist. Finally, in 2006, the project began to take shape.

Avatar is the story of a human soldier who takes an alien form in order to explore and infiltrate the Na’vi race of the planet Pandora, which humans intend to exploit for its natural resources. Like Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke—one of its major influences—Avatar is an action-adventure movie with heavy environmentalist and anti-imperialist overtones. Cameron stated that, in addition to warning about environmental degradation, the film was also a critique of the Iraq War, then in its sixth year.

The film made use—in many cases, the first use—of a number of advances in motion-capture technology and computer-generated imagery. Over 900 people worked on the digital effects, and the film officially cost $237 million, although there is speculation that the actual budget ran as high as $310 million. Avatar was not the first major 3D movie, but it contributed greatly to the mainstream release of films in 3D.

Avatar was an immediate hit, supplanting Titanic as the new highest-grossing film of all time. Reviews were largely positive, although some felt the film was heavy-handed or derivative of other stories, most obviously Pocahontas. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning the Oscar for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Special Effects. Though many of its innovations are commonplace or even outdated today, Avatar is remembered for ushering in a new age of CGI-heavy blockbusters. It was one such film, Avengers: Endgame, which finally surpassed Avatar as the highest-grossing film of all time in April of 2019.

READ MORE: The True Stories That Inspired ‘Titanic’ Movie Characters

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Barack Obama is inaugurated


Year
2009
Month Day
January 20

On a freezing day in Washington, D.C., Barack Hussein Obama is sworn in as the 44th U.S. president. The son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, Obama had become the first African American to win election to the nation’s highest office the previous November.

As the junior U.S. senator from Illinois, he won a tight Democratic primary battle over Senator Hillary Clinton of New York before triumphing over Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate, in the general election. Against a backdrop of the nation’s devastating economic collapse during the start of the Great Recession, Obama’s message of hope and optimism—as embodied by his campaign slogan, “Yes We Can”—struck an inspirational chord with a nation seeking change.

As Inauguration Day dawned, crowds of people thronged the National Mall, stretching from the Capitol Building to beyond the Washington Monument. According to an official estimate made later by the District of Columbia, some 1.8 million people witnessed Obama’s inauguration, surpassing the previous record of 1.2 million, set by the inaugural crowd of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.

The ceremonies ran behind schedule, and it wasn’t until just before noon that Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. administered the presidential oath of office to the president-elect. While being sworn in, Obama placed his hand on a Bible held by his wife, Michelle—the same Bible used by President Abraham Lincoln at his first inaugural.

Obama opened his inaugural address, which lasted some 20 minutes, by recognizing the challenges facing the nation at the outset of his administration—the worsening economic crisis, ongoing war against radical extremism and terrorism, costly health care, failing schools and a general loss of confidence in America’s promise.

In the face of these obstacles, he offered a message of cautious yet confident optimism. “The challenges we face are real,” Obama declared. “They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America, they will be met.”

Obama referred only briefly to the historic nature of his presidency in his speech, saying near the end that part of America’s greatness was the fact that “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

Instead, he emphasized the theme of civic responsibility that another youthful Democratic president—John F. Kennedy—used to such great effect nearly 50 years earlier, calling on the American people to embrace the challenges they faced in such a difficult period: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility, a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize grandly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. That is the price and promise of citizenship.”

After the inauguration, Obama attended the traditional inaugural luncheon in Statuary Hall, the original chamber of the House of Representatives. He and Michelle then traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House as part of the 15,000-person inaugural parade, and would attend no fewer than 10 official inaugural balls that evening.

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“Avatar” makes its world premiere in London


Updated:
Original:
Year
2009
Month Day
December 10

On December 10 2009, “Avatar,” a 3-D science-fiction epic helmed by “Titanic” director James Cameron, makes its world debut in London and goes on to become the highest-grossing movie in history. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver, the box-office mega-hit was praised for its state-of-the-art technology and earned nine Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best director.

Set in the year 2154, “Avatar” tells the story of disabled ex-Marine Jake Sully, who is recruited to help conquer and colonize Pandora, a faraway moon that is home to a mineral deposit coveted by people on Earth, whose energy resources are almost depleted. Pandora is inhabited by the Na’vi, a group of nature-loving, blue-skinned, half-alien/half-human creatures intent on protecting their own eco-system. (Cameron hired a linguist to create a unique language for the Na’vi.) Using an avatar to explore Pandora because the air there is toxic to humans, Jake falls in love with a Na’vi princess and goes native, eventually working to save the Na’vi from the human colonists.

Cameron wrote the script for “Avatar” in 1994; however, at that point the technology didn’t exist to produce the movie he wanted. In the meantime, he penned and directed “Titanic,” the 1997 blockbuster that garnered 11 Oscars and became the first film to gross more than $1 billion internationally. Prior to “Titanic,” Cameron helmed such hit films as “The Terminator” (1984), “Aliens” (1986) and “The Abyss” (1989), and became known for his imaginative use of special effects. In 2009, he told The New Yorker: “[‘Avatar’] integrates my life’s achievements…It’s the most complicated stuff anyone’s ever done.” Among the technologies used to make “Avatar” was performance capture, which turns an actor’s movements into a computer-generated image.

At the 82nd Academy Awards, held in March 2010, “Avatar” won Oscars for best visual effects, cinematography and art direction.

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Self-help guru’s sweat lodge ceremony turns deadly

Year
2009
Month Day
October 08

On October 8, 2009, two people die and more than a dozen others are hospitalized following a botched sweat lodge ceremony at a retreat run by motivational speaker and author James Arthur Ray near Sedona, Arizona. A third participant in the ceremony died nine days later.

The sweat lodge exercise was part of a five-day “Spiritual Warrior” event held at a rented retreat center located six miles from Sedona. Participants paid more than $9,000 each to attend the retreat. At the time, Ray, who was born in 1957 and raised in Oklahoma, was known for such books as his 2008 best-seller “Harmonic Wealth: The Secret to Attracting the Life You Want,” and had appeared as a guest on a number of TV programs, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Ray’s sweat lodge ceremony, modeled after a Native American custom intended to purify the body and spirit, was held in a wood-frame structure covered with tarpaulins and blankets. Inside the enclosed space, water was poured over heated rocks to create steam and the temperature became dangerously high, causing many of the more than 50 participants (who had been encouraged to fast for 36 hours prior to the event) to develop breathing trouble and become disoriented. Witnesses later reported Ray had urged people to remain inside and endure the intense heat as a form of personal challenge.

Two people, Kirby Brown, 38, and James Shore, 40, fainted but were left inside the sweat lodge and perished from heat stroke. More than a dozen other people were hospitalized for dehydration and other medical issues. On October 17, a third ceremony participant, Liz Neuman, 49, died.

In February 2010, Ray was indicted on manslaughter charges. When his case went to trial the following year, the prosecution argued that the self-help guru had acted carelessly and shown no regard for the people who got sick during the ceremony. The defense claimed the participants were free to leave the sweat lodge at any time, and said the deaths were an accident and might have been caused by unknown toxins in the ground. During the four-month trial, witnesses claimed that people had become ill or injured at previous retreats run by Ray, and Native American groups expressed outrage over his misuse of their sacred sweat lodge tradition.

On June 22, 2011, a jury in Camp Verde, Arizona, found Ray guilty of three counts of negligent homicide. On November 18 of that same year, he was sentenced to three two-year prison terms, to run concurrently, and ordered to pay some $57,000 in restitution to the victims’ families. He was released on supervision on July 12, 2013. 

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Army major kills 13 people in Fort Hood shooting spree

Year
2009
Month Day
November 05

On November 5, 2009, 13 people are killed and more than 30 others are wounded, nearly all of them unarmed soldiers, when a U.S. Army officer goes on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in central Texas. The deadly assault, carried out by Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, was the worst mass shooting at a U.S. military installation.

Early in the afternoon of November 5, 39-year-old Hasan, armed with a semi-automatic pistol, shouted “Allahu Akbar” (Arabic for “God is great”) and then opened fire at a crowd inside a Fort Hood processing center where soldiers who were about to be deployed overseas or were returning from deployment received medical screenings. The massacre, which left 12 service members and one Department of Defense employee dead, lasted approximately 10 minutes before Hasan was shot by civilian police and taken into custody.

The Virginia-born Hasan, the son of Palestinian immigrants who ran a Roanoke restaurant and convenience store, graduated from Virginia Tech University and completed his psychiatry training at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, in 2003. He went on to work at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., treating soldiers returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder. In May 2009, he was promoted to the rank of major in the Army, and that July, was transferred to Fort Hood. Located near the city of Killeen, Fort Hood, which includes 340 square miles of facilities and homes, is the largest active-duty U.S. military post. At the time of the shootings, more than 50,000 military personnel lived and worked there, along with thousands more family members and civilian personnel.

In the aftermath of the massacre, reviews by the Pentagon and a U.S. Senate panel found Hasan’s superiors had continued to promote him despite the fact that concerns had been raised over his behavior, which suggested he had become a radical and potentially violent Islamic extremist. Among other things, Hasan stated publicly that America’s war on terrorism was really a war against Islam.

In 2013, Hasan, who was left paralyzed from the waist down as a result of shots fired at him by police attempting to stop his rampage, was tried in military court, where he acted as his own attorney. During his opening statement, he admitted he was the shooter. (Hasan had previously told a judge that in an effort to protect Muslims and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, he had gunned down the soldiers at Fort Hood who were being deployed to that nation.) For the rest of the trial, Hasan called no witnesses, presented scant evidence and made no closing argument. On August 23, 2013, a jury found Hasan guilty of 45 counts of premeditated murder and attempted premeditated murder, and he later was sentenced to death for his crimes.

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Ted Kennedy, “liberal lion of the Senate,” dies at 77

Year
2009
Month Day
August 25

On August 25, 2009, Edward “Ted” Kennedy, the youngest brother of President John F. Kennedy and a U.S. senator from Massachusetts from 1962 to 2009, dies of brain cancer at age 77 at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Kennedy, one of the longest-serving senators in American history, was a leader of the Democratic Party and a spokesman for liberal causes who also was known for his ability to work with those on both sides of the political aisle.

Edward Moore Kennedy was born in Boston on February 22, 1932, the youngest of nine children of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., a wealthy financier who served as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and later as ambassador to Great Britain, and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the daughter of a Boston politician. After serving in the U.S. Army in the early 1950s, Kennedy graduated from Harvard University in 1956 and earned a law degree from the University of Virginia in 1959. While still a student, he managed his brother John’s successful 1958 re-election campaign to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. Also in 1958, Ted Kennedy married Joan Bennett, with whom he later had three children. The couple divorced in 1982, and in 1992, Kennedy married Victoria Reggie, a Washington attorney with two children.

In November 1960, John Kennedy was elected America’s 35th president. The following month, a Kennedy family friend was appointed to fill the president-elect’s vacated Senate seat until a special election was held. In November 1962, Ted Kennedy, who earlier that year had turned 30, the minimum age requirement for a U.S. senator, won the special election in Massachusetts to serve out the remainder of his brother’s Senate term, ending in January 1965. Massachusetts voters re-elected Kennedy to the seat eight more times, in 1964, 1970, 1976, 1982, 1988, 1994, 2000 and 2006.

Kennedy came from privileged background, but his family was no stranger to tragedy. His oldest brother, Joseph Kennedy Jr., a Navy pilot, died in World War II, while his second-eldest sister, Kathleen, was killed in a 1948 plane crash. President John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. The following year, Ted Kennedy was seriously injured in a plane crash that left him hospitalized for six months. In 1968, U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy was also assassinated. With Robert’s death, Ted Kennedy became the family patriarch and a substitute father to his two slain brothers’ 13 children.

On July 18, 1969, Kennedy was involved in a controversial event that would mar the rest of his career, when he accidentally drove his car off a bridge on Massachusetts’ Chappaquiddick Island, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned. Kennedy failed to report the incident to the authorities for nearly 10 hours, claiming the delay was due to the fact that he had suffered a concussion and was exhausted from attempting to rescue Kopechne. He later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended sentence. However, Kennedy was plagued by questions about his behavior, as well as his relationship with Kopechne, a former campaign worker for Robert Kennedy. He later referred to his actions as “inexcusable,” and said Kopechne’s death “haunts me every day of my life.” 

In 1980, Kennedy made a failed bid against President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination. He never again ran for the White House, instead focusing on his work on Capitol Hill, where he was dubbed the “liberal lion of the Senate.” During his nearly 47-year-career in Washington, D.C., Kennedy successfully fought for legislation concerning education, immigration reform, health care, increases to the federal minimum wage, voting rights, various consumer protections and equal rights for minorities, the disabled, women and gay Americans. In foreign policy matters, he was an opponent of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and a champion of human rights in such places as Africa and South America.

In May 2008, Kennedy was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. That August, despite his poor health, he made a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in support of Barack Obama, whom he had endorsed for president.

After his death in August 2009, Kennedy was buried at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, near the graves of his brothers John and Robert.

READ MORE: Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick Incident: What Really Happened

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“Balloon Boy” parents sentenced in Colorado


Updated:
Original:
Year
2009
Month Day
December 23

On December 23, 2009, Richard Heene, who carried out a hoax in which he told authorities his 6-year-old son Falcon had floated off in a runaway, saucer-shaped helium balloon, is sentenced to 90 days in jail in Fort Collins, Colorado. Heene’s wife Mayumi received 20 days of jail time for her role in the incident.

The so-called “Balloon Boy” saga riveted viewers around the globe two months earlier, on October 15, when it played out on live television. At around 11 a.m. that day, Richard Heene, a handyman, amateur scientist and father of three boys, called the Federal Aviation Administration to report that a large balloon in his family’s Fort Collins backyard had become untethered, and it was believed his son Falcon had crawled aboard the craft before it took flight. Minutes later, Heene phoned a local TV station, requesting a helicopter to track the balloon. A short time afterward, Mayumi Heene called 911.

The homemade silver craft was soon being tracked by search-and-rescue personnel, as well as reporters, on the ground and in the air. The Colorado National Guard launched two helicopters to follow the balloon, and a runway at Denver International Airport was briefly shut down as the balloon traveled into its flight path. At around 1:35 p.m., the craft touched down in a Colorado field after drifting a distance of some 50 miles from its starting location. Rescue officials soon discovered the balloon was empty, prompting fears that Falcon Heene had fallen from the craft during its flight. A massive ground search ensued, and later that afternoon it was announced the boy had been found safe at home, where he reportedly had been hiding.

Suspicions that the entire incident had been a hoax intensified that night, after Falcon Heene told his parents during a live interview on CNN: “You guys said we did this for the show.” Mayumi Heene later confessed to police the incident had been staged to help the family get a reality TV show. (The Heenes had previously appeared on the program “Wife Swap.”)

In November 2009, Richard Heene pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public official (“to initiate a search-and-rescue mission which in turn would attract media attention,” according to an affidavit filed by prosecutors), while Mayumi Heene pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of making a false report. Richard Heene later claimed he pleaded guilty only to placate authorities and prevent his wife from being deported to her native Japan. In addition to jail time, the Heenes were required to perform community service and Richard Heene was later ordered to pay $36,000 in restitution for the search effort.

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