Mad cow in Mabton ranks as 2003's top story

Editor's note: The Herald is looking back as the first decade of the millennium wraps up. This is the third of a 10-day series recounting the top local news stories of that decade.

Mad cow disease, a presidential visit and the call-up of reserve troops to fight in the Middle East highlighted the top news stories of 2003 in the Mid-Columbia.

The year's top story was the discovery of the country's first case of mad cow disease at a Mabton dairy, a disclosure that came two days before Christmas.

The announcement threw the nation's meat industry into turmoil, and brought news reporters from as far away as Canada and Japan to rural Mabton. Cattle ranchers and dairy operators feared their economic livelihood might be threatened as more than 20 countries responded by shutting down imports of U.S. beef.

The other top stories of 2003 were:

No. 2: Sofia Juarez, a 5-year-old Kennewick girl, vanished on Feb. 4, apparently after she tried to follow a family friend to the grocery store. Despite an Amber Alert being issued, a search by hundreds of volunteers and her case featured on national TV shows, she remains missing. A few posters of her face still can be found around town, and police continue to follow leads.

No. 3: President George W. Bush became the first sitting president to visit the Tri-Cities since President Nixon in 1971. Air Force One touched down at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco on Aug. 22, and Bush emerged to shake a few hands and pose for pictures before he was whisked to Ice Harbor Dam. There, he spoke to an invitation-only crowd of about 500, which cheered loudest when he said he would not allow Snake River dams to be breached.

No. 4: The war in Iraq hit close to home for several hundred Mid-Columbia men and women who serve in the military's active or reserve units, as three Mid-Columbia reserve units were called to active duty.

No. 5: Hanford's Fast Flux Test Facility finally was shut down in April, when sodium was drained from its cooling loop. The experimental reactor's fate was preordained in 1993, when the government ended a proposed breeder reactor program because of nuclear proliferation concerns.

No. 6: An arson fire in late November reduced the Playground of Dreams in Columbia Park to ashes, causing $400,000 in damage. Thousands of community volunteers built the playground in 1999, and outraged Tri-Citians immediately offered donations to help rebuild it.

No. 7: Kevin Hilton, a 45-year-old father of two, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing his elderly Richland landlords because he was behind on his rent. Josephine and Larry Ulrich were found shot to death March 21, 2002, inside their Thayer Drive home. Hilton maintained his innocence and unsuccessfully appealed the ruling.

No. 8: Thousands of Mid-Columbians turned out to view The Moving Wall, a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, at West Richland's Flat Top Park.

No. 9: Mid-Columbians responded with rallies, care package drives and an outpouring of support for U.S. troops serving in Iraq. Volunteers made hundreds of pillows to send to troops for Christmas, and an informal group called American Citizens Encouraging Support, or ACES, began holding ceremonies to honor troops departing for deployment overseas.

No. 10: Washington asparagus farmers plowed their fields under when two Mid-Columbia asparagus processing plants shut down and would no longer buy the crop. One farmer, Ed McKay of Othello, shed tears as he had to destroy more than 30 years of his family's hard work. Labor costs, stiff competition from Peru and international trade policies were blamed for the failure of the once-profitable crop.