GALLERY: The Illawarra's turbulent year

In 2013, the Illawarra was a region in flux.

Coal miners and manufacturing workers were taken to the brink, while jobs in the health and high-tech sectors boomed.

Shocking crimes revealed the worst elements of our community, yet residents banded together time and again to save the medical helicopter, raise money for tornado victims and help battle fires in the Southern Highlands.

With the rest of the country, we shrugged off chaotic Labor leadership and settled in for three years under a Tony Abbott government. 

Top 10 Mercury online stories of 2013

Even the weather seemed out of sorts in what was a year of climate extremes. The year began with sweltering weather in early January and the first catastrophic fire risk. The heat kindled a bushfire at Deans Gap, west of Sussex Inlet, which burnt out more than 9000 hectares.

All previous temperature records fell on January 18, as the mercury soared to 45.8 degrees.

The extreme weather veered towards the bizarre in February when what was first reported as a severe storm in Kiama was found to have been not one, but an entire family of tornadoes which ripped through the town and flattened dozens of homes.

The tornado that hit south of Gerroa was the most powerful, tearing a massive brown scar of broken trees through 16 kilometres of bushland.

When the wind died down, a quieter threat emerged: asbestos fibres strewn through Kiama’s streets.

Also in February, long held plans to blow up the Port Kembla stack re-emerged, sparking a passionate campaign to save the chimney. Community uproar led to a stay of execution but, just this week, a new date for demolition was set for February 2014.

In March, tragedy struck at Bulli Tops when four retired CSIRO scientists were killed in a  helicopter crash while on their way to lunch at Panorama House.

Onlookers who glimpsed the men’s smiling faces as their aircraft rose over the nearby cliff rushed to pull them from the wreckage, but were unable to reach the victims before it burst into flames.

More tragic news followed in April when an abandoned car was found in Corrimal bushland, with the body of its owner, Linda Stevens, in the boot. Police launched a man hunt and later charged Colin Maxwell Farrow with  the 41-year-old single mother’s murder.

On April 12, the NSW government leased the Port Kembla port to the NSW Ports Consortium for $760 million.

A furore erupted as commentators called on the government to spend more than the promised $100million on the region’s infrastructure and argued about where the money should be spent.

The bad press continued for the NSW Liberals and the Illawarra portfolio, when Greg Pearce was escorted from parliament following allegations he was drunk and accused of misusing government funds for private travel.

The embattled politician took a month of sick leave, was reinstated to his role in July and finally fell on his sword in August after failing to disclose a conflict of interest over a board appointment at Sydney Water.

Thus, the Illawarra ministry’s poisoned chalice was passed to the unassuming John Ajaka.

Thankfully, Kiama MP Gareth Ward came to the government’s aid in July with news the rescue helicopter would be saved.

An unlikely band of supporters – including business leaders, union representatives and MPs on both sides of politics – had fought for months to stop the government axing the Albion Park rescue base to save money. They had gathered thousands of signatures to save the service and were relieved at Mr Ward’s announcement, even if its timing was suspect.

At Helensburgh’s Metropolitan colliery, 42 workers lost their jobs, while Apex Energy’s application to extend it coal seam gas drilling licences was rejected by the NSW government.

In the courts, the long-running case of teenager Louise O’Brien’s death reached a resolution. Her badly decomposed body was found in a wheelie bin buried in a Bellambi backyard in 2011.

A mother and son were convicted of being accessories after the fact in Louise’s 2008 manslaughter. Just days before that verdict was reached, the 75-year-old woman responsible for the girl’s death died in Silverwater jail.

An even longer running case, the 1997 death of Mount Warrigal teenager Jodie Fesus, was revived in July as police reopened the cold case. Days later her husband, Steven Fesus, was charged with her murder.

Fesus has maintained his innocence and the case remains before the court.

Sadly, this year was marred by recurring stories of the tragic deaths of small children known to Family and Community Services.

In particular, the 2012 death of a Berkeley toddler was drawn into a NSW Government scandal, in which Family and Community Services Minister Pru Goward faced allegations she misled Parliament about caseworker numbers in Wollongong.

The minister insisted no positions had been shed at the time of the toddler’s death but, in September, high-level government emails revealed child protection worker numbers in Wollongong fell by 25 per cent in 2012.

All eyes were on Canberra on September 7, as bitter leadership battles and bad press felled the Labor Government at the federal election. But nothing much changed in the Illawarra political landscape, with Labor MPs Sharon Bird and Stephen Jones re-elected in Cunningham and Throsby and new candidate Ann Sudmalis holding on to Gilmore for the Liberals.

As October began, the headlines belonged to Gujarat NRE, as the troubled company – which posted a yearly loss of $76.6 million and debts topping $485 million – stopped paying its workers.

Hundreds of miners and engineers continued to work,  even though their wages were on hold. But  the financial strain became too much for many families who turned to charity and union handouts as they struggled to make mortgage payments, buy nappies and put petrol in their cars to drive to work. Jindal Steel took over the  company and has since invested more than $120 million in the mines, attempting to pay off millions in debts. Workers finally got their backpay this week and the state government could yet approve the reduced Russell Vale expansion, but Gujarat’s future remains in doubt.

On the same day Holden pulled the plug on its Australian operations, it was announced the Illawarra mining company needed to shed 20 per cent of its workforce by mid-January.

And, while it may be cold comfort to those facing job losses, experts predicted future Illawarra industrial jobs are more likely to be in clean energy and biomedical products  than coal and traditional manufacturing.

The bushfire season began in late October, with blazes burning hundreds of kilometres of bushland and  taking homes across NSW. The Blue Mountains was hardest hit, but smoke filled Illawarra skies and air pollution rose to dangerous levels as firefighters battled to save the water supply for 24,000 residents in the Southern Highlands.

By November, the heat was on Wollongong City Council as it waded into its unpopular financial sustainability review designed to save $21million a year.

The decision to appoint a ‘‘citizens panel’’ to come up with ideas was widely lampooned. Outrage followed when the panel  recommended  hiking rates and parking fees, closing community centres and libraries, and cutting the city’s annual fireworks celebrations, kids’ playgrounds and ocean rock pools.

Residents leapt into action – fighting hardest to save the tidal pools – and union members fired up to save council jobs and conditions. The council has since lodged plans  for a rate rise between 16 and 25 per cent over three years. Councillors will decide in 2014 on any service  cuts.

On a brighter note,  investment and construction totalling more than $650 million poured into the CBD. A flood of proposals emerged to redevelop long-dormant sites including a $40 million high-rise  for the Oxford Tavern, a new  entrance at the former Quattro site and the  revival of the  plan for Wollongong’s tallest building on top of its highest hill.

After months of speculation, the government announced where the $100 million from the port would be spent. Health services – particularly aged care – were the real winners along with the University of Wollongong’s iAccelerate building and the long-awaited West Dapto access road.

The CBD’s seedy, monotonous club scene is being transformed by an increasing number of little bars and hidden ventures creeping into Wollongong’s laneways. Coupled with the second year of the brilliant Wonderwalls art festival, which has seen bright murals pop up on once-blank walls around the city, it feels like Wollongong is becoming more than a beachside town with an industrial past.

The evolution will  continue  as the region matures into a more diverse place to live and work.

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