NEW YORK – The list of the year's top 10 stories was prepared and ready to roll when one story came along to top them all.
The tsunami that struck a string of nations in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, killing more than 100,000 people and causing billions of dollars in property damage, is a story unlike any other. In time, it may be looked upon as the top story of the decade — and possibly one of the century's biggest events.
To get a sense of the other stories that affected the nation and the world, read through the FOX News list of 2004's top stories and check out the FOXNews.com interactive timeline for the year.
• Interactive: 2004 Timeline
10. Tell It to the Judge
The 10th biggest story of 2004 was the slew of famous faces that went before a judge for one crime or another. Former New Jersey Nets basketball star Jayson Williams (search) was acquitted of manslaughter, while Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant (search) sweated through a rape case that was later dropped.
Stewart is serving a five-month prison term for lying to investigators about a personal sale of stock in biotech company ImClone Systems Inc. in late 2001. The founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. remains the company's controlling shareholder through her ownership of special voting stock. After her expected release from prison in March, she is to serve another five months in home confinement.
A California jury recommended the death penalty for Peterson in December after finding him guilty of murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn child, Conner. Laci was eight months pregnant when she disappeared just before Christmas in 2002. Her mutilated body was later found washed up along the San Francisco Bay.
9. It's a Twister Out There!
Charley, Frances, Ivan, then Jeanne. The ninth biggest story of the year is how one after another, four mammoth hurricanes followed largely the same path in a single hurricane season. Florida lost 117 lives in the storms, while thousands more were killed in Haiti and Jamaica.
Damage was so substantial that Florida faced a $42 billion clean-up bill — that's $15 billion more than 1992's Hurricane Andrew. In August and September, coastal and inland residents repeatedly boarded up their homes and businesses before heading out, and 140,000 volunteers from around the world helped victims salvage what they could.
"Governors asked me what I needed ... that defines our country," said Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
President Bush handed down 27 major disaster declarations while handing out water to devastated residents. The president ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for 90 percent of costs that local agencies racked up because of the four hurricanes that hit Florida. FEMA previously paid 75 percent of costs not covered by insurance.
8. With Arafat Gone, Let There Be Peace
Palestinians mourned the loss of their leader, Yasser Arafat (search), but experts believe his death may be bringing new hope to the Middle East peace process. Arafat died on Nov. 11; doctors' details on exactly how remain sketchy.
Israel and the United States described Arafat as an obstacle to peace, accusing him of backing militant attacks against Israel. President Bush has repeatedly said the "roadmap for peace" will be a top priority of his and that he wants to see two states — Israel and Palestine — living side by side in peace.
On Jan. 9, the Palestinian presidential vote will be held; both Israel and the international community have given tacit support to interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search). The United States has given $3.5 million in election assistance, the European Union has allocated about $18.6 million, while Japan has committed $1.1 million and will send electoral observers.
Diplomats say the ultimate goal is to resume talks on the "road map," an internationally backed peace plan that seeks to create an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel next year. They also warn that the road forward has potential hazards.
7. Spain's Sept. 11
Exactly 911 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, bombs tore through commuter trains and at stations at the height of Madrid's morning rush, killing 191 people and injuring 2,000. It may have been in March, but it will be remembered as Spain's Sept. 11.
Police say the bombs were left on the trains in backpacks and set off by cell phones. Spain originally thought the Basque separatist group ETA (search) was responsible for the bombings, which happened just days before Spain's national elections. Officials later said a group of Moroccans with ties to Al Qaeda were the killers. Investigators are holding at least 19 people in connection with the attacks, and a 16-year-old boy who helped obtain the dynamite has been sentenced to six years in a detention center.
The bombings helped lead to the stunning defeat of the Popular Party of Jose Maria Aznar (search), one of the United States' most solid allies in the War on Terror. The new Socialist government immediately pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq when Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (search) took office.
The United States offered a $5 million reward for an Al Qaeda operative it considers key in the bombings, Mustafa Setmariam. Spanish officials say one of the suspect's lieutenants helped plan not only the March 11 bombings, but also the Sept. 11 attacks.
6. 'Your Government Failed You'
When America was struck by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, everyone asked how such a thing could happen in the United States. Our sixth biggest story of the year is how, three years later, the Sept. 11 commission got some of those answers and issued recommendations on how to prevent similar attacks.
The commission probing the attack pored through 2.5 million documents, interviewed 1,200 people — including private interviews with Bush and former President Bill Clinton. Other members of both administrations testified at public hearings. The result was a 575-page report that concluded that neither administration "understood the gravity" of the terror threat.
"Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you," said Bush and Clinton's former counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke (search).
"If anything might have helped stop 9/11, it would have been better information about threats inside the United States," testified Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice (search).
The panel went on to say that even three years after the attacks, America still was not safe and that panelists "do not believe it is possible to defeat all terrorist attacks against Americans, every time and everywhere." The group had 37 recommendations for preventing future attacks, including the creation of a national counterterrorism center to analyze all terror data from the CIA, FBI and Department of Homeland Security, as well as a national intelligence director to oversee intelligence activity. Congress passed — and Bush signed into law — an intelligence reform (search) bill in December that enacted many of the recommendations.
5. Remember the Gipper
FOX News' fifth top story of the year was the death of the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan (search), at the age of 93 on June 5 at his home in California.
For one week, the world said goodbye to a remarkable leader who died after a long battle with Alzheimer's. Reagan, "The Great Communicator," was elected to office in a landslide victory over incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980 and is credited with revitalizing the country's stagnant economy and forcing the end of the Cold War during his two terms in office from 1981 to 1989. His charismatic personality and staunch conservatism led the nation in a Republican resurgence that kept the GOP in the White House for 12 years.
Reagan remained largely out of public view since announcing he had Alzheimer's disease in November 1994. He came to symbolize the fight against Alzheimer's, which has no cure, during the last decade of his life. Reagan turned the disclosure of his disease into an opportunity to make a final address to the nation, expressing in an open letter to the American people the same patriotic fervor that had catapulted him into the presidency.
"When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future," Reagan wrote at the time. "I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead."
Reagan was survived by his wife Nancy, and children Michael, Ron and Patti Davis.
4. Massacre at Beslan
Parents, children and teachers gathered outside School No. 1 in Beslan (search), Russia, in September to hear the usual welcoming speeches from the principal. But what was supposed to be a happy day turned into a nightmare after dozens of terrorists wearing ski masks and explosive belts began firing weapons into the school yard and herded everyone into the gymnasium.
There was soon word that 200 to 300 hostages were in the school, but the actual number reached over 1,000 — at least one third of the school's children. The children were held hostage in unbearable heat and they were forced to drink their own urine, since the terrorists refused to allow in water, food or medical supplies.
By the end of the first day, 26 women and infants were freed after limited negotiations. But on the second day, witnesses said explosives wired around the school began to go off, while others said the Russians tried to storm the building. Children eventually tried to run, and they were fired upon. The surrounding cordon was penetrated by concerned parents, who also started shooting.
After 12 hours of shooting, at least 331 people — many of them children — were dead, and 31 of the 32 hostage takers were killed. Most of the terrorists appeared to be from Russia, many of them sympathetic to the Chechen separatist cause. Later, a notorious Chechen warlord claimed responsibility.
Russia held a national day of mourning six days after the shooting stopped; 135,000 people joined anti-terror demonstrations in Moscow.
3. Oil-for-Food Scandal Rattles U.N.
FOX News' third biggest story of the year is one in which we took the lead in uncovering a story of scandal, money and international intrigue.
What was supposed to be a program to help the Iraqi people ended up hurting the reputation of the United Nations and proving even further that former dictator Saddam Hussein was one of history's most corrupt leaders.
The Oil-for-Food program (search) — initiated and monitored by the U.N. Security Council and run by the U.N. secretariat, which Kofi Annan heads — allowed Iraq to sell unlimited amounts of oil provided the money went primarily for humanitarian goods and reparations for victims of the 1991 Gulf War. It was discovered that Saddam scammed $21.3 billion in illegal revenue from the system, leaving thousands of Iraqis without much-needed food.
Annan appointed former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker (search) to lead an independent inquiry of the program; five congressional committees are also probing the issues. Some lawmakers have called for Annan's resignation.
To make matter worse, Annan's son, Kojo, came under scrutiny for work he did for a company that had a contract in the program, receiving payments for more than four years after his job ended. He worked for the company in Africa, not Iraq.
Kofi Annan has also faced criticism over his handling of allegations of sexual abuse by 150 U.N. peacekeepers in Congo. A resolution by U.N. staff expressed a lack of confidence in senior management and Annan's decision to clear a top official of wrongdoing.
2. Iraq and the War on Terror
This year began the way 2003 ended — with a focus on Iraq and a hope for stability. But the reality of a growing threat from foreign terrorists and former regime elements organizing and adapting to their new fighting environment was taking a toll.
"You're dealing not with a static situation, you're dealing with an enemy with a brain," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said. "They get up every morning, go to school on what we're doing, and change what they're doing to advantage themselves."
A barrage of homicide car bombings this year was deadly; 14 in the first three months of 2004 alone killed more than 530. In March, four U.S. security contractors were killed in Fallujah — their charred bodies dragged through the streets and hung from a bridge. As U.S.-led forces tried to wrest Fallujah from the insurgents' control, militant anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) rallied followers to rise up against the coalition.
But in the middle of all the violence, a fledgling government was formed. On March 8, the Iraqi Governing Council signed an interim constitution; power of the government was handed to the new Iraqi leaders by U.S. civilian administrator Paul Bremer by mid-summer. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi (search) took control of the new government.
On a scandalous note, the first photographs from Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison hit the airwaves on CBS' "60 Minutes II," and the U.S. treatment of prisoners there triggered a series of investigations, formal charges against some troops involved and apologies from the defense secretary. In the midst of this, the first in a string of kidnappings and beheadings began in Iraq: the slaughter of American Nicholas Berg was shown in a video terrorists had posted on the Web in May. Abu Musab Al Zarqawi (search) was now the No. 1 terrorist in Iraq.
Three days after the new government took over, Saddam appeared before an Iraqi judge and was charged with crimes against the Iraqi people. Eleven other regime members also were arraigned on charges including murder, torture and the use of chemical weapons.
After a standoff in Najaf with al-Sadr, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani (search) brokered a deal and the militant Shiite forces were disbanded. On Oct. 1, a string of car bombs exploded during a celebration to mark the opening of a new sewer plant in Baghdad, killing 42 Iraqis — 35 of them children. The U.S. death toll also reached the 1,000 mark. The Bush administration pointed to what was going right.
"Think of what's happened in Iraq. Twenty-five million people have been liberated. The schools are open with new textbooks, the hospitals are open, the clinics are open, the stock market's open, people are coming back into the country," Rumsfeld said. "Now. Are there people being killed? Yes. Is it, is it an ugly situation in parts of the country, yes. Is it basically not ugly in most of the country, that's true. If you take the provinces, three-quarters of them are relatively peaceful."
In early November, the largest battle of the war — the fight for Fallujah — began. U.S. and Iraqi forces went house to house fighting for two weeks. In the end, more than 1,600 enemy fighters were killed and more than 1,000 captured.
"It was a battle that will pay great dividends to future of Iraq, I'm sure of that," said U.S. Central Command chief John Abizaid.
This year also saw a new videotape from Usama bin Laden for the first time in three years, just days before the U.S. election.
1. W for President
And the top story of 2004 is the presidential election that pitted the incumbent George W. Bush (search) against his Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search) — the first race for the White House since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Despite a sluggish economy, a controversial and difficult war in Iraq, slow going in Afghanistan and the War on Terror, Bush won a clear victory over Kerry in what both called the most important election in decades.
Democrats had a choice of 10 candidates pushing an "anybody but Bush message" for the chance to take on the incumbent — including the former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Gen. Wesley Clark. Early frontrunner Howard Dean shattered fundraising records with his red-hot antiwar Bush bashing, but the former Vermont governor flamed out spectacularly.
Kerry won the nomination, and picked the runner-up, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search), to be his running mate. It was only a matter of time before the attacks began on both sides. Kerry was branded as weak on security, and as a tax-and-spend liberal flip-flopper without the personal convictions to lead. Kerry went after Bush, saying he was the first president to lose jobs under his watch since the Depression and that the war in Iraq could be going better with a different commander in chief.
Kerry, who touted his Vietnam service throughout the campaign, eventually became the target of harsh criticism for his post-war anti-Vietnam protests. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched a campaign against Kerry with a message that the Massachusetts senator didn't deserve all of his medals of valor and that he turned against his brothers in the service when he testified about "atrocities" committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam before Congress
Kerry's response was slow and tentative, weakening his image and seemingly worsening his self-inflicted wounds. His campaign advisers would later acknowledge their lack of response took its toll.
The president consistently called the race a test of values, integrity and backbone, but he, too, made missteps, once seemingly unsure of victory in the War on Terror itself; Kerry and Edwards soon began saying Bush lived in a "fantasy world of spin."
Although many polls showed Kerry likely would be the victor come Nov. 2, as the day wore on and more states went toward Bush, it was obvious pollsters were off in their predictions. Bush handily won four more years.
Bush is already sparring with Congress over his second-term agenda, and Kerry is hinting at another run in 2008. Other names being bandied about for a White House run include Democratic New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, also a Republican.
FOX News' Liza Porteus contributed to this report.