2021 Top Stories on WWLP.com

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CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – As we head into the new year, 22News takes a look back at some of the top stories from 2021 in western Massachusetts.

20: I-Team: Evictions piling up now that state moratorium has ended

A state moratorium on evictions prevented most from happening for months during the pandemic. However, once it ended in October 2020, eviction notices skyrocketed. The 22News I-Team discovered Springfield was one of the hardest-hit cities in the Commonwealth.

Since this I-Team report in February, advocates continue to rally for a restoration of a temporary ban on evictions in the state. The Baker administration instituted a program that used state and federal funding to help prevent evictions, but protesters said Thursday that stronger laws are still needed as the pandemic, and eviction filings, continue.

19: Two dead in wrong-way crash on I-91 southbound in Holyoke

Two people were killed in a crash on I-91 Southbound in Holyoke after a driver was heading the wrong way on August 22.

Massachusetts State Police identified the wrong-way driver a few days later as 78-year-old Wallace Sherman Jr. of Gloversville, New York. Sherman was heading north in the I-91 southbound lane when his car crashed into a vehicle with two occupants, 65-year-old Judith Keating and 65-year-old Michelle Swaller, both of Milford, Connecticut. The passenger later died, bringing the death toll to three in the accident.

18: Teenager died after school bus crash on State Street in Springfield

On December 8th, a teenager was struck and killed after a crash involving a school bus in the area of State and Dwight Streets.

There have been several deadly crashes in the last two months on State Street. It’s one of the busiest streets going east to west through the city, connecting downtown with Mason Square. Just days before this incident, the city’s DPW announced new plans to reworked the area near the library.

“We really need a larger change across the entire city to make everything safer for people in all of our neighborhoods,” said Springfield resident Brendon Holland.

City officials said they will implement a crosswalk just east of the library. The crosswalk will feature a flashing yellow light or possibly a pedestrian-induced red stoplight.  Officials hope the changes will force drivers to slow down.

17: Dept. of Agriculture Resources warning residents of invasive pests

Over the summer, Massachusetts saw several invasive pests that are known to cause serious harm to plants in the state. Box tree moths were the first invasive bugs reported to possibly be in the state, coming from Canadian boxwood plants. None were reported in Massachusetts, but some were located in Connecticut.

Credit: Mass.gov

Another invasive bug was reported by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources in August, the spotted lanternfly. In September, a small population of the invasive insect was spotted in Worcester County.

If you happen to come across a known invasive insect, MDAR encourages you to take a photo or collect the specimen and report it to the department online

16: Southwick family returns winning $1M lottery ticket to customer who threw it away

Lea Rose Fiega displays a winning lottery ticket, Tuesday, March 30, 2021, at Massachusetts Lottery Commission headquarters, in Boston. Fiega, who accidentally tossed out a $1 million lottery ticket, eventually collected her winnings thanks to the kindness and honesty of the owners of the store, in Southwick, Mass., where she bought it. The ticket would lay inside of a trash can for 10 days until it was discovered by the son of the store’s owner. (Massachusetts Lottery Commission Photo via AP)

What would you do if you found a million-dollar lottery ticket? A Southwick family had a million-dollar ticket in their hand after a customer had tossed the winning ticket aside to be thrown away.  

“I mean I had $1 million in my hand and on the other and I wanted to do something good.”

Abhi Shah, son of Lucky Spot owner

The family decided to return the ticket. Since the customer visited the store often, they knew where to find her. The customer, Springfield resident Lea Rose Fiega, later claimed her $1 million lottery prize.

15: VIDEO: Three bears caught playing in backyard pool in Westfield

22News has received hundreds of videos of bears and wildlife in viewer’s backyards but this video had to be one of the greatest ever submitted.

Mike Lafond of Westfield sent 22News video of the three bears in his backyard. In the video, you can see the three bears playing around the deflated pool and then head to the swing set, attempting to climb the slide. One bear also seen playing on the swing set. 

14: Deadline to qualify for free REAL ID is April 30

Beginning May 3, 2023, you will be required to have a REAL ID to fly within the United States or to enter a federal building. The original deadline of October 1, 2021 was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Massachusetts was offering free upgrades to REAL ID but it expired on April 30. The fee for renewing a non-commercial standard or REAL ID license is $50, while the fee for upgrading to a standard or REAL ID card is $25.

You can visit Mass.gov to find out if you are permitted to renew online.

13: Alligator captured in Westfield River

For several months it was rumored that an alligator was in the Westfield River. On December 6, a fisherman sent 22News a video of the alligator in the river near the Eastern States Exposition fairground. The next day, an Agawam man saw the video on WWLP.com and decided to hop into his kayak and capture the alligator!

“I caught it and I had to carry my boat back to my car with the gator, and then I called them [Environmental Police] after I got back to the car. Some people spotted me carrying an alligator and the boat and they were like, “Is that the alligator?,” and I’m like, “Yes, that’s the alligator,” said Jeremy White of Agawam.

White said the alligator was on the smaller side, maybe about three feet long. He told 22News he is a big Steve Irwin fan and is very fascinated about all kinds of wildlife.

Animal Control took the alligator and it was taken to a properly licensed reptile rescue.

12: Flu vaccine mandate in Massachusetts dropped

In August 2020, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced that it would be required for all students to receive the flu vaccine.

The mandate prompted protests and even lawsuits. On January 15, 2021, Mass DPH removed the controversial mandate. Currently, there is no COVID-19 vaccine mandate statewide for students but several colleges have announced vaccine and booster requirements in order to be enrolled in classes.

11: Springfield undercover operations leads to arrest of 14 “John’s”

Two undercover prostitution stings in Springfield back in June and July ended with the arrest of 14 men charged with Sexual Conduct for a Fee.

Members of the Springfield Police Department’s Narcotic’s Bureau, Massachusetts State Police Gang Unit, Hampden County Sherriff’s Department, and Hampden County Narcotics Task Force conducted the stings.

10: First VaxMillions giveaway winners announced

In June, it was announced by Governor Baker that residents who got the COVID-19 vaccine would be eligible to win up to $1 million in a new statewide program called VaxMillions. College students were also eligible to win a $300,000 scholarship. The program was created to promote getting more people vaccinated in the state. Over several weeks in July and August, ten winners were picked.

$1 Million VaxMillion Winners:

$300,000 College Scholarship Winners:

More than 2.5 million Massachusetts residents signed up for the VaxMillions giveaway.

Worth Mention – Top Weather Story of 2021: Tracking Henri as it approaches Massachusetts

In August, the 22News Storm Team was tracking Hurricane Henri as it made a course right towards New England, the first hurricane to directly hit the area in 30 years.

The storm caused a lot of collapsed trees and power outages but for the most part it was a mild storm for the Pioneer Valley. Some areas of western Massachusetts saw 3 to 4 inches of rainfall on Sunday, August 22nd.

9: VIDEO: Springfield police release real-time footage of suspect pointing firearm at police and bystanders

On June 21st, the Springfield Police Department released city camera footage showing an incident involving an armed suspect pointing a gun at officers.

Police received a ShotSpotter activation report for five rounds of gunshots on High Street. A nearby city camera was able to capture the moments after shots were fired, showing the suspect, 43-year-old Jose Montanez of Springfield, running around the street with a gun in his hand, pointing it at officers. Crime analysts were able to watch in real-time this city camera and assist officers at the incident.

“The outcome of this call is a huge credit to all of the officers on scene who showed incredible and courageous restraint in this situation, and, due to their keen observation during a fast-moving incident, were able to avoid an officer-involved-shooting.  Reloading or moving the slide forward only takes a moment and likely would have had a much different end result,” Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood said.

8: 2021 Local Election Results

The 2021 election was important for several communities as they voted for new mayors.

In the city of Holyoke, Joshua Garcia won the mayoral race in a city with, according to the U.S. census, a majority Latino and Hispanic population. Garcia is officially the first Latino mayor in Holyoke history.

In the city of Westfield, Michael McCabe won over Don Humason in a rematch of their 2019 race, but this time McCabe won by a larger margin.

In the city of North Adams, Jennifer Macksey defeated Lynette Bond by just 200 votes.

And in the city of Northampton, Gina-Louise Sciarra came out on top to replace Mayor Narkewicz, who announced earlier in the year that he would not be running again.

7: Bird Feeder Update: Remove hummingbird feeders now included in advisory

In July, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife ask Massachusetts residents to remove hummingbird feeders after a mysterious illness was killing songbirds in the mid-Atlantic.

According to MassWildlife, the disease was not known to be in New England. As a precaution, the advisory urged residents to report observations of dead birds and to stop using bird feeders. Birds gather at bird feeders and bird baths and can transmit diseases that way to one another.

There were no known reports of large-scale mortality of birds in Massachusetts this year thankfully. Residents were also able to put back up their bird feeders in September.

6: Local men arrested for alleged solicitation after responding to online ad

Police arrested six men in October on charges of sexual conduct, following an undercover operation.

The suspects allegedly responded to an ad that investigators placed on a website where the men were seeking sexual favors in exchange for money. They men were given a location in Springfield and arrested.

5: Two Springfield residents charged in connection with human trafficking

In early December, two people from Springfield were charged in connection to human trafficking.

According to the Springfield Police Department, 20-year-old Savannah Savard and 25-year-old Wesley Bowleg of Springfield were charged with three counts of human trafficking. Savard was arrested December 2 by the Springfield Police Department Special Victims Unit and the Massachusetts State Police for a Hampden Superior Court arrest warrant and co-conspirator, Bowleg was charged in November.

Courtesy of Springfield Police Dept.

If you believe you are a victim of a sex crime, you can contact Springfield Police Department’s Special Victim’s Unit at 413-787-6352.

4: Google celebrates inventor of Basketball, James Naismith

Springfield received global recognition on Google in January for James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. Everyday, Google changes the logo on the search page to represent something historical to the specific day.

(Google Doodle)

On December 21, 1891 Naismith held the first-ever game of basketball as the physical education teacher at the YMCA college in Springfield. When an article about the game rules titled  “A New Game” was published in the college newspaper on January 15, 1892, basketball became popular.

According to Wikipedia, Naismith was given 14 days to create an indoor game that would provide an “athletic distraction” that wouldn’t take up too much room, help the track athletes to keep in shape, and make it fair for all players and not too rough. That’s when he invented the game of basketball!

3: MA residents who worked through pandemic could receive additional benefits

A bill on Beacon Hill gained a large interest by our readers in July that would give state workers three years of retirement credits for keeping the Commonwealth going during the pandemic.

Bill HD.1794 would give firefighters, police officers, EMTs, hospital workers, custodians, and much more additional retirement benefits for working through the COVID-19 pandemic. Not much progress was made for the bill, the state’s website said the last action related to the bill was on July 2nd. Nothing has been voted on yet.

The city of Springfield has made their own progress in getting merit pay for city workers.

2: Are you eligible for the most recent stimulus check?

In March, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, which gave Americans a third stimulus check. Third-round stimulus checks started at $1,400 per eligible person. A married couple with two dependent children could have received up to $5,600.

If you didn’t get a third stimulus check, you may not lose out on the money if you’re eligible for a payment, but you may have to wait until the upcoming tax season to get it. Americans received two other stimulus checks before this, a $1,200 and $600 check.

1: COVID-19 vaccination locations in Massachusetts

FILE – This Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 file photo shows vials for the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines at a temporary clinic in Exeter, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The COVID-19 vaccine was approved for use at the end of 2020 but it wasn’t until a couple months into 2021 that it was largely available to the general public.

In December 2020, Massachusetts began vaccinating health care workers directly involved with COVID-19 and residents of long term care facilities. By April, anyone 16 and older was eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Do you remember trying to get a COVID-19 vaccine in early 2021? It wasn’t easy!

The VaxFinder website was announced in February, which was created to help people find a vaccine appointment. The problem in the beginning, however, was there was way too high of a demand and not enough vaccines to distribute. Appointments would become available and fill within minutes. This continued for weeks until more vaccines like Moderna and Johnson & Johnson became available.

22News provided COVID-19 vaccine locations on our website as soon as they were announced. Throughout the year, we posted dozens of stories to help western Massachusetts residents find a vaccine, which is why this web article was the most viewed story on our website in 2021!

If you are looking to get a COVID-19 vaccine or booster shot, you can go to the VaxFinder website to find an appointment.

22News wants to wish everyone a Happy New Year as we move into 2022! There’s a lot of local news we expect to cover next year, such as the hopeful return of the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade, upcoming snow storms, summer fairs, and of course the election for our next Governor!

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