Five events that defined the year

From the summer Olympics to the war in Syria and the sinking of the Costa Concordia ... personal views of the year's defining events.

Felix Baumgartner jumped from space in a freefall that broke the speed of sound. Photo / AP
Felix Baumgartner jumped from space in a freefall that broke the speed of sound. Photo / AP

1. Opening ceremony of London 2012
Kenneth Branagh, actor

Three weeks before the ceremony and the [Olympic Stadium] was packed with thousands of people all doing things impressively. We climbed on to the hill that I'd eventually be doing my piece from.

Danny Boyle said, "You'll be here in the person of Isambard Kingdom Brunel performing Shakespeare to the accompaniment of Elgar," and I said, "God, that's a lot of Great Britons all at once."

On the opening night the energy was incredible and hard to resist. I remember being in my dressing room with the Arctic Monkeys rehearsing Come Together for the 5000th time next door, and on the other side of the partition, Rowan Atkinson and Simon Rattle were discussing how to be funny in two minutes and 11 seconds. As for me, I was just trying to keep my head straight and going through my lines: "Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises ..." Waiting in the wings to go on was joyful - time stood still.

I remember walking up that hill, turning around to see a stadium of 80,000 people, with Elgar ringing in my ears and the stage manager very sweetly saying through my earpiece: "Ken, you're on." After our piece was done, and we walked backstage to change, we all turned around and saw what appeared to be Her Majesty the Queen parachuting into the stadium. There was what I can only describe as a great, big collective smile.

2. Syrian conflict escalates into civil war
Goran Tomasevic, photographer

I was in Aleppo in August. I had been there some days and met Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, the Iraqi journalist working for the Guardian. He introduced me to some fighters from the countryside. The army had been shelling heavily and we were surrounded, and there were machine guns. These guys only had small arms: rifles mostly, the occasional RPGs and sniper rifles.

I saw some of the fighters run into a building so I just followed them. I had heard that a couple of Free Syrian solders had been killed there that day, although I didn't see that. As I followed the fighters, I didn't know what they were planning to do and then I saw this room and they were setting up a sniper position, and they fired two shots from there. There were some other rooms in the same building destroyed by shells, which is why you can see the dust around about.

We were very close to the Syrian army, hiding. And when shells hit a bare wall, the impact is totally different from, say, Libya, when the shell hits the sand.

Another day, I was with a few guys from the same group and they went to recover the bodies of their friends.

I followed them but we were separated and after half an hour they were hammered by Syrian army guys. A couple of them were seriously injured and some were dead.

I don't suffer from deeper feelings until after I leave - I have to do my job, it's what I do - but Syria is very sad. It's a civil war. I am from Serbia and so I can understand that pretty well.

3. Sinking of the Costa Concordia
Patrizia Perilli, survivor

We had just sat down and ordered at the restaurant in the stern when we heard a huge bang and we knew immediately that we had hit something. Then came the earthquake, which was the ship being opened like a tin of tuna as it scraped along the rocks of the island of Giglio. People were screaming and crying and fleeing the restaurant, but we stayed to wait for the panic to subside - where do you run to on a ship?

We got into a lifeboat built for 150 that had far more people packed into the darkness. Since we were on the side of the ship that was tilted upwards, the lifeboat got stuck on the hull. We would drop a few metres at a time as the crew tried to free it with axes. I thought we would turn over and plunge into the sea and I remember wanting to call my son for the last time.

For a long time I couldn't sleep after that night. I had nightmares hearing the screams of the people in the lifeboat and if I sat in a chair during the day it would shake, as if I were at sea.

I am still waiting for Francesco Schettino, the captain of the ship, to apologise to survivors and for the 32 who died. It was a miracle the ship drifted on to two outcrops of rock, where it is still sitting like a model ship. If not for that, we would have been sucked down into the sea that night.

4. Falling from space
Felix Baumgartner, adventurer

How many people have had the opportunity to see the curvature of the Earth below and a completely black sky above? Sitting at the edge of the craft, preparing to jump, was an unforgettable experience: spectacular, and humbling. Before I jumped I said, "I'm going home now," and that's what I was thinking - with my jump I'd be going home to the people I love. As I fell, I was focused on what I needed to do. There was a time when I was spinning that I thought I might be in trouble. But even then I could be calm as I had trained so hard and because we had taken precautions, including a small stabilisation parachute. That would have created drag and slowed me down, so I'm glad I fought to get control and didn't need it. I became the first person to break the speed of sound in freefall.

I always knew death or injury were possible, but I didn't think I would die. I am a very meticulous planner: I look at all the risks, and if they are too high I won't undertake the project.

Not only have we proven that a human can successfully break the speed of sound in freefall - which in itself can lead to advancements in emergency bailout - but it's clear that this mission has sparked people to follow their own dreams, whatever they are.

5. Hugging President Obama
Scott Van Duzer, pizza restaurant owner

It was a Sunday, and I got a call saying that the President would be at the store in 20 minutes. When I got there, the Secret Service had already been through, collecting knives and scissors, anything that could be used as a weapon. All of a sudden he pops in and goes: "Where's Scott?" and I go: "Right here, sir," and he goes: "My God, you're the biggest pizza guy I've ever seen; if I eat your pizzas will I get as strong as you?" And I say: "You want to see how strong I am?" and that's when I gave him a bear hug. He wasn't expecting that, and I wasn't expecting to do it. He thought it was hilarious.

I am a Republican. I voted for [George W.] Bush. But I voted for the President four years ago because he seemed enthusiastic and excited about trying to make our country better. When he came to the store he was exactly that way. He is very genuine.

The next day we started getting hate mail. People were calling in hundreds of dollars of bad food orders. When we realised, we sent it to homeless shelters.

And then that story came out, and people were calling from all over the country saying: "Here's $100 - deliver to the firefighters. Deliver to United Way ..."

The hug gets old, but the spirit of America ... it was just me being me, but to a lot of people it represented what we need: the country getting together, and an end to division. Here was a white guy who is a Republican and an African American who is a Democrat and President, and we are hugging.

-Observer

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