It was a drama played out like a movie and watched in real time by a nervous White House audience.
And it was the culmination of a nation's decade-long search for justice after the horror of Sept. 11, 2001.
The May 1 killing of Osama bin Laden during a raid by Navy SEALs on his hideout in Pakistan was far and away the top news story of 2011.
And in second place were the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan that killed thousands and led to a grave crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
An Associated Press survey of editors and news directors ranked the stories.
The death of bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader who masterminded the terror attacks, received 128 first-place votes out of 247 ballots cast for the top 10 stories. The Japan disaster gathered 60 first-place votes.
Placing third were the Arab Spring uprisings that rocked North Africa and the Middle East.
The European Union's financial turmoil was No. 4, and the still-faltering U.S. economy was No. 5.
The international flavor of these top stories contrasted with last year's voting -- when the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was the top story, President Obama's health care overhaul was No. 2, and the U.S. midterm elections were No. 3.
Among the news events falling just short of the Top 10 were the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Hurricane Irene, the devastating series of tornados across the Midwest and the Southeastern United States and the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that barred gays from serving openly in U.S. military.
Here are 2011's Top 10 stories, in order:
>Bin Laden's death
He'd been the world's most-wanted terrorist for nearly a decade, ever since a team of his al-Qaida followers carried out the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In May, the long and often-frustrating manhunt ended with a nighttime assault by a helicopter-borne special operations squad on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was shot dead by one of the raiders, and within hours his body was buried at sea.
>Japan's triple disaster
A 9.0-magnitude earthquake off Japan's northeast coast in March unleashed a tsunami that devastated scores of communities, leaving nearly 20,000 people dead or missing and wreaking an estimated $218 billion in damage. The tsunami triggered the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl after waves knocked out the cooling system at a nuclear power plant, causing it to spew radiation that turned up in local produce. About 100,000 people who were evacuated from the area have not returned to their homes.
It began with demonstrations in Tunisia that rapidly toppled the longtime strongman. Spreading like wildfire, the Arab Spring protests sparked a revolution in Egypt that ousted Hosni Mubarak, fueled a civil war in Libya that climaxed with Moammar Gadhafi's death and fomented a bloody uprising in Syria against the Assad regime. Bahrain and Yemen also experienced major protests and unrest.
>EU fiscal crisis
The European Union was racked by relentless fiscal turmoil. In Greece, austerity measures triggered strikes, protests and riots, while Italy's economic woes toppled Premier Silvio Berlusconi. France and Germany led urgent efforts to ease the debt crisis; Britain balked at proposed changes.
By some measures, the U.S. economy gained strength as the year progressed. Hiring picked up a bit, consumers were spending more, and the unemployment rate finally dipped below 9 percent. But millions of Americans remained buffeted by foreclosures, joblessness and benefit cutbacks, and investors were on edge monitoring the chain of fiscal crises in Europe.
>Penn State scandal
One of America's most storied college football programs was tarnished in a scandal that prompted the firing of Hall of Fame football coach Joe Paterno. One of his former assistants, Jerry Sandusky, was accused of sexually molesting 10 boys; two senior Penn State officials were charged with perjury; and the longtime president was ousted. Paterno wasn't charged, but he expressed regret he didn't do more after being told there was a problem.
After nearly 42 years of mercurial and often brutal rule, his own people toppled Moammar Gadhafi. Anti-government protests escalated into an eight-month rebellion, backed by NATO bombing, that shattered his regime, and Gadhafi finally was tracked down and killed in the fishing village where he was born.
Partisan divisions in Congress led to several showdowns on fiscal issues. A fight over the debt ceiling prompted Standard & Poor's to strip the United States of its AAA credit rating. Later, the so-called "supercommittee" failed to agree on a deficit-reduction package of at least $1.2 trillion -- potentially triggering automatic spending cuts of that amount starting in 2013.
>Occupy Wall Street
It began Sept. 17 with a protest at a New York City park near Wall Street and within weeks spread to scores of communities across the United States and abroad. The movement depicted itself as leaderless and shied away from specific demands, but it succeeded in airing its complaint that the richest 1 percent of Americans benefit at the expense of the rest. As winter approached, local police dismantled several of the protest encampments.
>Gabrielle Giffords shot
The popular third-term congresswoman from Arizona suffered a severe brain injury when she and 18 other people were shot by a gunman as she met with constituents outside a Tucson supermarket in January. Six people died, and Giffords' painstaking recovery is still in progress.