There is a sense of foreboding and discomfort present in the county as we approach Monday, Feb. 13. This will be the first anniversary of the fateful plane crash that took the lives of four county youngsters, the mother of one of the young men, along with the plane’s owner and two pilots.
While this tragedy is unquestionably a matter of distress for the immediate families of the deceased, there is concern that the death of the four teenagers could represent a metaphorical death for a culture and community as well.
Jonathon “Kole” McGinnis, 15, along with his mother Stephanie, both of Atlantic was returning with three other Down East youngsters, Jake Taylor, 16, and Michael “Daily” Shepherd, 15, also from Atlantic, along with Noah Styron, 15, Cedar Island, when the plane they were flying in inexplicably crashed in the ocean off Drum Inlet. The four boys, along with Kole’s mother, the plane’s owner Hunter Parks and two pilots, Earnest “Teen” Rawls and his son Jeffery, were returning from a weekend hunting trip at Lake Mattamuskeet, in nearby Hyde County.
Tragedies such as this can have a galvanizing effect on a community, which is what happened within hours of the plane crash. At that moment the 11 distinct and independent communities that make Down East Carteret County rallied and quickly became one body, one family.
Tragedy is not new to this community, which for the sake of clarification, officially begins at the North River Bridge. The families that have proudly lived in this unique region of the state hold fast to a tradition of independence and self-reliance that has sustained them for centuries.
There is unquestionably a competitive nature among these communities, but as Karen Amspacher, executive Director of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center, always notes, “the best of these communities comes out in the worst situations.” That is exactly what happened on that fateful day and continues even today.
While it was not all that unusual to see the rallying of the immediate community, which quickly expanded to the rest of the county, the growing support for the devastated families and community that poured in from the state and nation was stunning. Yes, the crash was a major story, making headlines across the country, but that doesn’t explain the response.
What most likely does explain the overwhelming, even awe inspiring reaction, from across the country is that this tragedy embodied more than eight lives, it also metaphorically embodied a culture.
Kole, Jake, Daily and Noah obviously had a long and adventurous future ahead of them, but in their pursuit of duck hunting and fishing, they were also the future, the thread if you will, of a community that has a special place culturally that is truly unique, not only for North Carolina but also for the country.
There are two true Down East regions of the country. There is Down East Maine which has its own nationally and internationally recognized image and culture. And, there is Down East Carteret County, which like its Yankee sibling, has its own unique qualities.
It is interesting and maybe coincidental, considering both communities are subject to a dynamic and challenging coastal environment, that not only do they share the same name but in many cases there are similarities in culture as well.
Modernity is working against these cultures as populations shift with the changing times and the young men and women who have been reared in these communities move away, leaving few to continue the traditions and culture of their ancestors. These changes are not unique but they are discomforting.
So it was an even heavier burden on the Down East Carteret County community when these four youngsters, who were full of life, who obviously had visions of continuing their interest and even possibly their careers in their home communities, died so suddenly.
In recognition of these lives, Jennifer “Bean” Stinnett, a close friend of Stephanie Fulcher, has worked with two family friends, Mark and Joey Smith, to memorialize the six county residents by seeking to name area creeks in the Atlantic community in their honor.
Thursday, Cong. Dr. Greg Murphy, representing the district, introduced the Down East Remembrance Act that officially called for the naming of the creeks in honor of the four boys, Kole’s mother Stephanie and her friend Hunter. Both US Senators representing the state, Thom Tillis and Ted Budd, submitted a companion bill in their chamber which should expedite the formal acceptance by the U.S Geological Survey to include the creek names in all charts and geologic surveys going forward.
There is no bringing back those four bright lights, the mother of Kole, or the others who died in the plane crash. All that is left are broken dreams of what “could have been” for their families but also for their communities.
The naming of the six Atlantic creeks, which will be teeming with life from fish and fowl, will be vibrant memorials and hopefully constant reminders that what makes Down East so very special, so very important, is its people.
Monday will be a tough day for Down East, particularly all those close friends and students at East Carteret High School where the four hunters learned and played, but it will be met with a sense of pride and confidence that has a name- Down East Strong. It will also be a day to remember that Down East is so much more than a geographical location, it is a place that is rich with a unique culture that we should cherish and rally to protect.
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