Four teenagers and four adults returning from a hunting trip were on board a small plane that crashed off the coast of North Carolina over the weekend, authorities said Tuesday.
Everyone on board was from North Carolina. Six of the passengers lived in coastal Carteret County, a mostly rural area that includes tourist destinations and the southern edge of the Outer Banks.
Divers found the plane’s fuselage and cabin in the Atlantic Ocean about 3 miles from shore and in about 55 feet of water, Carteret County Sheriff Asa Buck told reporters Tuesday.
Crews have been removing human remains as well as aviation equipment that could help investigators determine the crash’s cause, Buck said. The Coast Guard said Tuesday that it was suspending its search but would continue to work alongside local partners through ongoing recovery operations.
The sheriff said the plane crash and recovery efforts have been “tremendously hard” because the community is so close-knit.
“Half my family’s from down here,” Buck said. “I know the people involved. And I know some of them very closely.”
The sheriff’s office identified the adults on board the plane as pilot Ernest Durwood Rawls, 67, of Greenville; Jeffrey Worthington Rawls, 28, of Greenville; Stephanie Ann McInnis Fulcher, 42, of Sea Level; and Douglas Hunter Parks, 45, of Sea Level.
The teenagers were identified as Jonathan Kole McInnis, 15, of Sea Level; Noah Lee Styron, 15, of Cedar Island; Michael Daily Shepard, 15, of Atlantic; and Jacob Nolan Taylor, 16, of Atlantic.
Carteret County includes communities such as Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach as well as the Cape Lookout National Seashore. The tower of its iconic Outer Banks lighthouse is known for its black-and-white diamond pattern.
But the county also includes the waterfront town of Atlantic, which has a population of about 500 people and is located in a region called Down East.
Kendra Lewis, 29, organized a prayer vigil for Tuesday night in the parking lot of a shuttered grocery store.
“We’re just an old fishing community,” she said. “We’re used to banding together and taking care of one another.”
Lewis watched the four boys who were on the plane grow up.
“They’re the definition of Down East people,” she said. “They hunted. They loved each other. They were just a part of the community. We’re all just a big family.”
The teenagers went to East Carteret High School, which has about 600 students, the school system said in a statement.
Following the news of Sunday’s crash, school counselors, psychologists and crisis team members arrived at the school, where students have begun “telling each other great stories of beautiful memories,” said Rob Jackson, the county schools’ superintendent.
“This is hard for adults,” Jackson said. “Harder still, I think, for teenagers who’ve grown up with their friends who are suddenly taken from them.”
Charlie Snow, a close friend of the pilot, said Ernest Rawls and Jeff Rawls were father and son. Jeff Rawls was a pilot as well, Snow said.
Snow said the elder Rawls was nicknamed “Teen.” Rawls had previously flown for Snow’s company, Outer Banks Airlines, and he and Rawls had also flown together. The elder Rawls was a highly trained and extremely capable pilot, not to mention a high-level aviation mechanic, said Snow, who is also a pilot.
“If anybody could get out of something, if it was possible to get out of it, he could have done it,” Snow said during a telephone interview. “So it makes me think that whatever happened was catastrophic. But you know, it’s just speculation.”
Snow said he and Ernest Rawls were like brothers and were friends for 20 years.
“I just don’t know many people in the world that I loved better than him,” Snow said. “He was just a great guy, a great pilot, a wonderful man — a fine Christian man.”
Snow said the plane that Rawls was flying was owned by Parks, one of the passengers. Fulcher, another passenger, was Parks’ girlfriend. Snow said the couple had taken the teens to a charity hunting event.
FlightAware listed a departure for that plane from Hyde County Airport at 1:35 p.m. Sunday. It noted that the plane was last seen near Beaufort, the Carteret County seat, around 2 p.m.
The Coast Guard said it received a report of a possible downed aircraft about 4 miles east of Drum Inlet from a Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point air traffic controller. The air traffic controller reported that the aircraft was behaving erratically on radar, then disappeared from the screen.
The single-engine Pilatus PC-12/47 crashed about 18 miles northeast of Beaufort, according to an email from the Federal Aviation Administration. A preliminary accident notification on the FAA’s website noted that the aircraft “crashed into water under unknown circumstances.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.