Lauren Anderson and Linda Wiggs held hands in the middle of a Cary field Tuesday as town leaders spoke about the immeasurable value of loved ones.
Anderson, of Asheville, and Wiggs, of Garner, aren’t related by blood but by eerily similar tragedies.
Wiggs’ 13-year-old son, Christopher “Bage” Wells, was one of 12 passengers who died when American Eagle Flight 3378 crashed in Cary in 1988.
Anderson was one of five passengers who survived when American Eagle Flight 3379 crashed into trees about a mile away from the field in 1994. Fifteen people died.
Soon, their experiences will be cemented in local history.
On Tuesday, Cary officials turned over some loose dirt to mark the start of construction on the 16-acre Carpenter Park, which will include a memorial for the 27 people who died in the two nearby plane crashes.
“Every parent’s greatest fear is that their child will not only be lost but forgotten,” Wiggs said before the groundbreaking. “To have one place, where all of the families could go to remember our precious family members who have died, reassures me that he will not be forgotten.”
For those directly affected by the tragedies, the park “will be a place of reflection ... on the value of the people we lost,” Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson told a crowd of more than 50 people.
For others, she said, the park “will be a place to reflect on the value of the people we love.”
The plane crash memorial will feature a terrace with two long black walls aligned in the direction of each crash. There will be five trees in the middle, representing the survivors, and more trees ringing the back, for those who were killed.
The ceremony evoked mixed emotions for those in attendance who lost relatives in the crashes. While opening old wounds, the event simultaneously offered hope that their loved ones always will be remembered.
“It brings back emotions you just can’t control,” said Jeff Josefson, a Rhode Island resident whose mother died in the 1994 plane crash. She was 70.
“But it’s also positive,” he said. “It’s great they’re doing this.”
Debbie Ryan said she’s grateful to soon have a new place to pay respects to her sister, Kelly Ann Ciulla-Ryan, who also died in the 1994 crash. Ryan lives in Wilmington, but her sister, who was 26 when she died, is buried in Long Island, New York. She occasionally takes balloons and flowers to the grave site.
“It’s difficult to get there,” Ryan said. “So this will be much better.”
The town purchased the land in 2007 in hopes of turning it into a park but didn’t proceed with plans until voters approved $2 million to fund the park through a 2012 bond referendum. Carpenter Park, a $2.9 million project, will feature a children’s playground, a walking trail around a pond, lawns and basketball courts, in addition to a community garden.
The memorial, which costs $50,000, is funded by survivors, a former American Eagle pilot, Wiggs and the Gerogia-based Family Assistance Foundation. They presented a check for $25,000 to the town at Tuesday’s ceremony, and plan to present another $25,000 when the park opens next winter, said Cary spokeswoman Carrie Roman.
Council members say the park has been highly anticipated by residents in west Cary. The town’s population has doubled since the 1994 crash and tripled since the 1988 crash, so many residents are likely unfamiliar with the tragedies.
Tuesday’s event offered attendees a chance to speak with the Cary man most familiar with the 1994 crash, David Ferrell.
Ferrell, who lives and works on land next to the park site, responded to the crash as a Morrisville firefighter shortly after it happened. He found Anderson dragging herself up a hill, away from the crash.
Anderson, then a freshman at Elon University, had suffered a broken back, broken leg and a broken collarbone.
Ferrell and Anderson have kept in touch ever since, talking on the phone each year on Dec. 13, the anniversary of the crash. They shared a hug and posed for photos together after the groundbreaking ceremony.
“She was in pretty tough shape and is lucky to be here, I’ll tell you that,” he said.
The event also was special for Max Kast of Pittsboro. At 35 years old, Kast is now the same age as his brother, Jonathan, was when he died in the 1994 crash. Max was 14 at the time, and on Tuesday met some of the other grieving families for the first time.
Kast shared memories of his older brother, who he described as an outgoing, motorcycle-riding mentor.
“Today was tough,” he said. “When you’re a teenager and you lose your brother, a part of you is lost.”
But, he said, the same memories that bring grief are the ones that inspire strength.
“He was an eternal optimist,” Kast recalled. “When I look for strength in difficult situations, I think of him.
“He’s gone, but his spirit and his love persist.”