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Here's The Big Deal About Sunset
Beach's Quaint Bridge
SUNSET BEACH? Three people
were killed and at least two dozen
homes were destroyed last night by
a wind-whipped fire that raged out
of control as an abnormally high
tide prevented emergency workers
from reaching the island across its
auaint swine bridge.
Hundreds of people, driven from
their homes, crowded the island
causeway in hopes of escaping the
conflagration. Across the waterway,
firefighters from five departments
stood helplessly watching flames
leap high into the night sky.
"It was like something out of the
movie Apocalypse Now, " said the
owner of a summer home leveled by
the blaze. "Military helicopters
were landing in the marsh. They
were hauling injured people on
stretchers through the grass and
evacuating them. It was awful. "
The fire discov ered in an
oceanfront home at about 2 a.m. By
then, the blaze already had spread
to a neighboring house. Driven by a
stiff southwest wind, and without fire
fighting equipment on scene to slow
its progress, the fire jumped to a
third home, where a mother and her
two children were asleep.
The three apparently succumbed
to smoke inhalation and were un
able to escape, according to one of
the many volunteer firefighters who
arrived shortly after the blaze
burned itself out on the shore of the
" We warned them this could hap
pen, " he said.
Indeed they have. But luckily it
hasn't happened. Yet.
Which reminds me of the story
about the eternal optimist who fell
off a skyscraper. As he flew past the
open windows on the way down, he
could he heard to remark again and
again. "So far. So good."
So what is the big deal about the
Sunset Beach bridge?
It's old. It's falling apart It needs
to be replaced. That we know
It floats, so when the tide gets re
ally high, it becomes impassable.
When that happens, fire trucks and
ambulances cannot get to the island.
Period. And people who want to
leave can't get off. No question
Every day during tourist season,
cars Rack up tor nunareas ot yaras
on either side of the bridge. They
are waiting for someone to change
the red light to green, so they can
drive across the rickety single-lane
roadway. Hour after hour. Day after
Meanwhile, boats line up waiting
for the bridge to do its little swing
thing so they can continue their pas
sage up and down the Intracoastal
Waterway. When the bridge opens,
the lines of cars get even longer.
The N.C. Department of Trans
portation wants to replace the anti
quated Sunset Beach bridge. They
want to build a nice, stable, 65-foot
high roadway, two lanes wide.
Which would mean no more lines
of cars. No more lines of boats. No
more tide problems. No fears of los
ing emergency access. No mecha
nisms to break down or maintain.
No bridge worker salaries to pay.
Makes sense. Doesn't it?
You would think so.
But some folks on Sunset Beach
like the old bridge. They say they
don't mind the bother. They say a
new bridge would be less attractive.
They say it would encourage too
many peopie to visit the isiand.
They are afraid some of those visi
tors might stay. Just like they did.
Bridge lovers also say that replac
ing it will spoil the island's charm.
As if daily inconvenience and the
potential loss of emergency services
is somehow charming.
Personally, I think the Sunset
Beach bridge is ugly. Approaching it
from the water, it looks like an old
dredge boat got wedged sideways in
the channel. From the road, it has all
the ambiance of a highway toll
To cross the Sunset Beach bridge,
you first have to wait in line behind
a bunch of cars whose drivers are
burning fossil fuel and spewing car
bon monoxide into the atmosphere
to keep their air conditioners run
As you finally clatter across, you
see a bunch of boats burning up fos
sil fuel and spewing carbon monox
ide (and the contents of their bilges)
into the waterway.
Eventually, you get to drive
across the causeway, where there are
more bumper-to-bumper cars, more
fossil fuel burning and more carbon
monoxide spewing. How charming.
Folks on Sunset beach just don t
realize what they're missing by not
having their very own high-rise
bridge. In fact, I'll bet hardly any of
them have ever seen their island
from 65 feet in the air.
I love the Holden Beach bridge. I
think it's a work of art, gracefully
rising and curving and descending
in a great arc, not unlike the path a
seagull might take across the water
I never get tired of crossing our
bridge. Going to work in the morn
ing, climbing into the air past the
town hall, I can gaze out across
Lockwood Folly Inlet and see all the
way to Oak Island lighthouse. At the
peak, I look down at shrimp boats
tied up to the docks and see beauti
ful sailboats and yachts migrating
along the waieiway.
Coming home, 1 often slow to a
crawl at the top of the bridge, just to
take in the grandeur of that magnifi
cent ocean view. I would hate to
pass up all the stunning sunsets I've
enjoyed while slowly coasting down
to the island's surface.
I don't miss our rickety old one
lane bridge at all. In fact, I can still
see it any time I want to. In a paint
ing, on our living room wall, where
it actually looks quite charming.
When The Walls Came
"Storm Decimates Milepost 4
That was the headline on an
October issue of the Outer Banks
Cunent some 12 or so years back
The raging Atlantic had chosen a
Sunday afternoon to consume ten
ocean front homes at Kitty Hawk
while property owners, police offi
cers and gawkers stood helplessly
by 1 had a story to cover.
The memories washed in on a
rogue wave last Thursday night as I
watched a wide-eyed, rain-suited
television reporter marveling at the
angry sea and stiff wind and waiting
for Hurricane Gordon, who never
showed As if the situation were
anything for autumn on the Outer
Banks ? hurricane or no
That Sunday morning in October
dawned battleship gray with the
northeast wind howling around the
corner of my house and squeezing
itself into a screech that would alarm
houseguests unaccustomed to the
sound I built a fire in the woodstove
to take the damp chill out of the air
Fall and winter days on the Outer
Banks can be open-the-windows
balmy or blow- your -shingles -off
harsh. depending upon the speed
and direction of the ever-present
wind The Wright Brothers didn't
pick their spot at random
My friend Owen ? the type of re
porter who sleeps with one ear tuned
to the police scanner ? called and
said to get moving; houses were go
ing in at Milepost 4, the area just
north of Kill Devil Hills where the
dune was long-gone I bundled up in
flannel -lined jeans and lots of layers,
rigged a plastic bag to protcct my
camcra. stuffed rolls of film in every
pocket, and took off.
When I left home the wind was
blowing 70 miles an hour from the
northeast, making driving a chal
lenge even on the straight, flat five
lane "bypass " When Gwen and I
approachcd the occanfront, it looked
io be snowing, bui ii was 55 de
grees. Great clouds of dirty white
sea foam whipped through the air
and skidded with the scawater
across the beach road. Stomping
through the water and foam, soaked
to the skin by salt spray, I heard for
the the first time the twist -twist-pop
of a house freeing itself from shaky
pilings and tumbling into the sea ?
something like screwing the top off
a plastic soda bottle.
It would take four or five good
waves for each cottage to break
apart, sending boards, appliances
and pieces of cheap furniture afloat,
some toward shore and others out to
sea. Scavengers were having a field
day, albeit a pretty chancy one.
There was no question the pictures
would be great.
We heard the sound four or five
more times before the wind got so
strong that it was too much trouble
to walk anymore.
We drove to Hardee's and got a
half-dozen cups of coffee to deliver
to the cops on the scene. It was
Gwen's modus opcrandus ? if you
bring food or beverage, you'll leave
with information. I've seen her take
a cake to FBI agents, Christmas
cookies to the P.D. at Christmastime,
ham biscuits to firefighters at dawn.
Worked every time.
We got the name of a woman
who'd refused to leave her ocean
front home, despite the fact that the
power had been turned off and her
septic tank was halfway exposed.
Officers had to remove her bodily
from the cottage, which shortly
thereafter become one of The Ten.
We got all the nuts and bolts infor
mation, what was going on at the
other end of the banks, the fact that
winds were sustained at right about
80 miles an hour, gusting to 96.
An officer warned us we needed
to get going. It was getting dark and
the wind was getting even stronger.
Both Gwen and I had children at
home who'd be looking for some
I stayed up all night afraid the
wind would blow the stovepipe off
my roof and set my house afire.
Sometime just before dawn I dozed
off for a few minutes and awakened
to a beautiful clear day with a gentle
breeze off Kitty Hawk Bay.
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