How a Fishing Boat Sinking in North Carolina Resonates with Pittsburgh. Please read.

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I grew up in a steelworkers family and understood from early on that it was a dangerous, difficult job. We weren’t allowed to touch my father’s work clothes, not to keep them from being mussed but to keep us from being exposed to the chemicals. My mother used a separate washing machine for his work items – a wringer washer, in fact. The smell of sulphur lingered over our family home from the nearby Mon Valley Works and permeated my father’s truck from his workplace.

I remember when the 12 PM news would report on an accident or there would be a breaking news mention on KDKA or in the afternoon Pittsburgh Press. We would hold our collective breath waiting for our father to call home and assure us he was okay. There was no way to reach him – calling his plant in the midst of an obvious emergency was not an option. So we waited. And prayed.

My father did always come home, only once with injuries after acid burned his face and left him unable to work for several weeks. And while he didn’t tell us kids directly, I would overhear him telling my mother about the incidents. I definitely remember the accident in 1986 when his coworker died in a terrible manner, while others were injured. It was one of the few times I saw him cry.

Pittsburgh knows how workplace accidents can have a devastating impact on an entire community. Families and neighbors grieve the loss of a loved one while coworkers deal with survivor’s guilt and that nagging fear of who might be next. That’s the reality of the working class – there’s always going to be a next time because so much of the work that builds nations and feeds families is dirty, hard, and dangerous, even in 2020, even with labor unions and OSHA regulations and Obamacare.

The fate of a fishing trawler looking for shrimp near the Outer Banks might seem far removed from Pittsburgh’s steel mills. But long, back-breaking hours of physical labor coupled with dangerous waters and shifting currents could apply to both fishermen and steelworkers stepping about the barges or the vats of molten liquids. The wear and tear of an icy bitter day on raw wet flesh might sting as painfully as the roaring infernos inside the coke ovens. If we think the emissions wafting through the steel communities are bad (they are), imagine what the workers experience. Can you imagine the backbreaking work required to catch and prepare shrimp for consumers?

On January 9, 2020, the Papa’s Girl capsized in the Sound. Three of her crew died in those waters, including Captain Floyd Gibbs and a fourth crew member has extensive injuries. Captain Gibbs set off the emergency beacon before he died, a final act of leadership that helped to save his crew member and ensure rescuers had a fighting chance to find the men. Sammy Douglas and Keyron ‘Breezy’ Davis were lost at sea. Ben Poe was rescued and is at home recuperating from this traumatic experience.

Jason Sauer said to me that the entire community is in mourning. The deaths of three men and critical injury of the fourth crew member have ripped a hole into the fabric of Engelhard, North Carolina, population 445. And the very next day, everyone who fishes for a living had to go back out into the water also without protections we might take for granted. Who looks out for the interests of these folx whose life’s work helps to feed their families and ours?

Papa’s Girl sunk in the body of water known as the Pamlico Sound. Those of us who have rented a home for a week on the Outer Banks know there is the oceanfront and the sound front.

And go to the Outer Banks, we do. There’s a very special bond between Pittsburgh and this coastal region, something explored in this 2017 article by the Trib.

Marketing of the Outer Banks as a Pittsburgh vacation destination dates back to at least the 1950s. Newspaper advertising often called North Carolina “Variety Vacationland” and touted its historic sites,beaches, and sporting opportunities.
“Along the same historic coast which saw the First Colony and the First Flight, you will find miles of fun in surf and sand. North Carolina’s fabulous Outer Banks and two national parks are now easily accessible by paved roads,” read one newspaper ad in 1953.

My father’s family began visiting the Outer Banks in the late 1940s when a great-uncle was stationed at Norfolk and the family visited. He returned to Pittsburgh, but the family kept returning to fish, swim, and enjoy seafood. And I can attest to always meeting tons of folx from Pittsburgh when I’ve been there. Our most recent visit was in 2010 and our little motel was packed with people from the South Hills who came as a group.

This vacation destination isn’t just a week’s paradise. It is home to many people who work tirelessly to support the tourists and support their families. The Papa’s Girl crew didn’t live on the Outer Banks proper, but in nearby Engelhard along the Inner Banks. Still, there is an inexorable bond between the people in this region as well as between the fishers of the waters and our daily lives.

And then there is Nina Gibbs, bringing Engelhard and North Carolina to Pittsburgh since the late 1990s when she came here to pursue her art degree. You might know her from the Most Wanted Fine Art gallery which infused creative non-traditional art into the Penn Avenue corridor. Or you might know her from her community work with the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. You might remember her organizing art car rallies or events for children. You might know her as Rowdy Floyd’s mom and/or Jason Sauer’s life-partner.

For me, Nina has been a mentor, friend, and neighbor. She saw something artistic in my work that I never saw and invited me to join the artists in residence with MWFA for the 2015-2017 cohort. Her belief gave rise to the #AMPLIFY project and completely changed the way I saw my own work and how I moved through the world.

Nina is the friend who bakes you a pie or a casserole. She sends people to help with tasks, carry chairs, cut grass, and lift heavy things. She reads grant proposals, reviews resumes, and comes to Facebook to find Nerf guns, crayons, and gently used window air conditioners for her neighbors. She endures life’s indignities with grace, valor, and grit. She is fierce, talented, and smart as a whip. She believes in Pittsburgh with all of her incredibly big heart, to the point that her Southern drawl seems absolutely perfect in the middle of Garfield.

And if you know Nina well enough to know these things about her, you also realize how much she loves her family. She has stories and tales and updates. She goes home as often as she can and they come here, too. I sat with Nina’s mother when she was honored by Pittsburgh’s 40 Under 40 and to see the pride, joy, and love in her eyes that night at all that her daughter had accomplished and was celebrated for was an honor.

Nina should not have lost her beloved daddy, not like this and not this soon. She will rise to the occasion as she always does, but losing a parent before you expect creates a new dimension in your life as you figure out who you are without someone who defined your actual life for 40+ years.

We cannot change the situation, but we can embrace Nina, Rowdy, Jason, her family, and the extended families of the other crew by helping them navigate this horrible time.

If you have ever vacationed in the Outer Banks, please donate.
If you have ever waited for that phone call from a loved one after a workplace accident, please donate.
If you give up plastic straws to help the oceans, please help those who make a livelihood there, please donate.
If you’ve been to the Penn Avenue art crawls or community events in Greenfield, please donate.
If you know the pain of losing a parent, please donate.
If you smile when you see an art car, please donate.
If you enjoy fried fish and shrimp during Lent, please donate.
If you know and love Nina and Rowdy, please donate.

If you cannot donate, please share. This is a time for Pittsburgh to reach out to our neighbor Nina, but also to the people of Engelhard and Hyde County, to the folks who pursue a dangerous living without the safety nets of unions, affordable insurance or health care and so much more.

I can’t think of a poetic way to close this post. My heart breaks for my friend and there’s very little I can do except ask you to be mindful that this tragedy is much bigger than we can imagine and part of the ribbon that threads through so many parts of our lives and conversations. We must continue to resist and support the families as they persist.

Papa's Girl