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Testimony begins in trial over fatal blast at Lake Norman marina

LINCOLNTON A former N.C. Wildlife resource officer described in court Thursday the scene of a 2008 Lake Norman boat explosion that killed 19-year-old Nate Coppick.

Testifying in a civil suit against the company that installed the fuel system at the Denver marina, Scott Loflin recalled the smoke, the swirl of helicopters, emergency personnel and news crews.

Huge concrete tiles on the dock had been tossed eight feet or more into the air, he said.

“It resembled a combat scene of mass destruction,” said Loflin, who is now with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department. “It was total fire, destruction and chaos.”

Coppick was killed June 10, 2008, while refueling an 80-foot charter boat at Hobbs Westport Marina.

Suits against the marina owner and boat owner were settled out of court. Information about the settlements had not been filed at the clerk of court’s office.

On Wednesday, jury selection was completed in the civil case against Petroleum Equipment & Service Inc. of Denver. Superior Court Judge Forrest Bridges did not allow a claim for punitive damages. During Wednesday’s court session, the jury saw video footage of the explosion made by a security camera at the marina.

On Thursday, still shots from the surveillance footage were shown.

John Holden, attorney for the defendants, objected to two graphic photos showing the burned boat and Coppick’s body

The images had no relevance, he said, and would “inflame passions” and be “prejudicial in the extreme.”

Holden said a gasoline explosion from a fuel overspill “sparked by running generators on the boat” occurred at the marina, and the chief medical examiner indicated the cause of Coppick’s death wasn’t from fire, but “from blunt force injury, secondary to the explosion.”

Showing the two photos would “disturb the family and jury and everybody in the court and community,” Holden said. “… They prove nothing and do a great deal of harm.”

Bridges allowed the jurors to view only one of the photos, which showed the rear of the boat.

“It may be helpful to the jury,” he said. “And it’s not so gruesome as to be inflammatory.”

Loflin, who was lead investigator in the explosion, told about arriving at the marina on a hot, humid June afternoon and learning that Coppick, who worked there, was missing.

He learned that the boat had returned from carrying a high school graduation party around the lake, and the passengers had gotten off. As the crew cleaned up, Coppick was refueling the boat. Just before the explosion, he was seen in the back of the boat.

Loflin said that as a wildlife officer, he had often refueled his own boat at the Westport marina and that the fuel nozzles had hold-open latches.

Earlier, attorney Jason White, representing the Coppick estate, told the court the fuel nozzle hold-open latch Coppick was using didn’t function properly and that at least 30 gallons of gas overflowed.

The explosion and fire happened in a matter of three seconds.

Two crew members jumped off the top deck into the water.

Coppick’s body was found around 5:30 p.m. the next day in the engine area in the rear of the boat near the generators. As Loflin testified about the discovery, Coppick’s father, Richard, bent over, holding his head.

Among exhibits shown to the jury were bulky fuel hoses and nozzles, including the one Coppick used.

Court will recess for Good Friday and resume Monday. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

DePriest: 704-868-7745
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