A deadly spark and a life cut short

Julie Coppick worried about her son, Nathan, when she heard the first reports of an accident at the Westport Marina on Tuesday.

He had a regular job at the marina, she said, but she hoped he was all right because he was working aboard a charter boat on Tuesday.

Then, as neighbors gathered at her house to wait for word, she reached his boss by phone. He told her that there had been an explosion and that Nathan was missing. But she realized the truth.

“We all knew that he was gone,” Julie Coppick said Wednesday. “When he said that he was missing, I just handed the phone to my neighbor.”

Officials said the explosion and fire on the 80-foot Championship II charter boat was caused by a spark that ignited gas vapors while the boat was being refueled after a high school graduation party cruise on Lake Norman.

The exact cause of the spark will be investigated once the boat is recovered from the cove, said Scott Loflin of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

Loflin said it appeared that Coppick and boat owner Cliff Champion followed proper procedures when refueling.

Loflin said Coppick's body was found Wednesday when crews used a crane to pull the boat from the water. Authorities would not say directly that Coppick died in the explosion. A salvage company had worked Wednesday to raise the boat, which sank after the fire, and move it to land.

Before the fire started, Loflin said, Coppick was on the lower deck, where he placed the gasoline nozzle into the boat's fuel tank and climbed up a ladder.

“He came back from the top deck and walked down the ladder and went to the fuel tank where the gas was being pumped,” Loflin said. “And then the explosion occurred.”

Five people – including Coppick – were on board. Crew members Katherine Jones and Jessica Young jumped off the boat and swam across the cove. Champion and Mike Federal, the father of the graduate, also escaped the flames.

Champion said he stayed on the boat.

“I tried to go toward the back of the boat to get Nate,” said Champion. “But you couldn't get there because the whole back of the boat was a fireball. I couldn't get to Nate.”

Richard Coppick, Nathan's father, said he rushed to the marina Tuesday after someone told him of the explosion – and that his son was missing.

“When I got to the marina, they said he was in the water,” he said. “He had been in the water too long. There's no hope there.”

Nathan Coppick, 19, a 2006 North Lincoln High School graduate, had worked for the past three summers as a dockhand at the marina, learning the ropes of the business he hoped to find his way into.

Nate, as his family called him, was known as a friendly kid who loved the outdoors and did well in school. He made the dean's list at N.C. State this spring and studied in the engineering college.

Julie Coppick said her son was recently accepted into the business program at N.C. State and had dreams to one day open his own marina. “He always liked boating, wake-boarding and skiing and being around the water,” she said.

Coppick's girlfriend, 20-year-old Kristen DePalmo, said they had plans to marry. Tuesday marked two years since their first date.

Kristen said he had set goals to walk the entire Appalachian Trail and climb Mount Everest.

“He was such a great friend,” she said. “If you talked to him, you were the only person in the room. I loved him.”

Coppick was also known for his close friendship with neighbor Tate Patterson.

The two built treehouses together in their rural backyards and played lacrosse on the high school club team.

Tate's mother, Ronda Patterson, said Tate had hoped Coppick would visit him this weekend on vacation in Myrtle Beach. But she said Tate heard about some kind of accident at the marina Tuesday and became alarmed.

“He knew Nate might be working there,” Ronda Patterson said. “It was like, in his gut, he knew. He said, ‘I need you to find him, find him right now.'”

Patterson said she made the half-mile walk to the Coppicks' house and then told Julie Coppick about the accident report.

The two looked up the number for the marina, and Coppick called to find out when Nathan was coming home.

She learned he wouldn't be.

The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.