Memorial Reef

BY Marimar McNaughton

The mournful chant and drone of the bagpipe drifted on the wind drowned by a chorus of sea terns perched on the rails of the old light tower at Frying Pan Shoals a shifting underwater ridge where the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean converge and a hazard to mariners for more than 400 years. Today the sea floor is littered with shipwrecks making it a popular dive destination and now there is one more relic to explore on artificial reef 400.

The piper was onboard one of a dozen boats trolling the waters of the decommissioned light tower on August 4 44 miles offshore. The boaters gathered to pay their last respects to Captain Greg MicKey the 49-year-old husband father friend and expert diver who was lost at sea in June 2005.

With a light wind out of the northeast and a seawater temperature of 82 degrees it was a glorious day for the final lap of a two-year odyssey: the reefing of a rechristened 180-foot menhaden boat dedicated to MicKey’s memory. The gesture was a closing tribute for the tightly woven clan left without closure over what happened the day MicKey vanished.

“Of course it was emotional ” Brad Mickey says. “In our case we’re dealing with the fact that we never got to say good-bye. We never knew it was coming. It just happened. There was no service there was no memorial. We didn’t get what everybody else gets ” MicKey’s eldest son says.

“It was kind of awe-striking to see the name on the boat and all the people there to witness it especially the anticipation building up to that moment ” Brad says. “It’s been two years and finally to have it come through was a relief.”

After the boat was sunk Brad snorkeled over the surface where the Capt. Greg MicKey came to rest in peace in 70 feet of water.

MicKey’s widow Julia scattered flowers over the water and then urged by her companions donned snorkel gear and plunged into the sea for an up-close look at her husband’s memorial.

MicKey’s diving partner Andy Illobre was right behind her. He was possibly the last person to see MicKey alive.

“There hasn’t been anyplace to go there’s no grave to visit there’s no anything that you normally get with a death ” Illobre says. “I think it’s going to provide a really good place to reflect.”

Two years and 46 days after MicKey was last seen the Capt. Greg MicKey made its final voyage.

Jim Francisconi artificial reef coordinator for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries says “This project is probably going to be the best one that I’ll ever do in my career. I don’t expect that there’s going to be another project with as much emotion and passion entwined. This site … holds a uniqueness because it’s very close to where Captain Greg MicKey went missing.”

After his disappearance family and friends formed the Greg MicKey Committee to raise $50 000 matched by $25 000 from the Onslow Bay and Long Bay Artificial Reef Associations to purchase the boat formerly known as the Coastal Mariner. In August 2005 a Norfolk Virginia salvager was contracted to strip the engines the equipment and hazardous material but the project came to a grinding halt when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the salvage company was called into active duty.

Francisconi says “When I give a presentation to a group I tell them ‘Don’t be surprised from this initiation in time that it takes two years.’ It took from the first phone call I had with Donna Starling … and my first discussion about how we can go about memorializing Greg MicKey … two years and two weeks.”

Starling a charter member of the Greg MicKey Committee says “You can’t just give up a memorial because things don’t go your way. Jim and I never gave up.”

When the vessel towed to the reef site on Aug. 4 reached the site the tugboat American sprung a leak on a coolant pipe running seawater to one of the generators.

“She broke at the sea strainer so while we were trying to sink one boat they were trying to keep the tugboat afloat ” Francisconi says.

In the end it seemed the Capt. Greg MicKey refused to go down. Finally the American mustered its fire hose drenching the decks with seawater and filling rudder and engine rooms and the empty fish hold. The stern dipped lifting the bow above the waterline and in a ceremonial salute to MicKey’s indomitable spirit plumes of white water showered the indigo blue ocean as the top of the wheelhouse slid out of sight.

The boat sank to the bottom at 6:30 p.m. where it will forever be a dive destination a habitat for aquatic life and a living tribute to the man who went home to the sea.

Ed note: Greg MicKey changed the capitalization of his last name to match the spelling of his grandfather’s name: MicKey. His widow Julia MicKey shares the spelling … but his sons’ last names are spelled Mickey.


Andy Illobre recalls the day that he Greg MicKey and a third diver Tex Peterson left Carolina Beach Inlet on Saturday June 18 2005. He says the seawater conditions were not as advertised. The weather report called for variable winds at 10 knots or less and they found a solid 15 with gusts up to 20 30 miles southeast of Bald Head Island just east of Frying Pan Shoals.

“The reality is that’s not unusual for that area ” Illobre says. “It was rough but it wasn’t horrible. It was nothing that would have ever turned us around from a fishing trip or a diving trip and still probably to this day wouldn’t ” he says.

At the end of their second dive Illobre said he and MicKey went in search of the anchor line but could not find it.

“We both did the thumbs up sign and did a free ascent which is not the best way to go. You generally want to go up the anchor line because it gives you a tether to the boat ” Illobre says.

At 20 feet Illobre lost sight of MicKey. The current swept them apart. The next time Illobre saw MicKey was when they surfaced but only for a second.

Illobre says Peterson made it successfully up the anchor line and boarded MicKey’s 33-foot boat the Details.

What happened next will possibly always be a mystery.

In an account of the incident published in Lumina News June 23 2005 Peterson reported Illobre and MicKey missing at approximately 1 p.m. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) launched 47-foot rescue boats from Station Wrightsville Beach and Station Oak Island an HH-60 helicopter and C-130 aircraft from Air Station Elizabeth City to search for the two missing men.

MicKey’s buoyancy compensator (BC) and tank which he had apparently shucked in an effort to swim to the boat drifted near Illobre.

“I picked up his equipment later on a couple of miles away ” Illobre says. “It just happened to be floating within 20 to 30 feet of me. It actually did a lot to save my life. I just shoved his tank underneath my knees and it kind of kept me upright without having to struggle so much ” Illobre says. Lumina News reported that the USCG C-130 aircrew spotted a diver in the rough waters at about 8:28 p.m. the same day and dropped a life raft. A second helicopter for Air Station Elizabeth City then arrived and hoisted Illobre from the lift raft and flew him to awaiting EMS personnel. Illobre was treated and released.

Illobre went out the next day to search for MicKey but had engine trouble and never made it out to the tower.

“After that the Coast Guard took civilians out of the search because the weather was so bad ” he says.

The USCG covered more than 1 000 square miles and suspended the search on Monday evening based on the low probability that he would be found alive stated an e-mail from Ensign Andy Greenwood.

“We have thoroughly searched all areas where it is possible for him to be located and have suspended all active searches until further information is received.”

Friends and family including Sam Flint and MicKey’s two sons Chris and Brad continued to search through Wednesday June 22 recovering MicKey’s 14-pound weight belt as well as the Details anchor.

Frying Pan Shoals Saturday August 4 2007

The Capt. Greg MicKey was sunk on August 4 2007 within sight of Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower. Located 32.5 miles (52 km) southeast of Cape Fear at the end of Frying Pan Shoals the Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower was initially scheduled for demolition. However the remains of the tower will be left in place as an “artificial reef” for fishermen. It is accessible only by boat.

In the shoals off the convergence of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean the Frying Pan Light Tower has emitted an automated beacon since 1979 when its crew was removed.

The platform rests on four 80-foot steel legs. The tower extends 40 feet above water and 40 feet below to the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. One corner of the tower is equipped with a foghorn radio beacon and computer in addition to the automated light. This adapted Gulf Coast oil drilling platform known as a “Texas Tower” (one of seven erected and placed into service) was built in Louisiana and brought by barge to Frying Pan Shoals in 1966. The light tower was replaced in November 2003 by a 3-meter discus buoy that includes a NOAA C-MAN automatic weather station (Station 41013 — Frying Pan Shoals N.C. Buoy) which is owned and maintained by the National Data Buoy Center.

This new buoy position is approximately 8.22 nautical miles west-southwest of Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower. Compiled using USCG archives.