By Mike Hixenbaugh
© April 29, 2012
It’s near 10 on a blustery spring night, and Earl Mawyer is rifling through a stack of documents in a dimly lit parking lot. He finds a fresh number, punches it into his cell, then brings the phone to his ear.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
He slaps the phone shut. His head is pounding; his vision blurred. He leans back into a leather seat, shuts his eyes and wishes this day never came.
A moment later, the middle-aged manager of the Mayfair Mews apartment complex is composed and back on his phone. He’s determined to track down every tenant who might have been home earlier that day when a malfunctioning fighter jet sputtered out of control and slammed into the adult community off Birdneck Road.
He thought the worst when he first saw the ominous plume of thick black smoke billowing from the brick apartment complex that’s also been his home the past 11 years. In those frantic first hours, he figured 20, maybe 30, of his tenants would be dead.
Now he’s sitting with a police officer in his pickup truck. They’re poring over leases and phone books, calling tenants and emergency contacts and anyone else who might be able to speak the words he’s now desperate to hear – “They’re here. They’re alive.”
Each answered call delivers a bit of relief. Earl crosses a name from a list. “He’s OK.” Another name. “She’s OK.” After five hours, dozens of calls and who knows how many cups of coffee, the list that started at about 85 is down to four.
Four souls. Four people who could be trapped a few hundred feet away under smoldering rubble. Earl dials another number. No answer. Another number. Again, nothing. He doesn’t want to stop calling until he finds them.
“That’s good enough for now,” the police officer tells him. “You should get some rest.”
It’s good advice.
In the coming days, the 56-year-old maintenance man with gold-capped teeth and a receding hairline will play a key role in the emergency response and cleanup following the F/A-18D Hornet crash, serving as the chief liaison between numerous aid officials and dozens of displaced residents.
A Navy official speaking with reporters days later will declare Earl a “godsend.” A fire department battalion chief will greet Earl’s adult children at the crash site and tell them, “Your dad is a rock star.” A top-ranking city official will shake Earl’s hand, pull him into an embrace, and tell him, “You are what makes Virginia Beach great.”
It’s a safe bet those words wouldn’t have been spoken a decade ago.
Not by dignitaries.
Not about this man.
A jet fell from the sky on April 6, 2012, and it delivered a shot at redemption for Earl Eugene Mawyer.
A warm summer night 13 years earlier was a turning point. Earl was back home in western Virginia, doped up on speed and on his knees. He was crying and cursing his own name.
Twice divorced by then, the factory laborer and former truck driver was well known in his hometown of Staunton as both a hard worker and world-class screw-up.
He hated who he had become. He hated that he was 43 years old and facing another stint behind bars on felony drug charges. He hated that his three children had to see him this way.
In a moment of desperation, Earl cried out to God.
“I told him to take control of my life because obviously I wasn’t doing a very good job on my own,” he said.
Earl believes something changed in that moment. That the weight of growing up in rural poverty in a less-than-loving home had somehow been lifted. That his past mistakes had been forgiven.
Months later, he walked away from the Harrisonburg Men’s Diversion Center in search of a fresh start. It led him to Virginia Beach.
His half-brother had taken a job as a resident manager of an adult apartment community off Birdneck Road and asked him to come on as his handyman. After a few months, his brother moved on and Earl took his place.
The job meant running the leasing office, mowing grass and fixing leaky pipes. He cherished the responsibility and the freedom to set his own schedule.
Here, people didn’t think of him as a convict. He became known as Earl the maintenance man – the guy who showed up within minutes after they called complaining about cracked tiles or busted refrigerators.
He grew to love “The Mews.”
Soon the community’s elderly residents were calling Earl with other requests. He carried groceries up steps, took cars to the shop and was first to respond when tenants called saying they had fallen and couldn’t get back up. He embraced his role as an unofficial caretaker, even when he felt less than qualified.
One afternoon he noticed a few newspapers still wrapped in plastic stacking up outside a unit. When he pushed the door open, he found a woman lying face-up on the floor, still breathing and hysterical. She had suffered a stroke two days earlier.
Earl held her hand and reassured her while he spoke with emergency dispatchers.
She survived, but often that wasn’t the case.
Once while cutting the grass, Earl waved to a resident seated at her kitchen table. The next time he passed on the mower, she was slumped over in her chair.
In a senior housing facility, death became a painful part of the job. Earl grieved each passing.
“In my 11 years here,” he said, “I think we had an average of three residents die each year.”
But none on April 6.
Earl didn’t sleep that night. After dialing countless phone numbers in search of hope, he retired to an emergency shelter knowing that four of his residents still hadn’t been accounted for, and he couldn’t shake the thought that they might have been killed.
He rejoiced the following morning when those tenants appeared on site. They had been staying with friends and hadn’t thought to call.
The elation was fleeting. Earl took his first good look at the complex a day after it was engulfed in a fireball. In a nearby parking lot, dozens of wide-eyed residents gathered around him. They were asking questions about their belongings and wondering when they might be able to return home.
More tests for Earl lay ahead.
A couple of days after the crash, Earl sat on the tailgate of his truck and rattled off the names of every tenant and recounted – with astonishment that all were OK – where each person was when metal met pavement.
It’s this attention to detail – this intimate knowledge of the community – that stood out to Bob Geis, the commander of Oceana Naval Air Station. Geis asked Earl to attend on-site emergency response meetings and relay information to affected residents.
Fire department Battalion Chief Hedley Austin was surprised to find the apartment manager had a personal relationship with almost every tenant. He asked Earl to put him in contact with those who needed medicine or other vital items from their homes. In return, Earl persuaded fire officials to retrieve a few sentimental items and check on trapped pets.
He became an essential cog in the official government response – connecting dozens of increasingly frustrated residents with high-ranking officials.
His gray flip phone never quieted.
“No ma’am. I don’t know when you’ll get your security deposit.”
“The fire department says your cat is fine, and they’re going to keep feeding it until you can get in there.”
“You have to understand, I’m not making the rules. I don’t get to say when you can move back in.”
It went on like this for days. Earl took every call. He answered every question. He kept his cool when he really wanted to shout. The stress showed in his hunkered shoulders and heavy eyes and in statements like: “Dude, I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this. Some days I just want to quit.”
But he didn’t.
With each new crisis, another version of Earl seemed to emerge.
There was Earl the Counselor: He contacted residents to tell them if anything could be salvaged from their homes, and tried to take the edge off bad news. “There’s nothing left…. We’ll get through this, I promise.”
Then there was Earl the Mediator: When an agitated tenant began shouting at another resident, Earl stepped between them and restored calm. “We don’t need to do this right now. We’re all frustrated. We all want to go home. But we’ve got to keep it together.”
Then Earl the Minister: Moments before the first group of emotional residents was allowed to see their homes for what would be the last time, Earl called them together, asked them to link hands and led them in prayer. “Dear God, we thank you that we all can stand here breathing this morning…. Thank you that we are all alive.”
Displaced residents gathered one day at the city’s Law Enforcement Training Academy and filled out paperwork to receive emergency money from the Navy.
Earl was among the first to arrive, but he didn’t get in line. He talked with residents. He answered what questions he could. He shook hands and offered hugs. He waited until everyone else was served before taking care of himself.
Deputy City Manager Cindy Curtis watched him. She saw a man who put others first. A man of integrity.
“People like Earl reflect the best of what Virginia Beach stands for,” she said later. “We’ve all made mistakes in our life. But if you’re willing to change and step up like this man has, we will embrace you every time.”
Tears welled up in Earl’s eyes when he learned what Curtis said. He thought back to that day on his knees more than a decade ago.
“I think maybe all of this is God’s way of saying: ‘Hey, Earl, you’re not such a bad guy.’ Maybe this is the real me.”
You wouldn’t suspect Earl’s troubled past by looking at him. He appears every bit the loving grandfather and thoughtful employee that he’s become. But there are hints.
There’s the small gold hoop hanging from an ear that a buddy pierced a lifetime ago in prison. And there’s the jailhouse tattoo on his left arm that once carried the name of an ex-wife but has since been covered with a dreamcatcher and an eagle – symbols to remind him of his roots in the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley.
The ink was hidden under long sleeves on a chilly morning five days after the crash. Residents again gathered around his pickup at the food mart that had become his unofficial command post.
They came hoping to get a look at their homes and to ask when they might be able to reclaim a few cherished possessions.
Still without answers, however, the residents were becoming emotional.
Earl patted shoulders and urged patience.
That was a struggle for Dottie Lebrecht. Her apartment was ground zero on Good Friday – the jet smashed through the unoccupied unit above her. The 81-year-old woman was happy to have escaped, but the thought of losing everything was still weighing heavily on her.
Dottie wondered aloud if a framed photo of her slain son might have survived. Earl had walked through the wreckage; there was no doubt all of her belongings had been obliterated. He didn’t dare say so then.
“If they’ve got the photo, I’ll personally make sure it gets to you,” Earl told her.
“I loved that apartment,” Dottie said. Her voice began to shake and tears formed in her eyes. “That was my home. It was beautiful.”
Earl stepped toward her, wrapped the woman in his arms and gently stroked her back.
“You’re apartment was beautiful,” he said, then released her and grabbed her by the shoulders. He had removed his customary mirrored sunglasses, revealing eyes that are heavy and serious after years of personal struggle.
“But you know what? You are more beautiful…. And I’m just happy you’re OK.”
The old woman’s lips quivered; her cheeks stained with tears. She brought a frail hand to Earl’s weathered face.
“Earl,” she said, “what would we have done without you?”