Navy jet crash hero to make a fresh start
As the final hours of 2012 ticked away, Earl Mawyer loaded the last of his belongings into the back of a pickup. He handed over the ring of keys he's carried the past 12 years. As he drove away, he watched the Mayfair Mews apartment complex disappear in his rearview mirror.
This is where Mawyer, 57, found a fresh start after years in and out of prison. It's where, as the complex manager, he made some of his best friends. And it's where, on Good Friday last spring, the meaning of Mawyer's life finally came into focus.
Mawyer played a crucial role after a malfunctioning fighter jet dropped from the sky on April 6 and slammed into the apartments off Birdneck Road. City officials and military brass praised the maintenance man, whose intimate relationship with his elderly tenants helped keep them calm and informed in the hours and days after the F/A-18D Super Hornet came down.
Mawyer believes the fiery crash - some called it a miracle that nobody was killed - was his life's defining moment.
"This is where God wanted me," Mawyer said days after the crash. "I feel like I was put in this job for a reason."
It's understandable, then, that Mawyer was emotional when he learned two weeks before Christmas that the job was coming to an end.
With half as many units left standing after the crash and demolition, the owners told Mawyer it was no longer financially feasible to keep a full-time manager living on site.
He hugged a few long-time tenants Monday before climbing into his truck and driving back to his hometown in western Virginia.
"I shed the tears, and I done ate my McDonald's," Mawyer said as he drove west on I-264. "I'm on the road and ready to start over."
It's a trip Mawyer made in reverse in 2000. At 44, he had just been released from prison and was headed to Virginia Beach, hoping for a clean break after years struggling with drugs.
At Mayfair Mews, he found a community of aging tenants who appreciated him. By the time the jet crashed, he was as much of a part of the complex as the bricks and drywall.
In the hours afterward, as crews hosed water onto the smoldering rubble, Mawyer helped emergency responders contact every resident to ensure nobody was missing. And in the weeks that followed, he served as the chief liaison between city officials and those who had been displaced.
"People like Earl reflect the best of what Virginia Beach stands for," Deputy City Manager Cindy Curtis said weeks after the crash. "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."
Later, the Navy presented Mawyer with a plaque and thanked him for his efforts during a ceremony at Oceana Naval Air Station.
Mawyer cried Monday when asked to reflect on how his life has changed since the crash. "It showed me that I'm actually worth something," he said.
Leaving "The Mews" breaks his heart, Mawyer said. He hoped to retire there.
Even without the job, he said he'll never lose the friendships or the memories of his time there. As for the jet crash, he carries a reminder of that day everywhere he goes.
Weeks after the crash, he had an F/A-18 tattooed onto his back, and below it, the words: "Good Friday Miracle."
"Nobody can take that away," Mawyer said before crossing through the Downtown Tunnel at the start of his long drive. "That will always be a part of me."