“My whole life has changed,” Richard Coppick told jurors and others in a Lincoln County courtroom Tuesday about the years following his son’s death.
The still-grieving father took the stand during the second week of a civil trial centered on a June 2008 yacht explosion that claimed the life of 19-year-old Nate Coppick.
The Denver teen was fueling a familiar yacht owner’s vessel, the Championship II, at Hobbs Westport Marina in Denver, when the incident occurred.
He had just completed his sophomore year at North Carolina State University and transitioned from an engineer major to a student with the school’s College of Management.
Nearly five years after Nate’s death, his parents are suing Petroleum Equipment Services, Inc., for installing illegal nozzles on the marina’s fuel pumps.
According to Richard Strickland, chief fire co-consultant for the North Carolina Department of Insurance and the State Fire Marshal’s Office, who took the stand on Monday, the nozzles violated state fire and building codes, which require marine-fueling nozzles be automatic-closing and without hold-open latches.
Coppick vividly remembered visiting the wreckage as flames continuing tearing through the property.
“The boat was still burning,” he said.
Before local law enforcement and fire officials even notified the victim’s family that Nate’s remains had been recovered from the obliterated boat — while the teen was still deemed “missing” — Coppick sensed the devastating truth.
“I knew Nate was gone right from the beginning,” he said.
He told jurors he had no doubt that excessive amounts of fuel contributed to the explosion after first responders had to end the search for Nate the first day due to perilous conditions.
“They said there was too much fuel in the water that was burning the divers,” he said.
Coppick also took time on the stand to elaborate on the many fishing and hunting adventures he took with his son over the years and show the courtroom various pictures from the trips.
He also reminisced about his son’s overtly friendly and helpful personality, always socializing with strangers and aiding his parents around the house and yard.
He often closed his eyes and smiled while pondering the memories.
“He could talk to anybody,” Coppick said. “When you were done talking to him, you were his best friend.”
After Nate’s death, his family learned that he had even touched the life of a convenient store clerk who worked near the marina.
“Most people wouldn’t have even given her the time of day,” he said.
Nicholas Harmon, who worked several summers at the marina with Nate, testified in the case on Monday while wearing a red and white ribbon on his suit in memory of his friend.
He said the ribbons were made for all of Nate’s friends and family following the explosion.
The two completed a variety of tasks and Westport and were considered top employees, Harmon said.
He also noted how workers were told to fuel boats, especially the Championship II, at a quick pace to keep business flowing.
“Like a pit stop at a NASCAR race,” Harmon said.
The 80-foot yacht, which often visited the marina gas pumps, crowded much of the dock space.
“That boat more than any of them we were pushed to get in and out,” he said. “It was the most tedious, time-consuming thing to fuel.”
The two teens were eventually promoted to assistant dock managers, but from the beginning of their marina employment, received “pretty basic training” on their responsibilities at the site.
With regard to fueling vessels, Harmon said they were told it was like fueling a car.
However, while pumps in both settings automatically cut off when tanks reach their limit, boats also experience an “over splash” or “burp” of fuel after fueling is complete, Harmon said.
A defense attorney declined to ask any additional questions to the witnesses on Tuesday.
The trial is expected to take up to four weeks.