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Family of firefighter killed in Christmas crash: 'Helping people made her move'

Driving through Egg Harbor City this summer, Natalie Dempsey spotted a small garage fire, with some smoke and emergency vehicles lined down a street.

Most would keep moving, but not Dempsey, a volunteer firefighter with the Mizpah company in Hamilton Township.

The 21-year-old, who had been training for a fitness test to join the Police Academy, pulled over and grabbed her blue helmet and gear from the back of her car, where she always kept it in case of emergencies.

“She took things as they came and never moved fast a day in her life. ... But helping people made her move,” said her father, Christopher Dempsey.

Natalie Dempsey died Christmas morning in a single-vehicle crash on Landis Avenue in Mays Landing after she lost control of the vehicle and veered into a guardrail. She was on call, responding to a report of a chimney fire.

Local and national media outlets across the country have shared the tragic story of a hero who didn’t hesitate to lend a hand to others.

Friends and loved ones gathered Wednesday afternoon outside the family’s Mizpah home in a wooded area of the township.

Down the road, flowers and a makeshift memorial sit next to the crushed guardrail where Dempsey’s car made impact.

At 5 feet, 2 inches, Natalie Dempsey was “small but mighty,” her parents said — and she had a sense of humor.

On her fire helmet is a sticker that says: “If I had balls, they’d be bigger than yours.”

“She had such sarcasm,” said her mother, Stacey Dempsey. “She would just make you laugh no matter what the situation.”

For the past few months, Natalie Dempsey had been getting prepared for the rigorous physical test needed to join the Police Academy, with hopes of becoming a Class II officer in Cape May.

She narrowly failed her first try over the summer but, determined to pass, reapplied for a winter exam.

“It wasn’t gonna stop her,” Christopher Dempsey said.

Natalie Dempsey grew up in South Jersey, but the family moved to Texas when she was 10, her mother said. She graduated from Hutto High School in Hutto, Texas.

But they returned to Hamilton about a year and a half ago and opened a Galloway Township restaurant, the Chill and Grub.

That’s where Dempsey assisted her parents through difficult financial times.

She worked as a manager before it closed down in August, then got a job as a shelter supervisor at the Humane Society of Atlantic County in Atlantic City.

Christopher Dempsey said his daughter gave a majority of her paycheck to her parents to help pay the bills.

“She wanted to make sure we were OK,” he said. “She was taking care of us, and it’s supposed to be the other way around. We never asked for anything.”

Her goal was to become a K-9 police officer, something she realized during her first semester at a community college in Texas, her family said. Dempsey wanted to merge her love of animals — three dogs run around the family’s house — with her desire to help others.

Dempsey’s death has touched the community and beyond. Law enforcement throughout the state have expressed condolences to the local fire company and Dempsey’s family.

Outside the Mizpah firehouse on Dehirsch Avenue, where Dempsey rose to the position of vice president in a little over a year, a flag flew at half staff. A sign outside read “Mizpah Strong.”

“We are like a close-knit family,” said Mizpah Fire Chief Jay Davenport. “This one hit us hard.”

Steve Dash, executive director of the Humane Society of Atlantic County, wrote a tribute to Dempsey online, calling her a “happy, smiling, little spit fire” who devoted herself to helping others.

“Natalie has touched all of our lives in a positive way,” Dash said.

Atlantic City ice rink a magnet for kids, but officials reluctant to fund

The Flyers Skate Zone is located off the Black Horse Pike (Route 40)  at Bader Field, near the Albany Avenue bridge.

ATLANTIC CITY — A crowd of local kids descended on the Flyers Skate Zone last Thursday night, suited up in pads and helmets, and headed out on the ice for an hourlong hockey lesson.

“I always wanted to do activities like this,” said Craig Bell, of Atlantic City, as he watched son Christopher Bell, 8, skate.

Christopher is in his second year with the Art Dorrington Foundation League for kids up to age 13, learning life skills as well as how to skate and play hockey.

The ice is in high demand, and the Dorrington league, which attracted about 25 Atlantic City kids, was sandwiched between an open stick session for all hockey players to practice on their own and a middle school league evaluation session that brought in a huge crowd.

But at a recent Casino Reinvestment Development Authority meeting, where the board voted to make a sublease more flexible to the Skate Zone rather than fund needed improvements to the building, some folks seemed to think the rink wasn’t used much — or by locals.

“I don’t think it’s worth it for CRDA to put funding into the building. It doesn’t generate funds for us,” said Executive Director Matt Doherty, saying the Skate Zone only pays for the expense of being there and covers all utilities like heat and electricity. “The Flyers use it for a practice facility, and other community groups use it, but ice skating doesn’t seem to be used all that often.”

No one from the corporate office of Flyers Skate Zone could be reached for comment. The company is part of Comcast Spectator, and it has other rinks in Voorhees, Pennsauken and Northeast Philadelphia.

Mayor Frank Gilliam said CRDA money should only be spent on something that benefits the community.

“Hockey is not a sport this urban area is fans of,” said Gilliam.

Stockton University student and hockey team member Daniel Donohoe, who lives at the Atlantic City campus, disagreed.

“We don’t have enough ice for how many people we have,” said Donohoe, who works part time at the Skate Zone. “It’s hard to build ice. We are jam-packed. We practice at 10:30 at night (because that’s when the ice is available).”

Atlantic City baseball unlikely in 2019

ATLANTIC CITY — Negotiations to bring baseball back to Surf Stadium are continuing, but the prospect of seeing a team on the field next summer is unlikely.

The rink is also heavily used by figure skaters, who have regular blocks of time several days a week, and for special events and public skates when anyone can come just for the fun of it, Donohoe said.

The Skate Zone was built in the late 1990s by a public/private partnership, said CRDA General Counsel Paul Weiss. It, along with the land under it, is part of Bader Field and owned by Atlantic City.

Dorrington, of Atlantic City, was the first professional black hockey player in the U.S. He moved to Atlantic City in 1950 to join the Eastern Hockey League’s Atlantic City Seagulls team, and started the foundation with wife Dorothie in 1998.

Coach John Loughney, of Egg Harbor Township, has been with the league since its inception and said it reflects Dorrington’s mantra: “On the Ice — Off the Streets.” His dad, Charles, played on the Seagulls with Dorrington, Loughney said.

Dorrington died Dec. 29, 2017, at 87.

Bell said the rink and its programs should, if anything, expand.

“They should do more in the politics of the city to bring awareness to the youth activities, help kids become more active,” he said.

Bell suggested shuttle buses to transport kids to the rink, and programs to raise awareness of what’s there and help more kids participate.

Both girls and boys are part of the Dorrington league.

“I like learning new things,” said Journey Owens, 8, as Nyzirah Gantz, 16, of Atlantic City, helped her tie her skates.

Journey is in her first year in the program, and Gantz graduated from it and now helps out as a volunteer, she said.

“When we skated it was only me and my two sisters,” Gantz said. Now, girls make up a sizable minority in the program.

She’d play hockey at Atlantic City High School if it had a team for her, Gantz said.

Nine-year-old Sean Ali, of Atlantic City, had never skated before but wanted to learn how to play hockey, he said.

“It’s not easy,” he said of learning to skate. But he did it, and “I don’t mind the cold.”

His mom, Amanda Lumpkins, of Atlantic City, said her son tried other sports but didn’t take to them like he took to hockey.

“I feel hockey keeps him going,” she said.

Another graduate sat in the bleachers watching his little brother skate.

“I did it in 2016 and 2017,” said Andres Hernandez, 14, of Atlantic City. “I enjoyed it. It taught us more than hockey — about how to stay in school, keep your grades up. They took us on trips and to Flyers games.”

Now he plays basketball in high school but still skates for fun, he said.

GALLERY: Art Dorrington through the years

Shipwreck unearthed on Stone Harbor beach

STONE HARBOR — Partially covered in sand, part of a roughly 25-foot wooden ship lies unearthed on the southern portion of the borough’s beach.

Where it came from is not completely clear, but there’s a history of shipwrecks around the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse in North Wildwood, which sits a short distance from where the remains were found on Stone Harbor Point. A lifesaving station was built close by due to frequent groundings there.

Now, curious visitors are trekking to the recently discovered wreck before it is covered once again — and speculating it could be a ship that sank near the inlet in the late 1800s.

In 1886, a vessel sank about a mile and a half north of the inlet after catching fire, said Steve Murray, former chairman of the Friends of Hereford Inlet Lighthouse. Seven lifesaving station employees rescued the five-person crew of the sinking schooner D.H. Ingraham, which was bound for Richmond, Virginia, with a cargo of lime. They later received medals of honor from Congress, three of which remain inside the lighthouse to this day.

“There’s a very good possibility that it’s the Ingraham,” said Murray, who tallied 60 shipwrecks at the Hereford Inlet from the late 1700s to the turn of the 20th century in a book he wrote. “It’s exciting to be able to touch it after talking about it for so long.”

“It adds up pretty well,” said Stan Sperlak, of Middle Township, as he was getting ready to walk to the wreck. “But unless you have a name on the boat on the timbers, it’s always just an educated guess.”

Finding the wreck takes time and effort. It’s located roughly a mile south of 122nd Street at the southern end of the island.

It’s not the only wreck, both large and small, between Stone Harbor Point and North Wildwood. The Army Corps of Engineers in 2004 discovered a 227-foot iron-hulled steamship from the Civil War era around that area.

Shipwrecks there became less common as sails were replaced with combustion engines around World War I, said Jim Talone, president of the Stone Harbor Museum.

“The threat of a nor’easter catching a boat and blowing it to shore went away,” Talone said.

Photos and video of the Stone Harbor boat have been making the rounds on social media for the past few days.

That’s how Pam Lyons, who grew up in Stone Harbor, learned about the remains.

She and her family set out down the beach during low tide in search of the wreck and found what Lyons said looked like half of the bow of a ship with wood pegs instead of nails.

“I visited the point a lot as a kid and looked for shells. ... It wasn’t visible then,” said Lyons, of Cherry Hill. “But who knows what could have washed up?”

The Jersey Shore is home to hundreds of shipwrecks and buried artifacts. Nor’easters and storms can shift the sand and unveil the remains.

In 1901, the Sindia, a four-masted cargo vessel, ran aground on the Ocean City beach on the final leg of a trip from Japan to New York City. Artifacts from the shipwreck — the ship’s name plate and pottery — are on display in the local historical museum.

So-called ”ghost tracks” were uncovered along the sand in southern Cape May County in March, drawing hordes of visitors to the hard-to-find location on Higbee Beach in Lower Township. The tracks were owned by the Atlantic City Railroad Co. and leased to the Cape May Sand Co. more than 100 years ago.

Talone said he’s unsure of the wreck’s history but pointed to a photo in the borough’s museum of a boat washed up on the beach in the 1950s about the same size as the one that was uncovered recently.

In the coming weeks, Talone said he plans to take an expert to the site to try to date the wreck.

Murray said he hopes visitors respect the slice of local history. Pieces of it were gone by Wednesday afternoon. 

“I just hope the souvenir people don’t go down there and rip it apart,” he said.

Buena school board 'troubled' by video of wrestler's haircut
Superintendent says district won't compete with Maloney officiating

BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — The Buena Regional Board of Education said Wednesday its members were “troubled” by a video showing a black Buena wrestler having his dreadlocks cut rather than forfeit a match.

The high school’s library was packed with parents and residents Wednesday night for an emergency meeting to address the video that sparked a national discussion last week and was met with charges of racism. A handful of civil rights activists urged the board to do right by wrestler Andrew Johnson. One speaker called Johnson a hero, and was met with applause.

After taking public comment, the board held an executive session out of earshot of residents and media to discuss “personnel matters.” Superintendent David Cappuccio would not elaborate.

Dominic Speziali, an attorney for Johnson’s family and a Buena Regional High School graduate, told the school board Wednesday the family blames referee Alan Maloney — the embattled official who reportedly told Johnson he had to either forfeit the match or get an impromptu haircut because he did not have the proper hair cover — not the team’s coach or trainer.

“(Andrew and his family) are supportive of the coaching staff, specifically (coach) George Maxwell and (trainer) Mrs. (Denise) Fields, who was there cutting his hair. The blame here is on the referee,” Speziali said. “The burden that Andrew had to carry was caused by the referee and caused by the entities that allowed him to be in that position.”

The family is not seeking legal action, Speziali said. Johnson’s family was not present at the meeting, at their lawyer’s urging.

Johnson will not be wrestling Thursday with his team at the Hunterdon Central Tournament, Speziali said, but he hopes to compete again soon.

The meeting was limited to discussion of last week’s incident, and public comment. Cappuccio made clear the school's decision.

“(The district has) informed the NJSIAA that our school district and its athletic teams will not compete in any contest officiated by this referee from this point forward,” he said.

At the top of the meeting, Cappuccio read a statement on behalf of the board:

“We have viewed the video footage that has gone viral and are deeply troubled by the embarrassment and humiliation that a young student athlete endured,” Cappuccio said. “District administration has been working diligently around the clock the past several days collecting as much information as possible about the sequence of events occurring this past Dec. 19.”

The board’s “internal investigation remains ongoing at this time,” he said. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association is working with the state Division on Civil Rights, and Cappuccio said the board will use the results of the joint investigation to determine whether to pursue any further action related to the incident.

Video of the incident was posted online last week by SNJ Today’s Mike Frankel and quickly went viral, sparking a nationwide discussion, with elected officials and celebrities calling the incident racist. Others claimed the decision was commonplace at wrestling matches. Maloney is suspended awaiting the results of the NJSIAA’s investigation.

Some teachers were in attendance Wednesday, supporting Johnson in the face of what they said is clear discrimination.

“It’s the type of work we do,” said Kelly Morris, a teacher from Gloucester County. “I think all teachers should be fighting for equality in schools. And we don’t have that, so it’s important.”

Melissa Tomlinson came with Morris, both of them wearing “Black Lives Matter at School” shirts. Tomlinson is a special education teacher at Buena Regional Middle School and has taught in the district for 11 years.

She came “because our students matter. They matter a lot to me,” Tomlinson said. “And when the skin and the criminalization of the hair of a black youth occurs within ... something that has to do with the school, we have to ask questions about the system itself and what kind of white supremacist rules we’re upholding.”

According to the rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, a wrestler’s hair “shall extend no lower than the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back, shall not extend lower than earlobe level on the sides and shall not extend below the eyebrows in the front.”

Speziali said Johnson’s brother, Nate, who is also a wrestler for Buena, was told he would need a cover for his hair, too. Nate’s hair is short and does not go past his ears. He said Maloney referred to the state of their hair — “you have braids” — not the length, in his decision.

“I know what the regulations are,” Speziali said. “I think it’s a question of what (Maloney’s) reasoning is.”