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Ship lost, memories last: Before devastating blaze, the Spirit of Norfolk helped create many special moments

Ship lost, memories last: Before devastating blaze, the Spirit of Norfolk helped create many special moments

When the Spirit of Norfolk ship caught fire Tuesday, many people from Hampton Roads and beyond watched as the site of some of their most cherished memories went up in smoke.

The 187-foot ship, built in 1992, has hosted weddings, graduation parties, proms, birthdays, school field trips, even Easter egg hunts and visits from Santa Claus — and has been the chosen setting of countless marriage proposals. In many of past guests’ stories, the ship’s crew played a major role in making their memories special.

“When I saw the ship on fire I was completely devastated. Years and years of memories came flooding back of the people I met, the relationships I built,” said Marisa Eagle, who met her husband, Jonathan, while working on the Spirit in 2010. “I still have friends that work there and it does become a second home for us so it’s like watching your house burn down. It was the funnest job I have ever had, and a there were so many unforgettable memories, not just for me and the other workers, but the hundreds of thousands of guests that ship has seen.”

The Spirit of Norfolk is likely a “loss,” meaning it won’t be salvageable, according to Scott Smith, senior vice president of the Hornblower Group, the parent company of the ship. The investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing, but it appears the fire started in the engine room.

City Experiences, the ship’s management company, posted on its website by Friday that all confirmed bookings for the Spirit of Norfolk through Sunday would be rescheduled, or cancelled and refunded, and promised more information to come early next week.

Future group bookings in Norfolk are on hold through June 30, according to a spokesperson for City Experiences, and those events will be held on a replacement ship, the Freedom Elite.

“We are looking forward to getting back to operations as quickly as possible,” reads the notice. “We are actively exploring moving another of our boats to Norfolk to accommodate our summer bookings.”

It’s unclear how many events were affected by the demise of the Spirit.

Skylar Jinar, 20, found out that the site of her September wedding was ablaze while she and fiancé Tanner Harbeson, 21, were enjoying a day at Busch Gardens. Jinar was waiting for Harbeson to get done with a roller coaster ride when she got a text from a friend about the Spirit fire.

Her first thought was concern for those on board, and soon after she sent off an email to their assigned wedding planner to see if there would be any effect on their wedding plans. She promptly got a response that said, “We’ve got you covered,” and assurance that more information would be provided soon.

The Spirit of Norfolk has been Jinar’s dream wedding venue since 2016, when she attended a family friend’s wedding. The ceremony was held on the top deck as the sun went down, with dolphins swimming alongside the ship, before the guests adjourned to the lower deck for the reception.

As high school sweethearts, Jinar and Harbeson shared a senior cruise on the Spirit with the graduating class of 2019. They took pictures posing like Jack and Rose in the iconic “I’m flying!” scene from “Titanic,” which they plan to recreate at their wedding, though now it won’t be on the same ship.

People on social media have invoked superstition, telling Jinar to take it as a “sign” of some kind, but she said she and her family are used to things like this. Plus, the prompt, confident response from the wedding planner left her feeling reassured.

“My family is pretty notorious for any big event ― something always goes wrong,” she said. “We have a ‘Jinar curse,’ something always goes wrong — which makes for a fun story and everything works out, so that’s what we’re hoping for.”

Lauren Van Petten, 32, of Columbus, Ohio, grew up in the Midwest so she never had a passion for the ocean, and definitely didn’t want anything “nautical” to be part of her wedding. But COVID forced her and husband Tim to change venues just weeks before their wedding day — which had already been pushed from May 23 to July 3, 2020 — because restrictions wouldn’t allow them to host their guests indoors.

They had the entire ship to themselves.

“Lots of venues around here really play up the water and that wasn’t my preference. I became convinced when it was the only option!” Van Petten said. “Everyone was so accommodating and made the day feel so special and fun. Sad to hear it caught fire — hope that isn’t an omen for us!”

The Van Pettens planned to take a picture with their new baby in front of the site of their wedding to celebrate their two-year anniversary, and are still looking forward to that — even if it’s not the same ship.

The fire has robbed Virginia Beach natives Joy and Joseph Suits of the chance to relive Joseph’s proposal as planned in November 2023, three decades after he got down on one knee. Joy recounted the moment as if it had happened yesterday: her “perfect” dress, black velvet with a satin bow, the anticipation that her then-boyfriend had something “big” planned for the one-year anniversary of the day they met.

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“Dinner was amazing, but Joseph was nervous, seemed distracted and was definitely not in a talkative mood. At one point, during the meal, he stood up and something fell to the floor. ‘Was that a ring box? No … certainly my mind was playing tricks on me,’” Joy recalled. “He quickly recovered the object, and returned to his seat. During dessert, Joe must have gained a massive amount of courage, as he stood back up, looked at me, knelt down to the floor and asked me to be his wife!

“Such a treasured memory and such a piece of our love story. My heart breaks at knowing our iconic vessel is gone, but she lives on in our memories and in our love story every day.”

Asked if they would go forward on a replacement ship, Joy said, “We might still consider it, not sure if it would be the same nostalgia though.”

For Judith Cleaver, 52, of Virginia Beach, the ship was her family’s choice for years, as they’ve always loved boats and water. She recalled her rehearsal dinner on the Spirit in 2008, a highlight of which was her mother and father, Roy and Virginia Nevans, being named the “King and Queen” of the ship that night and watching them slow dance in their crowns.

Cleaver’s daughter, now 25, never forgot the Easter egg hunt they went to on the Spirit in 2006. She was getting upset because she couldn’t find any eggs until a staff member got her attention — “Pssst!” — as she passed.

“He was stone-still, like a statue, except for one outstretched hand that held an Easter egg. His thoughtfulness perked her right up and at 25, she still remembers this moment of kindness,” Cleaver said. “(The Spirit) was a place we could all come together, eat, drink, enjoy a lovely cruise on the water, and celebrate love and family.”

Gavin Stone,

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