NTSB releases report on plane crash that killed Beaufort County couple

Dennis and Debbie O'Neal died in Winston-Salem

WINSTON-SALEM, FORSYTH COUNTY - The National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on what led up to the Winston-Salem plane crash that killed a Beaufort County couple.

According to the NTSB, Debbie Dee O'Neal, 56, was piloting the single-engine Lancair LC-42 at 4,000 ft. on March 31, from North Wilkesboro to Washington, when she reported a "loss of fuel pressure." An air traffic controller then directed the aircraft to Smith Reynolds Airport. But as the plane was descending, O'Neal reported smoke in the cockpit and that the engine was "barely" producing power.  That was the last communication from the pilot, investigators said.

The plane later crashed into trees in a neighborhood off Robinhood Rd. in Winston-Salem. Debbie O'Neal and her husband, Dennis, 58, were both killed, according to police The couple was from Blounts Creek in Beaufort County.

The O'Neals'  funeral was held on April 3 at the Rock Springs Center in Greenville.

More than 200 people attended a memorial for the couple on April 2. The event was at the Washington Eye Center, on W. 15th St. in Washington, where Dennis worked as a doctor of optometry.

The O'Neals' three adult children, Kevin, Juliana and Douglas, were at the memorial, as family and friends read poems and sang songs to honor the late couple.

"I know that above anything else, they went down doing what they loved with people they loved," said Kevin of his parents.

Theresa Thomas, the administrator at the Washington Eye Center, said the large turnout at the memorial speaks volumes about the kind of people the O'Neals were.

"Just looking at their pictures in the past, you can tell that life to them was nothing but an adventure," said Thomas.

Debbie O'Neal was an English instructor at ECU's College of Education, who taught three classes in the Bate Building. Professors had to inform her students of her passing.

"[I] was just taken back. I thought it was an April Fool's joke, and then I found out it wasn't, so it just really caught me off guard," said freshman Naja Richburg.

"A really nice person, someone who was involved in the community... to just die suddenly, it's just, it's unfathomable," said sophomore Christopher Lyon.

ECU teacher Marjorie Ringler said she and Debbie O'Neal were "inseparable". Ringler was the one who called the O'Neals' daughter to break the news of her parents' deaths.

"We were looking at the news reports to see if there was something that would give us a clue that it wasn't them," said Ringler."But it was them, so all we can do now is just remember them."

Ringler said Debbie taught her to live life to the fullest.

"[Debbie] was a cyclist, she skied, she was an artist, she was a pilot., Ringler said." "She was an instructor, she was a mother, she was a wife, she was an incredible person."

Meanwhile, Debbie's husband, Dennis O'Neal, is not only known for working at the Washington Eye Center. According to colleagues, he was involved with Prevent Blindness North Carolina, and was part of the Blindness Center in Washington. O'Neal was also an active volunteer with the Lion's Club and performed many screenings.

But helping the ill was not his only passion.

"Dr. O'Neal was a very well-rounded person. He loved to ski, go off-road biking, boating, and he loved to fly," said Dr. Nisha Mehta, a colleague and friend.

Authorities said the crash scene was less than a mile from where children had gathered for an Easter egg hunt. No one on the ground was injured, and no buildings were damaged.

The O'Neals' dog also died in the crash, according to investigators. Friends told NewsChannel 12 that the dog was named Amelia, after Amelia Earhart, because of the couple's love of flying.

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