Woman's ashes connects 2 Wilmington families after Florence

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The cremated remains of a Port City woman who died in 1999 were found in the rubble of home damaged by Hurricane Florence. But how did she get there?

WILMINGTON — Two families, separated by miles and unaware of ever crossing paths, have now found themselves connected by an unexpected thread — the ashes of a woman who died nearly two decades ago.

During Hurricane Florence, David and Nancy Goodson were riding out the storm in their home near the Cape Fear Country Club when an oak tree snapped, clipping an old chimney on the way down. The chunks of brick fell into their bathroom just feet away from their daughter napping on the couch, just as another tree fell and crushed the carport.

A few weeks after the storm passed and workers began clearing the debris to begin rebuilding, they told the Goodsons they found an old electrical box in the rubble and had tossed it aside. Further inspection, however, proved that to be incorrect.

The brown plastic box bore the name “Gloria Russo Tyson” and inside was a clear, cinched bag containing her cremated remains. The faded sticker included the date December 1999, indicating when she was cremated at Cape Fear Crematory in Fayetteville.

The Goodsons were stunned. Nancy even chided David for playing a practical joke on her.

But their unease came not just from the supposed discovery of ashes in the attic. They didn’t know Tyson and didn’t live in the house when she died. The former resident was disabled at that time and likely couldn’t have stowed the ashes in the small hideaway.

“We were kind of freaked out,” David Goodson said of the discovery. “But you still have to laugh. If she was up there, she’s been there for 16 years. There is just no explanation for her being there.”

‘The oddest thing’

Ashes in the attic certainly has a mysterious ring to it, but there isn’t a simple explanation.

Across town, near Greenfield Lake, Carol Jernigan was assessing her own new reality last fall after Florence blew in. The storm flooded her home, leaving her to watch as the Cajun Navy and other volunteers removed her damaged belongings and put them on the curb.

Among the pile was a china cabinet, inside which Jernigan said has kept the ashes of her aunt, Gloria Russo Tyson, safe for the past 18 years. Jernigan said the care of her aunt fell to her when Tyson’s husband died in 1988, she lived with her family for many years.

Here’s where the mystery begins.

The Goodsons were told the ashes were found in their home and must have been in the attic above their bathroom, which has been sealed off since they moved in in 2002 and renovated the space. But Jernigan said her aunt’s ashes have been with her until Florence threw her life and her home into chaos.

Jernigan, who is listed on Tyson’s death certificate, still can’t fathom how Tyson ended up in the rubble of another family’s home.

“It’s just the oddest thing,” she said.

Seeking closure

Tyson was 69 when she died on Nov. 26, 1999, of cardiac arrest brought on by possible pneumonia and respiratory failure, according to her death certificate.

The Goodsons did their own research into their unexpected house guest, digging up records on the former owners and even contacting a living relative to try and chart a line between the house and Tyson.

They even kept her happy while they searched, storing her box in a nice decorative bag and even setting a candle beside her at Christmas time — at a safe distance, of course.

“We have been keep her in the dining room, keeping her happy and keeping her spirit going in the right direction,” Nancy Goodson said.

But they also want answers and closure. David Goodson was prepared to give Tyson a proper burial if no family could be found, and even planned to have her blessed by multiple denominations since he didn’t know her affiliation.

“I just want to know how her ashes ended up at my house,” he said.

Jernigan, meanwhile, said she was happy to learn her aunt wasn’t lost to Florence.

“She was a very special person to me,” Jernigan said.

As for answers, the two families might be left to settle with a tale of their own design.

David Goodson said it could be that the construction crews picked up the cabinet, noticed her ashes and then disposed of them on his property — possibly concocting a story of finding them there. A carpenter on the project still stands by finding them in the attic.

“I would just like to see her back to her family,” Goodson said. “Then I feel like I’ve got some kind of closure.”

Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at 910-343-2327 or Hunter.Ingram@StarNewsOnline.com.