Virginia Beach Fishing Pier crash shocks community, mars iconic public landmark

VIRGINIA BEACH — As the sun rose over the ocean the morning of Jan. 27, the unexpected happened at the Virginia Beach Fishing Pier.

Someone drove an SUV through two sets of metal gates, down 650 feet of wooden pier, through the deck railing, and off the edge of the structure into the frigid water below.

Dangerous current conditions stalled recovery efforts for nearly a week, until the ocean calmed enough that the vehicle could be hauled out of the water by a crane Friday morning.

Video that captured the vehicle going off the iconic public landmark was widely shared online, fueling public curiosity. On Thursday afternoon, people walking by the pier stopped to look at a makeshift memorial of posters, stuffed animals and flowers placed along the Boardwalk rail.

Dozens more gathered on the Boardwalk Friday morning as a crane barge positioned at the end of the pier hoisted the upside-down vehicle out of the water. Some of the onlookers livestreamed video to social media or snapped photographs with their cell phones.

One body was inside the recovered vehicle and appeared to be an adult male, according to a police spokesperson. Police have not identified the driver, though they’ve said they are looking into similarities to a reported missing man.

Days after the incident, with few concrete answers about what happened and why, the community is still reeling.

“Everybody’s struggling with it because we’re all shocked,” said Dee Nachnani, president of the Atlantic Avenue Association, a community organization in the resort area. “It is something so unusual that it’s unprecedented.”

The group held its quarterly meeting this week and discussed the pier crash.

The 74-year-old wooden fishing pier sits between 14th and 15th streets and runs about 650 feet over the ocean. It’s widely recognized as a symbol of the Virginia Beach Oceanfront and is frequently featured in the city’s promotional materials.

Breathtaking sunrises over the pier are often captured by both professional and novice photographers. Considered a popular destination for both locals and tourists, the fishing pier is visible from all points on the Boardwalk. But this week, sheets of wood blocked access to the fishing end of the pier where a wall was damaged. Yellow police tape is strewn across the area.

“It’s been a fun place for so many years,” said Betty Lachman-Tucker, who was also stunned by the crash. “It’s just a tragedy for everybody.”

The Lachman family, along with the Murdens and the Bonneys built the pier. It opened in 1950, and was originally 1,000 feet long.

John Zirkle, president of the Virginia Beach Hotel Association, heard the news Saturday morning.

“Who would have thought something like that would happen?” he said.

It’s a refrain heard throughout the community, especially because it took place in such a well-known, familiar location.

A teenager who was running on the Boardwalk and had stopped to take a video of the sunrise recorded the incident on her cell phone camera.

Bruce Whitfield, manager of the Pier Gift Shop, watched the video, which shows the car driving down the pier and off of the end of it.

“I was taken aback because it looked like they slowed down,” Whitfield said. “It got you thinking about maybe cold feet, second thoughts.”

The pier and the businesses that call it home have generally embodied a positive vibe through the years. It’s where families enjoy casting a line into the sea, browsing kitschy souvenirs in the gift shop and celebrating special occasions at Ocean Eddie’s restaurant. During the holiday season, the pier is a focal point where a display of Santa’s sleigh and reindeer seemingly mid-air is illuminated.

Lachman-Tucker’s family continues to own and operate Ocean Eddie’s. On Saturday morning, the cooks arrived only a few minutes after the car crash.

“I was just so glad our employees were not behind that second gate,” she said.

But this is not the first time the pier has been cast into the limelight under unfortunate circumstances.

Hurricane after hurricane has battered it, knocking hundreds of feet of splintered timber into the ocean. The owners rebuilt sections only to see the next big storm damage it again.

In 1999, after a Coast Guard helicopter rescued a sailor in distress, strong winds and churning waves tossed his abandoned sailboat, The Windermere, into the pier. Pounding surf nearly buried the 37-foot craft in the sand and caused thousands of dollars in damage to the pier pilings and deck railings.

“The mast came up through the pier between the ticket booth and the tackle shop at that time,” said Lachman-Tucker.

Photos: Virginia Beach Fishing Pier through the years

In recent years, the pier was eyed for redevelopment as the original owners sought to sell it. Several groups tossed around ideas that included replacing it with a concrete structure, adding a giant Ferris wheel and a new hotel.

In 2022, the Sibony family, who also own a chain of Sunsations gift shops on Atlantic Avenue, bought the pier. The new owners lease space to the existing businesses, which remain open. They’re assessing the damage and plan to make repairs so that the fishing area can open in the spring.

And while there are still many unanswered questions, the community hopes to be on the mend soon, too.

“Our hearts go out to the family,” said Nachnani. “It’s just truly sad.”

Stacy Parker, 757-222-5125,