Diver finds car from 1994 missing persons case

A diver who went in search of a car that may be connected to the disappearance of two teens in 1994 inadvertently made another disturbing discovery: A decade-old car parked deep in a pool of water off of a Tennessee beach.

The adults who took the teens to the beach insisted they could not have been there that long. That didn’t matter to Chris Phan and his family. For the 35-year-old scuba diver, it was another example of his fascination with the lost car, one that inspired him to take the dive.

“Going in and diving it, I found it almost more confronting than I thought it would be,” Phan said of his May 22, 1994, dive. “It was such a strong, deep, bizarre smell.”

“I was not scared — I felt like it was worth it,” he said of the moment he began diving down toward the car.

That discovery was confirmed Thursday, when Phan, using a pair of sonar cameras, found a trapped car just to the side of the railroad tracks off of Carolina Beach, Tennessee.

According to Phan, workers at the beach had just dislodged the car parked on the rail line and left it there until just before 5 p.m. They said they had torn down a Christmas tree and ripped out Christmas lights. However, Phan was skeptical. “Had people taken that car down there, like, a week before?” he asked.

Then, as the tide was going out, Phan captured video of the car a few feet below the surface. There were no signs of rust, tire tracks or bumper marks that would indicate it was someone’s car, he said.

The video suggests the front bumper has a matching design.

He and his family quickly realized that the car belonged to Alton Nolen and Kiersten Smith.

Alton, 17, and Smith, 15, had gone to go crabbing with family in Oceana, North Carolina, at Thanksgiving in 1994. When they returned, they said they had eaten lunch with family but did not want to go to their house. They took a train to Carolina Beach, according to the Lumberjack Memorial Museum.

When they did not show up for dinner, the family reported them missing.

In the video, Phan said that he and his family searched for the car that night. Police would not comment to the Lumberjack when contacted about the case, but Jerry Jones, the executive director of the Atlantic Ocean Search and Rescue Association, confirmed that the car was involved in a missing persons case and that he was aware of Phan’s discovery.

“It does make me wonder — for our family, it feels like 20 years in our world,” Phan said. “Not that it should take this long to have closure. I don’t know if we would have gone through with the diving if it was just two feet off of the beach, but it’s 20 years so who knows.”

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