EAST LIVERPOOL - Although this area has fallen on hard times in recent years, its residents always dig deep to help their own, and a benefit dinner held Friday at an East End restaurant was evidence of that generosity.
Last Sunday, Calcutta residents Jamie and Meghann Nign were killed in a car crash that also took the life of 11-year-old Addisyn Benzel, a passenger in their vehicle. The accident also seriously injured four of the Nigns' children.
Since word of the accident began circulating on social media and in the news, the offers of assistance have been constant, according to members of the Calcutta Volunteer Fire Department, where both Nigns were firefighters. Mrs. Nign was also an EMT for North Star Critical Care ambulance.
A memorial featuring the turn-out gear of Calcutta firefighters Jamie and Meghann Nign greeted patrons Friday at The FireStreet Grille in East Liverpool where a benefit steak dinner was held for their family. More than 500 steak dinners were sold within a few hours, with additional steaks brought in during the early afternoon to prepare for the evening onslaught of patrons. The Nign’s turnout gear can be seen in the background. (Photo by Jo Ann Bobby-Gilbert)
Friday's dinner at The FireStreet Grille was the first benefit event held for the couple's surviving family, and owner Scott Cox - also a Calcutta firefighter - was almost overwhelmed by the community's offers of help, but he wasn't surprised.
"We do have some good people in this town," Cox said, as not only his employees but a group of volunteer cooks, servers, dishwashers and preparers bustled around the restaurant, serving hundreds of meals to people who started ordering as soon as the doors opened.
Cox said he actually had to turn down some offers from volunteers, lest the restaurant become too crowded with the combination of helpers and patrons.
Between the 11 a.m. start of the benefit and 2 p.m., more than 500 of the 600 steaks on hand had already been cooked by restaurant chef Justin Lewis and volunteer cooks Levi Cox and Todd McGaffic, and Cox was calling local stores trying to find more.
He was successful, with the local Sparkle Market providing an additional 100 and Giant Eagle another 200 to prepare for the evening crowd, which was also heavy.
Asked if he anticipated the kind of early turn-out he received at the dinner, Cox said with a smile and shake of his head, "Nooooo.... It hit us real hard, but we can handle it."
Cox said steaks, lettuce and salad dressings were all donated for the dinner by numerous people and businesses.
"Everybody had a hand in it," he said.
Ironically, even a fire just minutes before the restaurant opened its doors for the benefit failed to put a damper on the event.
Just before 11 a.m., someone came in and told Cox his vehicle was on fire. He ran outside to find the vehicle, which was parked next to the restaurant, ablaze.
"I just ran and got in it and backed it up," he said afterward, saying he backed it as far away from the building as possible until he saw flames coming between him and the passenger seat, when he decided to "just let it go."
East Liverpool firefighters arrived on the scene and extinguished the fire. The vehicle was towed, and the dinner got under way without a hitch.
The Calcutta Mothers' Club had arranged for a 50-50 drawing to be held, and Amy Jordan of the club found herself helping out at the dinner, as well.
The Nigns' 6-year-old daughter Savannah, one of those injured in the accident, is a first-grade student at Calcutta, and Jordan said Mrs. Nign "was very involved with the school," volunteering many hours.
She said the accident has affected the Calcutta School family "very traumatically," and said the students are "taking it hard."
Students are planning a penny war from Feb. 10-21 to raise funds for the family, Jordan said.
Tickets were also being sold at Friday's benefit for a Chinese auction filled with items donated by area businesses, and Jordan said it was arranged by Jennifer Reese Miller, who has no children at Calcutta Elementary but "just wanted to help."
Minerva students are also still grieving for Benzel, who was a fifth-grader at Minerva Elementary.
"It's been a rough week. Our kids and staff are hanging in there and taking it one day at a time," Superintendent Joseph Chaddock said Friday after attending the 11-year-old's funeral.
Chaddock is a Minerva graduate, who attended classes with Benzel's mother Theresa and her uncle Dave Morgan.
"It's a very difficult thing for our community," he said. "They are great people. Their family is unbelievable."
Classes were canceled Friday because of the weather, but that did not keep several students from attending the funeral.
"Many teachers, our principals, our counselors attended. A number of our students were in attendance," he said.
Counselors have been available for students and staff all this week, and will continue to be available.
"I think it's going to be an ongoing healing process. She is a beautiful young lady, and she is going to be missed," he said.
Each school building is hosting a fund raiser for the Benzel family, and Chaddock said the district is also supporting the Calcutta Fire Department.
"I think there are really good people in this area," Jordan said at the Calcutta benefit, noting she wasn't surprised by the generosity of the community
Among the crowd having lunch were firefighters and EMT personnel from around the area, who also began offering help as soon as news reached them of the Nigns' accident, according to Calcutta fire Chief Scott Smith.
"We've had all the other fire departments offering help. I can't express our appreciation for the help we have received," Smith said.
When he and his firefighters, for example, attended the calling hours and funeral service for Mr. Nign Thursday night and Friday, firefighters from other departments came to his station to stand by in the event of a call.
Mrs. Nign's funeral is scheduled for Tuesday, with last call to be given her from both the fire department and ambulance company during calling hours on Monday night, and, again, Smith said he expects to have assistance from other departments and even retired firefighters on those days.
The conditions of the Nign children have not been released by the family.
Staff writer Katie Schwendeman contributed to this report.