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High Country Residents Band Together and Show Support Following Tragic Death of 4-Year-Old Deep Gap Girl

By Ethan Woodhouse

Peyton Townsend. Photo courtesy of Austin & Barnes Funeral HomeJune 11, 2012. Members of the High Country are banding together in the midst of tragedy, after a 4-year-old girl was struck and killed by a falling tombstone while playing in a cemetery Saturday evening. 

Peyton Townsend was playing in the cemetery of Mount Paran Church in Deep Gap with about 20 other children before the start of a bible study class. While standing on top of an 8-foot-wide tombstone, one of the rock slabs shifted, causing a 1,200 pound cross to topple down from above, pinning the young girl below, Captain Tim Nelson of the Deep Gap Volunteer Fire Department said.

The girl’s mother, Sarah, is a nurse, and her father, Paul, is a state trooper and paramedic. Both were at Peyton’s side throughout the ordeal. She died Johnson City Medical Center in Tennessee shortly after arriving by helicopter.

As is often the case, townspeople and relatives are working to help children and parents with the grieving process with an effort that may become a permanent, state-wide institution.

“We’re looking to establish what we are going to call the Peyton Plan,” Nelson said. “We are looking to implementing this within the Watauga County School System and provide counseling to children in the event of the tragedy.”

Any similarly catastrophic event could lead to post-traumatic stress related issues, whether it be a house fire or losing a pet. But losing such a young child is “something no one is prepared to deal with,” Nelson said.

Nelson has teamed up with Clarissa Schmal, Student Services Director of the Watauga County School District as they put the Peyton Plan in early stages of development.

The Peyton Plan’s rough outline includes a plan where Watauga County Schools and the fire and sheriff’s departments would come together to form a mobile crisis team. This would include phone contacts, counseling services and any other forms of communication and assistance deemed necessary in the face of tragedy.

“I will be in touch with principals and some administrative folks in our next meeting about creating this mobile crisis team,” Schmal said. “It says such great things about our community that they called for a debriefing for all people involved, young or old. Everyone got an opportunity to talk. Sadly, it was about things you would hope a child would never have to talk about.”

All people involved in the incident, medics, firefighters, parents, children and church-goers were given the opportunity to participate in a debriefing session.

Four children attended counseling sessions to help them grieve through such a tremendous ordeal. Basic questions were asked, leading into the “tougher stuff” that needed to be addressed, Schmal said. At the meetings conclusion, the children were given the chance to draw their emotions.

“Each of the four little children drew happy visions,” Schmal said. “Houses and flowers and peace signs. They each gave their pictures to the family. We all left with a little hope.”

A wake was held for Townsend Sunday evening. The community once again showed massive amounts of support to the family, at least a couple thousand people were present, family friend and Boone resident Bob Meir said. 

The young girl’s funeral has been set for 6 p.m. Monday, at the First Baptist Church of Blowing Rock.

To view Townsend’s obituary on the Austin & Barnes Funeral Home website, click here.