A Virginia mother of two is missing, and her family said Friday they think she might have died in a fiery wreck on Interstate 85 in Orange County.
The N.C. Highway Patrol and the Accomack County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia are investigating.
Daniel Eugene McNeal, 51, of Exmore, Virginia, was killed Sept. 14 when his tractor-trailer slammed into the N.C. 86 bridge over I-85 in Hillsborough, according to Highway Patrol Sgt. Brian K. Martin. His dog, Blu, also was killed, an N.C. Department of Transportation official said at the scene Saturday night.
The crash shut down the overpass and traffic on I-85 South for most of the day, as crews cleared the wreckage and N.C. Department of Transportation officials assessed the damage. The overpass remains closed, but an NCDOT crew working on the bridge Saturday night said they expect it to reopen this week.
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McNeal was the only person thought to have died in the single-vehicle wreck until Tuesday, when Alyssa Taylor’s mother and sisters saw the news on social media while returning home from a trip to Florida, Alyssa’s aunt Lori Taylor told The News & Observer.
“I always try to be the stronger sister, trying to keep things together, ‘cause my sister, that’s her daughter, that’s her heart,” Lori Taylor said in a phone interview Friday. “They were very, very close, and she’s broken. I’m trying to help get some answers.”
The family suspects the 25-year-old mother was with McNeal and has contacted law enforcement in North Carolina and Virginia. Martin said Friday afternoon the Highway Patrol is investigating, but that Taylor’s body was not found at the site of the crash or in the the wreckage.
Mother of 2 boys, truck driver
Taylor was separated from her husband, family said, and previously worked at a Holiday Inn Express, according to her Facebook page. She was a full-time mother to their boys, 6 and 5 years old, Lori Taylor said.
The boys are now with their father, who shared custody, in Virginia, she said.
Taylor was getting help for a mental health issue, but “has never been one to run off,” Lori Taylor said. She lived with her mother, and they were in almost daily contact, she said. The boys were her whole world and have been asking for their mom, she said.
“She had the best heart in the world,” Lori Taylor said. “She loved children. She would help anybody and everybody. She was fun to be around. She was a very family-oriented person.”
They are raising money on GoFundMe to help fund the search for Taylor.
Taylor’s Facebook page showed she was friends with McNeal, a truck driver who friends said worked for a Virginia trucking company. Martin could not confirm whom McNeal worked for but said the truck was owned by Greensboro-based VFS Leasing.
“Trucking was in Danny’s blood,” longtime friend Angel Stevens said. His friends have a lot of questions about the crash, she added, because he had been driving since he was a teenager, riding with his grandfather on long hauls between Baltimore and Canada.
She often called him on the road, just talking so he would stay alert on long hauls, Stevens said.
“Danny had a loving heart, and he was a real great person,” she said. “If anybody needed anything, he’d give the last dollar in his pocket for you. He made people laugh, and he was real lovable.”
Exmore Police Chief Angelo DiMartino attended school with McNeal and said he had just recently moved back to town from Jamesville, Virginia.
“He was a good guy,” DiMartino said. “He was just a good-hearted, laid-back guy.”
McNeal’s family declined to comment for this story. A GoFundMe page is raising money for his funeral.
Facebook messages, missed phone call
Taylor’s family and friends provided The N&O with screenshots of Facebook messages and cell phone logs Friday that show Taylor texted her mother Krista Taylor, whom she lived with in Accomack County, Virginia, at 1:15 p.m. Sept. 13. In the message, Taylor said she was “riding with Danny in tractor trailer for two days.”
Text messages retrieved from McNeal’s Facebook account and posted on a friend’s Facebook page show Taylor contacted McNeal at 6:35 a.m. Sept. 13 to ask if she could join him on the run from Delaware to North Carolina. He agreed and told her he would be by that afternoon to pick her up. The N&O contacted the friend who posted the messages on her Facebook account, and she declined to comment.
At 2:08 p.m., McNeal texted to say he’s “coming up on ya need to know where to go.” Taylor gave him her mother’s address in Oak Hall.
Before leaving Exmore that night, McNeal stopped to pick up food from a friend’s house, blocking part of Lincoln Avenue with his truck, Chief DiMartino told The N&O by phone. An Exmore police officer spoke with a woman in the cab of the truck, who said McNeal was coming back, he said.
The officer “never identified the female at that point, because we knew Danny,” DiMartino said. “He talked with Danny for a minute, and Danny left the area,” just after 9 p.m. The Sheriff’s Office has the video, he said.
Taylor’s family reviewed that video Thursday and confirmed it was Taylor’s voice, Lori Taylor said. The image of the woman, however, was blurry.
Stevens’s daughter, Malinda Spady, provided phone records showing she called McNeal at 9:17 p.m. and talked for just over an hour. She heard a woman’s voice in the background during the call, Spady said, but she wasn’t sure who it was.
Stevens called McNeal from her phone at 10:18 p.m. and talked with him for over two hours, phone records show. She called him again at 1:17 a.m. That call ended at 1:30 a.m., about 40 minutes before the truck crashed.
Screenshots provided to The N&O show he also missed a call from Taylor at 10:10 p.m.
People are saying the missed call from Taylor is proof that she was not in McNeal’s truck when he went to North Carolina, Lori Taylor said, but they haven’t heard from Taylor, whose phone is no longer in service, and her last post to Facebook was at 5:40 p.m. Sept. 13.
Family uncovers more clues
Lori Taylor has a different theory about the phone call, she said.
“He could have went into the grocery store or stopped into the truck stop, and she wanted him to get something,” she said. “A phone call does not mean — it literally says in the messages, I’m pulling down the road to get you now.”
On Friday evening, the Accomack County Sheriff’s Office issued a news release asking for information about Taylor.
Law enforcement also is looking into whether Taylor’s cell phone last pinged a cell tower near Henderson, Lori Taylor said.
But perhaps the biggest clue so far has been a singed, ash-encrusted pink blanket with teddy bears on it that Taylor’s family found Tuesday in the truck’s wreckage in Orange County. They stopped on their way home from Florida, Lori Taylor said.
“That’s the one thing my niece always traveled with was her pink blanket, and sure enough, that was the pink blanket that she saw there,” she said.
Taylor’s family returned to the wreckage Saturday morning with an Orange County Sheriff’s Office deputy and posted a video of the visit on Facebook. They found a dusty Old Navy flip-flop sandal under the wreckage that her mother Krista Taylor identified as her daughter’s size 8 shoe, the video shows. They wear the same size, she said.
In the video, Krista Taylor made a brief, tearful appeal for information about her daughter, so the family can find closure and “have some funeral services for my baby.”