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fter fighting for more than two years to reopen their only hospital, residents of Belhaven, NC watched in sadness as a backhoe took down parts of Pungo District Hospital on Wednesday night.

That afternoon, North Carolina Business Court Judge Gregory McGuire decided against extending a temporary restraining order that for the past month had delayed plans to demolish Pungo. The residents who filed the lawsuit saw it as a final stand to reopen the only hospital in the 1,800-person rural town.

The judge’s decision cleared the way for Pantego Creek LLC, the community nonprofit that owns the property, to move ahead with demolition. They began to knock down the building almost immediately after the ruling, much to the surprise of some residents who had watched Pungo close in 2014. Residents and the town’s mayor had called the closure a life-and-death situation for the mostly rural communities in and around Beaufort County.

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“[I feel] shock and disbelief,” said Greg Satterthwaite, of Belhaven, who has filmed the demolition event. “Sadness for the people in the community who are so severely affected.”

Adam O’Neal, Belhaven’s mayor who led the broader fight to reopen Pungo, had recently tried to get a group of investors to buy the hospital, which is the only one available to residents in the surrounding area. Two offers made were rejected. He was at the movies when he got word demolition had started.

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“I don’t feel any real depression about the closure because I’ve done all I can do,” he said.

O’Neal said he believes the hearings were not fair, and attorneys for Pantego Creek told STAT that the ruling spoke for itself.

“I did everything from walking to Washington D.C. and to the governor’s mansion, to ruining myself financially. … This is the grossest example of where our country is today,” O’Neal said.

Rural Hospital Closures: 2005 – 2016

Press play or drag the timeline handle to see the locations of rural hospital closures over the last decade. The size of the bubble represents the number of hospital beds.

Total for JAN 2005 -

Natalia Bronshtein/STAT Source: The North Carolina Rural Health Research Program GIF / Youtube

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