WILMINGTON, N.C. (WWAY) — The story of 22-year-old Gabby Petito’s disappearance and death is impacting people right here in the Cape Fear.

A couple of years ago, Petito lived in Carolina Beach. She worked in Wilmington and even though she didn’t end up going, she applied to Cape Fear Community College.

“Gabby was…a bright soul, a bright light. She was always happy, always had a smile on her face. Always trying to bring everybody up with her,” said Lara Witschen, general manager of Wilmington restaurant Smoke on the Water.

Gabby Petito, a young woman whose story captured the attention of the nation after she went missing during a cross-country journey with her fiance.

Before the headlines, Gabby was a young woman living and working in the Cape Fear.

“She’s not just a name. She’s not just a case. She was a person and she was very special to a lot of people and many of us here,” said Witschen.

Witschen said Gabby worked at the restaurant from September 2017 to January 2019 in the kitchen and as a hostess before moving to Florida.

“I think all of us here initially thought, it can’t be real. It has to be somebody else,” she said. “She was so full of life and had so many plans, she had her whole life ahead of her.”

It was a life captured in photos – spending time with friends, enjoying the ocean and the Carolina Beach boardwalk.

Now, some of those photos cover a table at Smoke on the Water – a table reserved in her memory.

Gabby’s friends are still shocked and heartbroken. They were not able to speak on camera but they did share stories.

“To know Gabby was to truly know someone who embodied a free spirit. She made life a little lighter and a little less serious. She was adventurous and loved her family and friends wholeheartedly. She enjoyed doing art, that is something we shared a passion for, making the world a more creative and beautiful space,” one friend said.

“Her love for life was so inspiring and her love for others ever more so. I am so thankful for the time I got to spend with her while she was in Wilmington. She touched my life more than anyone could know. Gabby, your smile will forever be engraved in my heart,” said another friend.

On the coast of North Carolina, Gabby Petito will be remembered for her joy, her smile and her heart.

“She was a good soul, a good spirit, and touched so many lives. That’s what we want her to be remembered for,” Witschen said.

The restaurant plans to honor Gabby by planting a tree outside Smoke on the Water soon.