Four Years After A Life-Changing Tragedy, A Pilot Meets His Rescuers
In a thick Pacific fog, James Island completely disappears from view. But it sits just a few hundred yards from La Push, a small community on the outer edge of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Even with the landmark obscured by heavy gray, Lt. Lance Leone can point to where it all happened. The power lines extended out this way. The helicopter broke apart in mid-air right here. The cockpit hit the water over there.
Of the four on board, Leone was the only survivor of the crash. Four years later to the day, he returned to meet the people who saved him, and to tell them how the crash changed his life and ended his Coast Guard career.
‘I Was Underwater, Upside-Down, In A Helicopter’
On that sunny July morning, the Coast Guard helicopter flew up the channel low and fast. To the left of the cockpit sat James Island, with its brown rock face rising out of the sea, a tuft of evergreens on top. Down to the right was the mainland with a sandy beach and a jetty, guarding the La Push Marina from the violent Pacific surf. And straight ahead were power lines.
Leone was the co-pilot, picking up an updated helicopter whose dials and gauges had been replaced by screens and buttons. Their mission was to fly it from Astoria, Oregon to their home base in Sitka, Alaska. They were still in their first hour of flight when they approached La Push.
According to the Coast Guard report on the crash, the crew of the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter spotted a small Coast Guard boat leaving port. The helicopter descended from 220 feet to 114 feet, banked right and flew over the boat. The move is not uncommon, says Leone; it’s a way for the two crews to greet one another.
Nobody noticed the power lines. The markings on the chart were small, and the bright orange balls typically used to warn aircraft had slid down to the lower end of the power lines, on the mainland.
The right rear wheel of the chopper caught the lines. Almost instantly, the four rotor blades flew off. The fuselage broke into five pieces and landed in shallow water.
“There was a stop,” Leone said. “And that rapid stop quickly became a rapid, liquid stop, and I was underwater, upside-down, in a helicopter.”
He broke free from the wreckage and surfaced, punching through a layer of jet fuel on top of the water covering his body. His collarbone was broken, gashes covered his limbs and a piece of debris protruded from his arm. But he managed to fire off a flare as he floated, waiting for help.
Rescuer: 'All I Saw Was A Splash'
A few hundred people live in La Push, home to the Quileute tribe. Known as the setting of the popular “Twilight” novels, the town’s entrance bears a sign that reads: “No Vampires Beyond This Point – Treaty Line.” Between the natural beauty of the oceanfront town and its sudden literary fame, La Push has become a popular tourist destination. but it’s still very much a working town.
On the morning of July 7, 2010, Darryl Penn, Levi Black and Charlie Sampson were in the La Push Marina, where they were preparing for a day of fishing.
“All I saw was a splash,” Sampson said.
The three men jumped into a small motorboat and headed toward the debris. They hauled Leone out of the water and into the bow of the boat. Others onshore lifted Leone out of the boat and into a waiting ambulance.
“That’s in our DNA. That’s just who we are,” Penn said. “We’ll always respond to that sort of thing.”
One of them texted Leone’s wife, Ellen: “Lance is OK, he loves you.”
Four years later, Leone found himself standing face-to-face with his rescuers.
“I’d always been on the rescuer side, and to be on the rescuee side is different,” he told them. “You guys cared about me, and you kept talking about family and kids. It kept bringing me back to reality.”
Grieving The Loss Of A Friend And A Career
Leone left the hospital in Seattle, and attended memorial services for the three men who died in the crash: Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Hoke, Petty Officer 2nd Class Brett Banks and Lt. Sean Krueger, the pilot. Krueger was a friend of Leone’s from their Coast Guard Academy days.
“I’d known him most of my adult life,” said Leone, who was 29 at the time of the crash. “To have him be the one I was flying with that didn’t come up to the surface was very trying.”
After the memorial services, Leone started preparing to return to the cockpit. But just before he was scheduled to report for flight training, he was called in to see his commanding officer. The Coast Guard brought criminal charges against Leone, including the military equivalent of negligent homicide.
The charges were eventually dismissed, but Leone faced administrative discipline and the Coast Guard never let him fly again, instead assigning him to a desk job in San Antonio.
'Then You Get To Move On'
Leone, who signed up for the Coast Guard before he left high school, had planned on a long career.
“The accident was horrible, but being charged has developed me into a completely different person,” he said. “What has happened is absolutely wrong, but then you get to move on. You say, ‘it’s wrong,’ and you move on.”
He has since been twice denied for promotion to lieutenant commander. As a result, he’ll be out of the Coast Guard by the end of the year. Officers who are passed over twice for promotion are usually discharged, or retire. (His case was part of a broader look at the Coast Guard’s safety record, and how it handles accidents, by the Center for Investigative Reporting.)
“I’m not going to be an aircraft commander in the Coast Guard anymore,” Leone said. “I’m not going to be an admiral in the Coast Guard. I’m not going to be commandant of the Coast Guard. But all those things are just little paths. What it has done is it opened a lot of doors,” Leone said.
He tells his story to anyone who will listen, and has already spoken in front of groups from the Air Force, the Army and fire and police departments. He talks to them about what he went through, from the crash to the criminal case, to the fight for promotion. He uses it as an example of how to move on after something horrible happens.
Leone is lining up work as an aviation safety consultant for the days after his Coast Guard service. He’s already done some work for a company in Taiwan. He wants to prevent crashes like his own, and help civil aviators learn the best ways to make sure they stay safe while aloft.
And after pushing through survivor’s guilt, and an emotional recovery that’s proving much longer than the physical one, he wants to help others who have gone through tragedies figure out how to cope. He says the key is to embrace problems, not ignore them. Just sharing stories — and knowing you’re not alone — is a good start.
“You can’t take away their challenges, because it’s part of their journey,” he said. “But you help them through. You hold their hand.”
'I’m Going To Make The Most Out Of My Life That You Saved'
Not long after the crash, Leone was back behind the controls of an aircraft — just not one that belongs to the U.S. government. He made sure he kept flying, as a civilian pilot in his spare time. And he returned to La Push to see the scene for himself and to show his wife where it happened.
“The first time I came back, which was three months after the accident, I walked down to the water and felt it on my wound at the time, which hadn’t fully healed,” Leone said.
A long scar remains on his leg, and another on his arm; a curved divot where a piece of helicopter lodged itself during the crash. His physical healing is over. Being back in La Push is for emotional healing – both his, and his rescuers’.
They’ve wanted to share their stories with him, too. And they did, in a two-hour meeting the night before the anniversary of the accident. Leone told them how he experienced the crash, and they did the same.
His version is painstaking: a series of slow-motion events from impact to recovery. Their version contains the same events, but it happens quickly and chaotically. The crash. Rushing out to the wreckage in the boat. Bringing him out of the water and to shore. The few words that were exchanged. Helping to recover the bodies.
“You’ve given us a little more than closure,” said Penn, one of the rescuers. “To see you smiling and happy and going on with your life, that says a lot. That gives us a lot. You’ve given us a great gift.”
At the meeting, Quileute Tribe Chairman Chas Woodruff said Leone was like part of the community’s extended family, and elders sang for him before wrapping him in a traditional blanket — gestures rarely shared with outsiders.
“When I was first in the hospital, I wanted to buy everyone that rescued me boats,” Leone told his rescuers while standing just feet away from the crash site. “You guys were again giving stuff to me, and the only thing I can give back to you is the story, and to tell you that I’m going to make the most out of my life that you saved.”
KPLU's Ed Ronco was a reporter in the Coast Guard air crew's home base of Sitka, Alaska, when the helicopter crashed. He's been following the story since then. Some of the reporting for this story comes from his earlier, three-part interview with Leone, first aired on KCAW-FM in Sitka.