Leone, Part Two: ‘A Rapid, Liquid Stop’

FILE: A Coast Guard 25-foot response boat crew from Station Quillayute River, Wash., along with local emergency response personnel search the water near James Island, Wash., for crew members and wreckage from a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, which crashed July 7, 2010. (Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Nathan Litteljohn.)

This is the second of our three-part conversation with Lt. Lance Leone, the only survivor of a fatal helicopter crash in 2010, in which three people from Coast Guard Air Station Sitka died.

Leone was the co-pilot aboard Coast Guard helicopter 6017 as it flew back to Sitka from Astoria, Ore.

In Part One, Leone talked about the mission and the events leading up to the flight, as well as his experience in the cockpit with Lt. Sean Krueger, the pilot in command and a longtime friend. On their way north, they saw a small Coast Guard boat leaving a station in Washington. Krueger decided to fly low over the boat.

“And he started a righthand turn down in a decreasing altitude along the coastline,” Leone said. “At this point in the flight recorder it gets very interesting. I say ‘Well, that’s Quillayute.’ And I say it wrong. … But I said it, and on the third time of saying it, moments later, we hit something we never saw.”

Electrical wires, stretching nearly 2,000 feet between the mainland and nearby James Island. The impact caught the chopper’s right main landing gear. Its four main rotor blades broke off, and the fuselage was torn into five pieces, coming to rest in shallow water about 150 yards northeast of the island.

That’s where Part Two begins:

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In Part 3, slated for 8:18 a.m. Wednesday, Leone talks about recovery, and learning that he’d face criminal charges in connection with the crash. He’ll also talk about his feelings toward the Coast Guard.

Interview transcript

LEONE: I was in the left seat. My shoulders and my knees and my head were all banging around in the cabin for I don’t know how long. It felt very slow motion, but then there was a rapid stop, and that rapid stop quickly became a rapid liquid stop. And I was underwater, upside-down, in a helicopter.

KCAW: It happened that fast.

LEONE: It was that fast. We were flying, everything was fine, and then it blew apart. When I was underwater I didn’t know anything. It felt like the world was shaking apart.

KCAW: What did it sound like?

LEONE: Screeching? Screeching and cracking. I had double hearing protection, but it was kind of like a pounding and a screeching. I got to listen to it on the voice recorder and it is literally screeching and crashing. I don’t know how to link it to … what anyone else would hear. I guess, like a car accident?

KCAW: Was that difficult, listening to those recordings?

LEONE: I had the opportunity to read the recordings months in advance. Actually this time last year was the first time I had the ability to read through the recording and to go through and see what I had done right. I’d read the investigation and seen everything I’d done wrong, and that the crew had done wrong, because that’s what they’d focused on. But to see what I’d done right and everything I did to the best of my ability, but then to listen to it and hear the sounds, it was … I would say “troubling,” but I was ready for it, based upon my desire. I didn’t have to. My lawyers could’ve just listened to it with me outside the room, but I wanted to make sure the nonverbal made it into there.

Leone is referring to nonverbal communications going on in the cockpit. He wanted to make sure they were part of the investigation record, which would later be summed up in what’s called a FAM, or Final Action Memorandum.

KCAW: The Final Action Memo says there were six minutes between impact and the time you fired off a flare. What was going on in those six minutes?

LEONE: So, after the abusive vibrations and then it stopping underwater, I did what every aviator would do out there. We train on it all the time. Yearly, we’re flipped over in a chair and go through the procedures. I did the procedures the Coast Guard taught me. I retracted my collective, found my exit, pushed the exit out of the way. Undid my cords, released my harness and pulled through the hole to get out. This is where it changed a little bit from what I’d done before. I was kicking to get out and I wasn’t getting to the surface.

I hadn’t put my regulator in to breath underwater yet. I just assumed I’d be able to get out quicker than be able to have to put that in. Normally when we do it, it’s a slow flip in a chair. This was an unbelievably fast hitting the water. I can’t quote on how many Gs but I know there was a lot of impact having been flying through the air at 125 knots, and hitting the wires at approximately 115 feet. At that point, we were a projectile.

Leone used an emergency air supply helicopter crews carry. It’s called a HEEDS bottle, which stands for Helicopter Emergency Egress Device. It carries about 1.5 cubic feet of compressed air. How long that lasts depends on how you breathe. In training, Leone could usually get between 7 and 13 good breaths out of it. But after the crash, as he tried to find his way out of the underwater wreckage, he only managed six breaths.

LEONE: Coming to the surface, my eyes were burning because when the 6017 crashed, we were pretty much max-fueled with JP8 jet fuel, which is very similar to kerosene. So when I came up on the surface, I was covered in kerosene. I still had my helmet on, and I started looking for anything to float on, because I couldn’t kick hard enough to keep my head and my body out of the water enough to be comfortable.

Leone broke his collarbone in the accident, and as he tried to inflate his life vest, he discovered his arms weren’t working.

LEONE: It was the first time I’d ever asked my body to do something and my body said “No.” But my wrists worked, and so I cranked my wrist against the base of the regulator, which was sitting right to my left, and for some reason, it worked, with just that little bit of wrist motion.

The vest inflated, but there were still problems. Leone’s dry suit was torn and filling with water, and although he says he wasn’t in pain, there were injuries.

LEONE: I had a piece of helicopter that had lodged itself in my left forearm. My right hand was fairly mutilated because of pounding against something in the helicopter. My right shin was opened to the bone. The bone looked like a corncob that had been eaten – like the white, remaining husk of corn. My ankle was badly swollen. But the only real injury was a broken collarbone and a dislocated shoulder, which are both seatbelt injuries from the seatbelt that saved my life.

Now floating in the water between James Island and La Push, Washington, Leone began to look for his crewmates.

LEONE: I’d assumed based on every survival class I’d taken that everybody else would be there. I’ve not taken classes where you’re the only one left to survive. You’re always part of a team. And I couldn’t find Sean, Brett and Adam. I didn’t know where they were. It was very disheartening, but I knew I had to stay afloat if I could ever figure out where they were.

Leone looked for his emergency beacon, but with his arms disabled, he couldn’t get to it. Next, he reached for a signaling mirror to try and reflect sunlight and catch someone’s attention. As he opened that pocket, out popped a pencil-sized flare. He managed to assemble it using only his fingertips. By the time he fired it into the air, a skiff from the La Push harbormaster’s office was already heading in his direction.

LEONE: As they approached me, they said “We’re going to grab you, we’ve got other people looking for the other three.” I, at that moment, had the wherewithal to tell them, “I don’t want you to pull on my arms,” because I didn’t feel like they were attached. In my head, I kind of envisioned them being disconnected from my body, although my fingers worked. Because I couldn’t use the rest of them, I just pictured they were either just flopping around with nerves just connected, but with bones not… so they, with all the training that they’ve had, pulling fishing nets aboard that boat, they scooped me out of the water by dropping the gunnels of the vessel below my back and sliding me into the back of that johnboat – I call it a johnboat, but it’s just an aluminum craft, maybe 14 feet, maybe longer. But those were the heroes of the day for me.”

Leone was taken to a nearby hospital and then medevacked to Seattle for further recovery. His parents from Maine and Florida, and his family in Sitka met him there within 12 hours.

LEONE: Ellen, my unbelievably great wife, loaded up the children, got an Alaska Airlines flight the Coast Guard booked for her, and she landed in Seattle. The pilots came on the intercom and had everyone sit down so she and the children could get off. The Coast Guard brought her directly to the hospital to see me.

Less than a week after the crash, hundreds of Sitkans, as well as high ranking Coast Guard officers and elected officials gathered at Air Station Sitka for a memorial service in honor of Krueger, Banks and Hoke. Leone was there, too.

LEONE: I had wanted to attend a memorial service in La Push, but my doctors wouldn’t let me go, because they were afraid of blood clotting.

KCAW: Were you medically ready to leave the hospital when the memorial service happened, or was that a little faster than – it just seems fast to me, I guess.

LEONE: I didn’t like being in a hospital. I don’t like being a patient. I like helping people, I don’t like being helped. I don’t know what it is about my personality. The day after the accident I asked when I could stand up and they said “Just wait one more day.” So on Day 3, I stood up, walked around, did the stairs, and on that day I started the long process of physical therapy. It was quick. Similar injuries to a car accident. Obviously physical wounds were very quick to heal. Now, the mental stuff took a lot longer.

Ed Ronco is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.

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