Monday marked one year since a helicopter crashed into a 10-unit condominium complex in the Bristol Commons neighborhood of Williamsburg.
The fiery crash claimed the lives of 91-year-old resident Jean Lonchak Danylko and 85-year-old pilot Henry “Hank” Schwarz of Fairfax County.
In the intervening months, former residents have had to stitch together their suddenly threadbare lives; most folks lost everything of value as the crash and fire department response first burned, then smoked and later waterlogged their possessions.
It was midnight in South Africa when Jennie Cuddeback, 22, of Winchester, got word of the crash. The College of William and Mary student was almost finished with a study abroad term and returned to Williamsburg about a month after the crash.
“I got a text from one of my friends whose grandmother lived across the street,” Cuddeback said. “It was, of course, my apartment complex, which was odd. I didn't really know what I could do. I called my parents and my sister. It really was just hard to believe at first. I called my roommate. The first thing I did was make sure everyone was OK. Stuff can be replaced.”
When Cuddeback entered what had been her home, she couldn’t go into her bedroom. There was a hole in the floor from the helicopter’s impact. Most of her belongings were a total loss. Some sentimental treasures can never be replaced: childhood letters and a high school class ring.
Cuddeback’s landlord offered to have her move into a similar unit in Bristol Commons, a mirror of her previous home. But for the next year she said she found herself repeatedly going the wrong way in her home. She’d look for the kitchen and find a wall.
“That was a little bit jarring,” Cuddeback said. “I used to collect so many things, and I think I've grown out of that. Definitely, it's a nice lesson that I have all the people and things that I need, so the things I lost don't have as much meaning to me as they used to. I’m just living simpler.”
Cuddeback graduated from William and Mary in May with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience. She has since moved back to Winchester.
In Bristol Commons, a new replacement condominium complex has risen from the destruction.
On April 15, the City of Williamsburg signed off on a building permit for Belfor Property Restoration to reconstruct the complex according to schematics created by New Town architectural firm Guernsey Tingle. Belfor was contracted in the days after the crash to demolish and salvage parts of the building.
A board member of the Bristol Commons Homeowners Association, Paul Leslie, is listed as the point of contact on the permits.
“Belfor’s doing a great job,” Leslie said Tuesday. He declined to comment on when the project would be finished.
Community members seek to put the crash behind them, he said. Bristol Commons has not put up a memorial to commemorate the crash.
“I don’t see why we’d celebrate an accident where someone died,” Leslie said.
Williamsburg Police Department Chief Sean Dunn remembers the crash as proof that the city and its residents can endure in the wake of tragedy.
“Since the crash, it's been uplifting to see how the entire community has come together to grow stronger,” Dunn said. “I think that speaks to the resilience of this community and the incredible people who make up this community.”
Mary Jo Jones lived in the complex. On the day of the crash, her husband Don ran out of their home and survived only to die a month later. She now lives happily at Brookdale, a senior living facility.
“I've made friends,” Jones said. “The staff are friendly. I have a nice apartment with a wonderful porch. Believe it or not, the food is excellent. That has helped ease the trauma of losing my house and my husband at the same time. Fortunately I'm happy here.”
On Monday, she spent her day remembering the generosity of the community around her and how the crash could have taken even more lives. She still hasn’t forgotten when the local Trader Joe’s handed out gift cards to residents of the destroyed building, or when a little girl handed her a few dollars while Jones and her husband sat watching television coverage of the crash in their hotel on Mooretown Road.
“It should be really nice,” Jones said in April of the rebuild. “But without my husband, it wouldn’t be the same.”
Jones reminisces about their home together, number 1103. “It was the nicest of the whole (complex). We had no stairs, which we liked, it was the ground floor. When you walked out our front door there was grass out there.
“We lived there for 18 years, it was home to us.”
Federal crash report unfinished
When Schwarz crashed his helicopter last year, he had been deemed unfit to fly by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Schwarz was diagnosed with dementia, cognitive decline, tremors and Parkinson’s Disease, but that didn’t stop him from topping off his Robinson R-44 helicopter’s gas tanks at Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport as he prepared to head home; he crashed minutes later.
At the time of the crash Schwarz lacked a valid medical certificate, a document that gives licensed pilots the privilege to fly, according to records.
An FAA spokeswoman said in March that the FAA lacks the regulatory teeth to stop a pilot from flying illegally in the first place.
After the agency receives a tip that a pilot flew illegally, they can revoke a pilot’s license or medical certificate and they can impose fines, according to FAA spokeswoman Marcia Alexander-Adams. That’s it, she said; they have no way to prevent someone from flying illegally.
The crash has remained under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, which has had no updates after it released a preliminary report on July 20, 2018. A final report is not scheduled to be released in the near future, according to an NTSB database.
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said crash investigations normally take between one year and two years to complete.
“We’re right in the middle of that zone,” Knudson said of the time frame. “There are so many variables in these accidents.”
When the investigation is complete, the NTSB could offer safety recommendations to lawmakers and government agencies.
But while the investigation grinds on, Cuddeback and Jones both want to close the door on this part of their lives.
While Cuddeback lost many of her sentimental possessions, she is determined not to let her losses prevent her from making new memories to cherish.
“I'll never have those (possessions) again, but I'm collecting letters again,” Cuddeback said. “It all turns out.”
Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.