Maria Robertson was spending a hot Sunday afternoon at Kiwanis Park with family when she heard a helicopter overhead.
At first she dismissed the noise, chalking it up to the military aircrafts she often hears flying above her home in the Bristol Commons neighborhood on Settlement Drive. But when she looked up, she saw the helicopter was flying low and was headed in the direction of her home.
She said the aircraft was flying straight, then tilted toward the ground. As she ran toward Bristol Commons and dialed 9-1-1, she heard a loud “boom” and saw plumes of smoke rising from the condominium complex.
“It’s just surreal,” Robertson said Monday. “There was no smoke coming from the aircraft, it wasn’t on fire.”
Virginia State Police and National Safety Transportation Board officials would later confirm that a four-seat Robinson model R44 helicopter crashed into a 10-unit residential building in Bristol Commons at 4:42 p.m., causing a large fire and killing one resident and the aircraft’s pilot. According to NTSB investigator Doug Brazy, no other residents were injured and there were no passengers in the helicopter.
The neighborhood is across the street from the College of William and Mary’s Dillard Field and less than 500 feet from The Virginia Gazette’s former offices on Ironbound Road.
Fire and rescue crews from Williamsburg, James City County and York County were on scene to fight the fire and assist residents. NTSB and FAA officials were also on the scene Sunday, beginning a multi-day investigation into what caused the incident.
State Police spokeswoman Michelle Anaya identified the resident killed in the incident as 91-year-old Jean Lonchak Danylko.
The building where the helicopter crashed has since been condemned due to heavy fire damage. Red Cross representative Phyllis Henderson said nine families living in the residential building were displaced by the crash and ensuing fire, and are receiving aid from the organization as needed.
Don Jones was one of those displaced residents, and said the crash was 10 feet away his home. He ran out without time to grab his cellphone, shirt or even a pair of shoes.
“I was downstairs when that thing hit and I had never heard a noise like that in my life,” he said. “I was afraid it would blow up. She was really burning.”
A vital woman
Danylko’s son, Mark, said his mother was active in the community and an avid reader of The Virginia Gazette.
Originally from Connecticut, Danylko traveled often and worked for former PBS CEO Bruce Christensen in Utah and Washington, D.C. before settling down at her Bristol Crossing condominium 17 years ago.
“She met a lot of influential people and traveled all over the world,” said Paula Williams, her daughter-in-law.
Danylko lived alone in her condominium, regularly exercised at the local community center and volunteered at and attended Mass every Sunday at St. Olaf Catholic Church in James City County.
Church Pastor Fr. Thomas E. Mattingly said she was a well-known fixture in the congregation for nearly 20 years, and there will be a memorial service for Danylko Friday.
“I was at dinner with a couple and we heard about it, and they picked up the phone to call her,” Mattingly said. “She was very well-known, kind of quiet and unassuming, but over the years a lot of people have formed very close friendships with her.”
“She was very dynamic and vivacious,” said Pamela Bradley, Mark Danylko’s sister-in-law. “She was very loving and she was very loved.”
Mark Danylko said he found out about the accident while watching the 7 o’clock news Sunday. After finding the location online, he raced into town from his home in Hampton.
“We tried calling her earlier just to say hi and the phone wasn’t working, which isn’t that unusual around here, but then I saw that and I hopped in my car and came right up here,” he said. “It wasn’t until 10 o’clock last night that I actually found out that my mother had died.”
The family has begun making funeral arrangements.
“She didn’t want a big service at all, even though she was a good Catholic,” Mark Danylko said. “She wanted to be cremated and have a small memorial service and that’s it.”
The helicopter pilot
Officials from the NTSB recovered the pilot’s body Monday morning. Although the Virginia State Police has not yet released the identity of the pilot, Williamsburg James City Airport operator Charley Rogers confirmed Monday afternoon that Virginia Helicopter Association President Henry Schwarz was the pilot in question.
Rogers said he saw Schwarz take off, and that his helicopter was the only one at the airport. There were also no other helicopters reported in the area or on the airport’s surveillance radar.
Helicopter Association member Ray Jarman told The Gazette that Schwarz arrived at the Williamsburg Jamestown Airport at 1 p.m. Sunday in his R44 helicopter for a group meeting.
"The thing with helicopters is, helicopters have thousands of rotating, moving parts. Helicopters have everything that moves,” he said. “It's got to all work together, and maintenance wise, it all has to be put together for things to work right.”
After the meeting, Schwarz departed the airport in his helicopter alone at 4:26 p.m.
At a press conference Monday, Brazy confirmed the helicopter that struck the Bristol Commons condos departed the Williamsburg James City Airport “at around 4:30 p.m.”
Brazy also gave the registration number for the downed aircraft, which an FAA database shows has been registered to Schwarz since 2004.
NTSB and FAA officials recovered the helicopter’s 245 horsepower, six cylinder engine from the wreckage Tuesday morning. Design specifications from the helicopter’s manufacturer show the R44 is 459 inches long, with a 198-inch rotor radius.
"I don't know what happened yesterday after Henry took off," Jarman said Monday, choking up. "I know he was the type of person that if he had any type of control over that aircraft at all, it wouldn't have ended up where it did."
Syblle Bakewell lived in one of the condos destroyed by the fire and managed to escape, but could not find Princeton, her black and tan Yorkie. She pleaded with state police officers Monday morning to let her into her townhome. “People lost their lives in there, I don’t know where my dog is,” she said through tears.
Bakewell and her son, Tyler, were reunited with Princeton later that afternoon after spotting him at the top of the stairwell in the burned out home. They took the dog to the nearby Godspeed Animal Care hospital after they noticed some burns.
Richard Bridge lives across the street from the destroyed building, and said he ran out to help when he heard the sound of blades going through the roof.
“By the time I got there, it just exploded,” he said. “We were banging on the door about a dozen times. I about shook the door of the hinges and yelling ‘fire, get out.’ That’s all we could do.”
The NTSB is expected to release a preliminary report on the incident in 10 to 14 days. A full investigation on the crash will take about 18 months, according to Brazy.
Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.