First responders to helicopter crash trained for worst-case scenarios

When a major emergency happens in the City of Williamsburg, one man oversees search-and-rescue operations.

Williamsburg Fire Chief and Emergency Coordinator Pat Dent was spending a leisurely day at the pool July 8.

Dent’s daughter had celebrated her wedding the day before, and Dent said he thought he would spend his Sunday at the pool with his wife and granddaughter.

But it wasn’t meant to be a relaxing day. Reports of a helicopter crash into a residential complex set Dent and other first responders into action that afternoon.

“We had just gotten in my car when the call came in,” Dent said. “It came in as multiple calls, that indicates there’s something to it. There was a large column of black smoke in the sky; it was pretty evident then that the reports were accurate.

The crash killed 91-year-old Bristol Commons resident Jean Lonchak Danylko and pilot Henry Schwarz, 85, of Alexandria.

Flood of 911 calls

The first 911 call came in at 4:33 p.m. July 8, less than 10 minutes after the helicopter departed the Williamsburg Jamestown Airport, according to data provided by Williamsburg police.

Bystanders and neighbors dialed 911 29 times as a Robinson R44 helicopter plummeted into a 10-unit residential complex in Bristol Commons.

As the ensuing fire tore through the building, first responders from Williamsburg, James City and York counties were on their way to the scene. An unidentified off-duty College of William and Mary police officer scrambled to help evacuate people, according to Williamsburg Police Chief Sean Dunn.

By 4:35 p.m., Williamsburg police were at the scene to evacuate people from the area. Four minutes later, Williamsburg and James City County firefighters arrived.

“Given the early minutes, pretty quickly we realized what was occurring,” Dunn said. “Naturally, when there’s a situation like this, the first order of business is to secure the safety of the folks who could be affected. Time is not on your side.”

Dunn said he was surprised and grateful at the response of the Bristol Commons community.

“I could not believe the level of support we got from the community,” he said, “and they had just been devastated.”

York County Fire and Life Safety arrived from Lightfoot at 4:42 p.m., according to data provided by the Williamsburg police.

Emergency operations

While the fire was fought and the scene secured, Dent took control of emergency operations.

As emergency coordinator, it’s his job to request assistance and notify local, state and federal agencies of the crash.

Mutual-aid assistance was requested from William and Mary, James City County and York County. Off-duty police officers came to help.

“Other than the color of our apparatus and maybe the different color of our turnout gear,the operation is pretty much seamless, because we do it on a day-to-day basis,” Dent said.

Calls to local police and fire departments were only the start of working the crash, Dent said. For example, Dominion Energy needed to be contacted to turn off electricity to the area.

At the same time, battalion chiefs directed and noted the positions of the fire rescue equipment and the firefighters.

About two hours after arriving at Bristol Commons, Dent said firefighters had the fire under control.

One fire crew remained at the condominium complex overnight to address any hotspots.

Always trying to get better

While the fire has been extinguished and an investigation into the crash is underway; Dent and other first responders are writing a report.

The after-action report will detail every action and position taken during the response to the crash and likely will take “several weeks” to produce, Dent said.

“Maybe there are some things we could have improved or done slightly better, but overall I think it’s going to be a very positive critique,” he said.

In the meantime, Williamsburg Mayor Paul Freiling heaped praise on first responders at a City Council meeting July 11.

“This past week, the Williamsburg community experienced a terrible accident with tragic results,” Freiling said. “But it could have been much, much worse. In fact, it’s amazing that it wasn’t.

“We owe a great deal of thanks to the men and women of the Williamsburg Fire Department, Williamsburg Police Department, public works department, human services departments, but even they couldn’t have done what needed to be done by themselves. They relied on the stalwart support of our partners and colleagues in the William and Mary Police Department, the Virginia State Police, James City County Fire Rescue and York County Fire Rescue.”

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