Top stories of 2018: Bristol Commons helicopter crash

Staff Writer

It was a sunny and relatively quiet afternoon in Williamsburg on July 8, until a Robinson R44 helicopter plummeted into a 10-unit residential complex in the City of Williamsburg.

The crash killed the pilot, Henry E. Schwarz of Alexandria, 85, as well as 91-year-old resident Jean Lonchak Danylko. Later, at least one survivor of the crash died.

Twelve days after the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary investigative report, which detailed the final moments of the helicopter's path before it slammed into the Bristol Commons complex.

The helicopter flew low at an estimated 100 feet above ground level, one witness told investigators. Then it descended at a rate faster than 2 miles per minute.

Schwarz was known by his friends in the Virginia Helicopter Association to be meticulous, according to Ray Jarman and DJ Shelton. Schwarz topped off both gas tanks before he took off.

The result was a fiery crash that consumed several units of the complex in flames. The rest was either structurally damaged or water damaged. The building was soon condemned.

After securing the scene, firefighters, paramedics and police officers worked as one unit.

“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,” Williamsburg Fire Department Chief Pat Dent said.

In July, NTSB investigator Doug Brazy said typical investigations can one to two years. Now just shy of six months after the crash, the NTSB has remained silent about the cause.

Eighteen years and 16 days before Bristol Commons was rocked by Schwarz’s helicopter crashing through the roof, he crashed a plane into a cornfield in Fredericksburg.

While all the residents of the complex lost their home, some have faced hurdles since the crash, including dealing with cable boxes and one college student returning home from South Africa with few material possessions left.

As of late November, no lawsuits had been filed against the Schwarz estate or insurance companies as a result of the crash, according to the attorney for Schwarz’s insurance.

Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.

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