VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – Friday, an emotional ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk honored the three Sailors killed in a helicopter crash last week: Lieutenant Wesley Van Dorn, Lieutenant Sean Snyder, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Collins.
The three were killed when their MH-53E “Sea Dragon” helicopter crashed 18 nautical miles off the coast of Virginia Beach while conducting training operations. Lt. Snyder’s body was recovered from the helo’s wreckage late Tuesday night. Lt. Van Dorn and Aircrewman Collins succumbed to their injuries at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital on the day of the Jan. 8 crash.
Two crew members survived the crash and have been released from the hospital.
Friday’s memorial was closed to the public, but WAVY’s Military Reporter Art Kohn was one of a few local journalists invited.
Before the ceremony began, families, shipmates and friends of the victims began filling the auditorium at Naval Station Norfolk. They came from all directions — all 1,200 seats were filled with another 1,000 people standing along the outside isles.
“Many of them have been through it before, and so they understand and that show of respect and to honor and respect the lives of our three fallen shipmates, it speaks volumes,” said Rear Admiral Mike Shoemaker, Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic.
Out of respect for the families, cameras were not allowed inside the auditorium, but WAVY.com witnessed a very emotional ceremony celebrating the lives of the lost crewman. All three were married. Brian Collins and his wife Cheyenne had just celebrated their first wedding anniversary.
Someone who knows the pain of losing a spouse in the line of duty is Becky Douglas.
“After 35 years, I can’t get rid of it,” Douglas said.
She had been married just one month when her husband Rex was killed after ejecting from the cockpit of an F-14 after a mishap on the flight deck of the USS Eisenhower in 1979. Her husband landed in the ocean and was dragged to the bottom by his parachute. To this day, he remains missing.
Douglas understands how difficult this time is.
“Especially with this helicopter accident and the third man who was missing for a few days, and I know exactly what that wife was going through,” she said. “Initial shock that you know, something’s happened, and then you’re so anxious and you can’t sleep and you have nightmares. And then it finally comes true that your worst nightmare has come true. He’s never gonna come home.”
Friday’s memorial service is just the first step toward closure for the victims’ families; now they await the results of the accident investigation.
Now the Navy’s focus will shift to the crash investigation and the salvage efforts underway to retrieve the wreckage of the MH53-E helicopter from the ocean floor.
“We’ll slowly bringing that wreckage up to the surface,” Shoemaker said. “We’ll turn it over to the aviation mishap board and to the specialist from the Naval Safety Center. We’ll analyze the wreckage and hopefully it will help us find out what happened in that mishap.”
The Navy promised to be as quick and deliberate as they can be with the investigation.
“The families need to know: was it human error or was it mechanical? … It’s not to put any blame on anyone …” Douglas said. “To know some details might be hurtful, but other times it’s good to know. I wanted to know as much details as I possible could.”
“Obviously, like you all, they can see the JAG MAN investigation that we’ll redact and share so they can understand, I think, generally what we believe happened in this case … “ Shoemaker said.
But some of the information will be withheld or deemed to sensitive to release.
“I understand that, but they don’t have to give us details,” Douglas said. “Just give us the plain facts…”
Becky wants the families to know that the information will trickle out slowly and they must remain patient. 35 Years after her husband was killed in a mishap aboard the USS Eisenhower, the Navy still has not allowed her to view video of the accident that was almost surely captured by the cameras monitoring the flight deck.