When Coast Guard helicopter 6017 crashed off the coast of Washington state in 2010, it claimed the lives of three Coast Guardsmen from Air Station Sitka. The lone survivor of the accident, Lieutenant Lance Leone, later faced a legal battle, and was denied promotion to lieutenant commander – a move that will end his career.
On July 7, 2014, KCAW News broadcast a special report from the Center for Investigative Reporting on the aftermath of the crash, and its impact on the culture of accountability in the Coast Guard. On the same day, Leone himself revisited the crash site to talk with the Quileute Tribe fishermen who pulled him from the ocean.
Former KCAW reporter Ed Ronco now works at KPLU in Seattle. He accompanied Leone on his return to La Push, Washington, and filed this report.
You can count them on one hand.
“One, two, three, four, five.”
Five power poles on the shore in La Push, a small community nestled on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula, facing the open Pacific. These poles were the anchor point for power lines stretching out over the surf, to nearby James Island. Coast Guard Lieutenant Lance Leone looks up at them as we head down to the beach.
“Those are the five towers that, I guess you could say, changed my life forever.”
Changed his life, and ended his career in the Coast Guard.
The surf is crashing through a thick fog on this evening, but the waters were calm and the sky was clear on the morning of July 7th, 2010. Leone and three other Coast Guardsmen were flying north in a Jayhawk helicopter, from Astoria, Oregon to Sitka, Alaska. As they passed through the channel between James Island and the beach where we’re now standing, the chopper hit those electrical wires. Leone first told the story publicly in an interview we did nearly two years ago. He described the chopper breaking apart, and then hitting the water below.
“My shoulders and my knees and my head were just banging around in the cabin for I don’t know how long. It felt very slow motion. But then there was a rapid stop, and that rapid stop quickly became a rapid, liquid stop, and I was underwater, upside-down, in a helicopter.”
He broke free from the cockpit and surfaced, only to find himself covered in fuel, his collarbone broken, and his arms and legs almost useless. Leone set off a flare and waited for help. He was the only survivor of the crash. The three who died included the chopper’s pilot, Lt. Sean Krueger.
“I’d known him since I’d shown up at the academy. I’d known him most of my adult life. And to have him be the one I was flying with that didn’t come up to the surface was very trying.”
Leone was pulled from the ocean by fishermen from the Quileute Tribe … men who witnessed the crash from the La Push Marina, and ran their tiny motorboat out into the debris field.
And that’s why he’s back on this beach today, staring at the water where he floated four years ago, hoping help would arrive.
“As it was leaking through my dry suit, it definitely made an impression on me.”
“The first time I came back, which was three months after the accident … I walked down to the water, and felt it on my wound at the time, which hadn’t fully healed. It felt really good.”
Leone – who was copilot of the chopper – faced military charges of negligent homicide, which were later dismissed. But the Coast Guard made sure he never flew again, assigning him to a desk in San Antonio. Because he’s been denied promotion – and has lost a vigorous fight to get it back – he’ll be out of the Coast Guard by December at the latest.
“I’m not going to be an aircraft commander in the Coast Guard anymore. I’m not going be an admiral in the Coast Guard. I’m not going to be the commandant of the Coast Guard. But all those things are just little paths. But what it has done is it opened a lot of doors.”
One of those doors is an understanding of what it’s like to be on the other side of an accident. We’ve moved to the Marina, just yards away from where Leone was loaded into an ambulance four years ago. He’s here for a reunion with three of the men who rescued him.Darryl Penn, Charlie Sampson and Levi Black say the crash changed them. They don’t want to re-live that day, of course. But they say the accident showed a strong side of their community, and that they were proud of the way their family and friends all reacted when it happened.
Leone, who was 29 at the time of the accident, underwent some counseling after the crash, and dealt with a lot of survivor’s guilt. He always thought problems were something to be erased. But now he feels differently, and he wants to help others understand what he’s learned.
“It’s an interesting little difference. You can’t take away their challenges, because it’s part of their journey, but you help them through. You hold their hand.”
He says he keeps in touch with some of the family members of the men who died in the crash. And he tells his story to anyone who will listen, including Air Force and Army aviators, fire departments, police officers. Leone plans to continue down that path after he leaves the Coast Guard. He’s lining up work as an aviation safety consultant. He doesn’t want anyone to go through what he went through. But he wants those who do experience tragedy to know that it can inform the future in unexpected ways.