Officials have confirmed that a fifth person on the manifest for a helicopter flight over St. Thomas was not aboard the aircraft when it crashed Monday afternoon, killing the pilot and three passengers.
While territorial officials have not yet released the names of the four victims, their identities were becoming widely known as the community mourned their loss Tuesday.
Part-time St. John resident and country superstar Kenny Chesney was among those expressing grief for pilot Maria Rodriguez. Chesney shared pictures of them flying together and of Rodriguez sitting upside down in a worn wicker chair — the same chair featured on his platinum selling 2005 album “Be as You Are (Songs From an Old Blue Chair)”.
“I have to say a very hard goodbye to my friend Maria Rodriguez in the Virgin Islands,” Chesney tweeted Monday.
“She was a dear friend to me and to our island community. I have been flying with Maria for over 15 years and we shared a lot of laughs and a lot of life together. She was always the first person I saw when I landed and the last person I said goodbye to when I would leave island. I’m sure going to miss that.”
In 2017, Rodriguez, the co-owner of Caribbean Buzz Helicopters and Caribbean Buzz Management, was named Helicopter Association International’s Appareo Pilot of the Year in recognition for her contributions to relief efforts following hurricanes Irma and Maria. She was the first woman in at least a decade to win the award.
Following Irma, Rodriguez walked first from a shelter to her home, then walked two hours to reach the airport, then took to the air. She would fly relief missions for 28 straight days.
“It’s a normal response when you have a disaster,” she said. “You go out and assist. Especially when you can get to remote areas that no one else will get to.”
In addition to Chesney, Rodriguez had flown many other celebrities including former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.
A lifelong St. Thomas resident, she had 25 years of experience piloting helicopters, according to a statement released by Caribbean Buzz late Tuesday confirming her death.
She is survived by her husband and two children.
In addition to Rodriguez, the helicopter’s passengers, Tyler Yannone and his parents Daniel Yannone and Neisha Zahn were also being mourned Tuesday.
Antilles School, where Tyler was a senior, called off classes holding instead online sessions for students and faculty to share their grief and receive counseling.
“Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with each family member and loved one affected by this devastating loss,” Antilles Communications Director Ananta Pancham wrote in a statement released Tuesday night.
In addition to Tyler’s attendance at the school, Rodriguez’s children had attended Antilles in the past.
St. Thomas Reformed Church Pastor Rev. Jeffrey Neevel posted a photo the Yannones on the church’s Facebook page, sharing a happier memory of “this incredibly faithful, generous, loving family.”
“He and his parents Daniel and Neisha belonged and served this church and community in countless, unselfish ways; friends to so many,” Neevel wrote.
On this eve of Ash Wednesday, where we remember our mortality, I ask you all to join our faith community in prayer for Daniel, Neisha, Tyler and Maria (beloved pilot who many called “friend.”)
Funeral services are pending for the Yannone family according to Hurley Funeral Home.
“We know where this journey ends. It is my only comfort…” Neevel said.
“We are devastated by this accident and the subsequent loss of life,” said Caribbean Buzz Helicopters Manager, Charlotte Van Heurck, in a prepared statement. “Extensive research will be needed to learn exactly what caused the accident. Right now, we are focused on supporting the families of those lost.”
Rodriguez “was extensively familiar with the aircraft, area, and flight-related conditions,” Van Heurck said.
As for an official identification of the victims, V.I. Police spokesman Toby Derima deferred questions to the Fire Service and V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency. VITEMA spokesman Erik Ackerman said he was not yet authorized to confirm the identification of the victims.
“We are waiting for the Medical Examiner and the VIPD and Department of Justice to get those names to us,” said V.I. Fire Service Director Daryl George Sr.
George said a press conference is planned for today.
V.I. Justice Department spokeswoman Sandra Goomansingh responded to questions from The Daily News just before 7 p.m. Tuesday and said in an email that Medical Examiner Dr. Francisco Landron “will be performing the autopsy of all four victims of the crash, he will at that time confirm the identity.”
The crash occurred at around 3:15 p.m. Monday in Botany Bay, and emergency responders from a variety of local and federal agencies were on the scene within minutes.
Eye witnesses said the helicopter dropped quickly and crashed into the bush, and rescuers fought through dense brush to reach the downed aircraft.
There were no survivors.
As of 8:30 p.m. Monday night George said rescuers were still searching for a fifth victim, but confirmed later that only four people had been aboard the helicopter when it crashed.
Government House Communications Director Richard Motta Jr. said during the weekly COVID-19 update Tuesday that a fifth person had been listed on the flight manifest, but did not board the helicopter, and confirmed that the pilot and three passengers were deceased.
“This is an unimaginable loss for the families and friends of the victims and we continue to keep them in our prayers in this most difficult time,” Motta said.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transport Safety Board are investigating the crash.