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A helicopter carrying four people over the U.S. Virgin Islands crashed on Feb. 15, killing all on board including a well-known local pilot celebrated for flying humanitarian missions in the wake of two devastating 2017 hurricanes.
The silver-and-yellow Bell 206 was registered to St. Thomas-based sightseeing and charter outfit Caribbean Buzz Helicopters and piloted by owner Maria Rodriguez, who had two-and-a-half decades of flying experience and was well versed in the rugged Virgin Islands terrain.
Three members of a family who likewise called St. Thomas home were also killed in the crash, according to multiple sources. Why the helicopter crashed in deep vegetation atop one of the island’s steep volcanic mountains is unknown.
Local emergency officials received calls of heavy smoke from the area on Monday afternoon but took more than a day to hack through the thick hillside jungle where the wreckage was located.
The helicopter went down near the Preserve at Botany Bay resort community on the west end of the Caribbean island. Caribbean Buzz confirmed Rodriguez’s death and their ownership of the helicopter that crashed in a Feb. 18 Instagram post.
“Rodriguez was extensively familiar with the aircraft, area, and flight-related conditions,” Caribbean Buzz said in the prepared statement. “She is survived by her husband and two children.”
“We, at Caribbean Buzz Helicopters, are devastated by this accident and the subsequent loss of life,” the company said. “Extensive research will be needed to learn exactly what caused it. Right now, we are focused on supporting the families of those lost. Out of respect for the privacy of the family of the passengers on-board during the accident, we cannot provide any further details at this time.”
No less tragic is the loss of Tyler Yannone, a senior at the Antilles School on St. Thomas, and his parents Daniel Yannone and Neisha Zahn. The St. Thomas Reformed Church, where the family were members, confirmed their deaths in a post on Facebook.
The school also posted a message on Facebook mourning the loss of Yannone and explaining that both Rodriguez’s son and daughter graduated from the school.
“Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with each family member and loved one affected by this devastating loss,” the school said in a statement.
Rising precipitously from the shoreline, the U.S. Virgin Islands, like their British-owned neighbors, sport ridges of rainforest-covered rock that draw tourists and are part of the reason Caribbean Buzz did such a brisk business there. Navigating winding, often poorly maintained roads to resorts and private residences at their pinnacles can be hazardous and time consuming.