As Navy helicopter went down, survivor took stock
NORFOLK, Va. — It took just seconds from the time the crew noticed a problem to the moment the helicopter hit the water.
Too quick to figure out what was wrong. Too quick to try to minimize the impact as the chopper smacked into the ocean and quickly submerged.
Under the surface, Navy helicopter gunner Dylan Boone reached down in the darkness of the sunken fuselage to unlatch his security belt.
He didn't take stock of his injured arm, his head — ripped open — or his torn shoulder. In that silent chaos, Boone took stock of the direction his life had taken — how he'd strayed into bad behavior and everything at home was falling apart.
"Let my wife know that I love her," he prayed, and he swam toward a glimmer of filtered light that guided him up to the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
As he reached air on that frigid January day, it hit him: He needed to turn his life around. He'd been given a second chance to make things right with himself, with his family — and with God.
"I had clarity that Lord, I need to get my life straight and I need to be a better husband and I need to be a better man and a better Christian," Boone told pastor Craig Walker during a videotaped interview at Upward Church in Norfolk. The church posted the 39-minute clip — the first public statement from a crew member since the crash — on its website this weekend.
At 23, Boone, a petty officer second class, was one of the youngest crewmen aboard the MH-53 Sea Dragon that went down off Virginia Beach during training on Jan. 8. He and one other sailor survived. Lt. Sean Christopher Snyder, 39, and Lt. Wesley Van Dorn, 29, both pilots, and crewman Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Collins, 25, died.
Boone wasn't even supposed to fly that day. But temperatures had dropped rapidly below freezing and one of the squadron's crew members at Norfolk Naval Station — a father of four — was stuck at home with burst pipes.
Boone filled in on the routine training mission, which involved searching for underwater mines.
As he surfaced, about 20 miles off Cape Henry, Boone grabbed onto a piece of floating wreckage and realized how badly he was injured. He could barely move his arm. It hurt to breathe. He caught a reflection of himself — his scalp flapping behind him. He'd be lucky to survive.
Uncertain anyone knew they'd gone down, Boone found himself singing worship songs he hadn't heard since his boyhood. He was thankful for the small bit of warmth from the wreckage he was clinging to but knew it wouldn't last long.
Alerted to the crash, another helicopter dropped a raft into the water, but it landed 30 feet away.
The cold was enough to slow down even a strong swimmer. Neither Boone nor the other surviving crewman could get there. He began to give up hope when, seemingly out of nowhere, the raft from the downed helicopter popped to the surface.
At Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, doctors treated Boone for a partially collapsed lung, a torn rotator cuff and an injured arm. It took 200 staples and stitches to sew his scalp back together.
Sitting in front of the Upward Church congregation, a wool cap pulled down over his head, his left arm in a sling and his wife, Sarah, sitting beside him, Boone said that more wrenching than his physical injuries was the recognition that he was spiritually wounded.
"I didn't know if I was going to heaven or hell," he said of that moment when he grappled with death. "It's a tough pill to swallow to be able to say that."
He mourned the deaths of his colleagues: Van Dorn was a man he deployed with, and whom he looked up to for counsel and guidance. Snyder took off on Wednesdays to run his church youth group.
He hardly knew Collins — he'd met him only 72 hours earlier. But that morning, as they prepared for the flight, Collins approached him.
"He came to me and he was like, 'Hey, you know what, man? I don't want you to think I am weird or anything, but I really like you,' " Boone recalled, drawing laughter from the congregation.
"I was like, 'All right, man. You are an odd little fellow but, OK.' You know?" he said to Pastor Craig Walker, a smile pulling at his lips for the first time.
"All right, man," Boone told him. "We'll be friends, then. That's cool."
Boone isn't sure why he survived and they died. He likes to think that they were living their lives right. It inspires him to do the same.
"They are with me right now," he said, "and I am just trying to live my life better."