A last-minute change in vacation plans turned into a life-changing event for a Rancho Cordova couple who helped rescue a pilot and a family of four who were in a sightseeing helicopter that crashed Thursday near the USS Arizona Memorial on Oahu.
Juan and Alicia Valerio and their two sons were waiting to see the memorial when a Bell 206 helicopter fell from the sky and sank near the popular tourist destination. An 11-second video of the crash shows the aircraft plunging just offshore, its whirling blades slashing the water’s surface into a froth before lunging sideways and sinking.
Juan Valerio, a 57-year-old Navy veteran, said he noticed the helicopter was flying low, as if the pilot intended to land.
“I thought to myself, ‘Something’s not right,’ ” Valerio said, because the area was packed with tourists and there was no place for the helicopter to safely touch down.
Then he started running toward the chopper because he knew it was about to crash. He dived into the water with all his clothes on, he said.
“The pilot deliberately put it in the water, as close as he could to the shore,” Valerio said. “It was the best he could do.”
By now, “people were popping up like corks” as passengers escaped the sinking craft and other bystanders were jumping in, Valerio said.
“A woman came up screaming that her teenage son was still strapped in his seat,” Valerio said. He grabbed her and using a sidestroke, dragged her to shore.
By now, the helicopter was completely submerged. Someone threw a life ring and a rope to Valerio as other rescuers were taking turns diving at least 10 feet below the surface to cut the trapped teenager free. As some tired, they grabbed the life ring and Valerio pulled them to safety.
Meanwhile, Alicia Valerio, a 45-year-old pediatric intensive-care nurse, had made her way to the shoreline as the last victim, the teenager, was being pulled from the water.
“The kid was as blue as a crayon,” Juan Valerio said, and his wife immediately began CPR. Water gushed from the boy’s mouth and nose with the first violent thrusts on his chest. An ambulance arrived. A faint pulse.
News reports say that the boy and the three other passengers were a family from Canada. They have not been named. The teen went to a hospital and was reported in critical condition. A 50-year-old man and a 45-year-old woman were hospitalized in stable condition, according to local news reports.
Valerio said it was happenstance that his family was there. They had been scheduled to take the memorial shuttle boat later that afternoon but decided to go earlier. After the crash, the rescue and the time it took to clean up – both the Valerios were covered with fuel that leaked from the helicopter – the family missed the boat.
“We didn’t get to see the memorial,” Valerio said. “But maybe we were there earlier for a reason.”