While awaiting official confirmation of the four local people who died tragically on Monday in a helicopter crash near Botany Bay, St. Thomians were subdued and sorrowfully sharing memories of and experiences they had with the individuals they lost.
Maria Rodriguez, a well-known and highly regarded helicopter pilot, was outwardly very different than business owner Daniel Yannone. But on the inside, the two could have been twins.
Giving, compassionate, successful, exacting, generous, loyal and a little ambitious, but in the very best sense, were traits shared by both.
Yannone moved under the radar, unobtrusively building a business that, according to his clients, ran with exceptional efficiency, providing an essential service as a customs brokerage firm in a community where almost everything is shipped in.
Yannone’s wife, Neisha Zahn, was even quieter and more subdued than her husband, and equally business savvy. As a long-term Sunday school teacher at the St. Thomas Reformed Church, “She was super quiet and super faithful,” said Rev. Jeffrey Neevel, who was a close friend of both Yannone and Zahn.
But, he said, “She took leadership well.” For nine years Zahn was a director and treasurer on the church consistory. “And she was as generous as Daniel was,” Neevel said.
She also owned a store in Havensight, Nola’s, that brought her flair for fashion and accessories to visitors and locals alike.
Yannone’s generosity took on the same tone as his demeanor – understated. And that is the way he wanted it.
Checks were written without question to help those in various stages of need and hopping on planes to accompany people going to the States for medical treatment are among the many, many acts of kindness that he would be uncomfortable seeing in print.
“Daniel was not trying to be generous; he just was,” Neevel said. And the couple, he added, “were generous with each other as well.”
As devoted parents, they raised a son who Neevel said displayed the same leadership and kindness qualities as his parents.
“I think Tyler had already been accepted to aviation school,” said a close friend of the family whose daughter grew up with Tyler, who asked not to be identified. “My daughter said, ‘this isn’t supposed to happen; we are supposed to go to college.’”
Tyler had indeed been accepted to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “He was really excited,” said Ananta Pancham, who served as his advisor at Antilles School.
Aeronautical interests also bound the two families that lost members this week.
It is fair to say that Rodriguez was an aviation rock star, transporting the famous as well as the not so famous, safely and with great elan from island to island, showcasing the beauty of the Virgin Islands that was her home.
But Rodriguez did much more than that. In 2018, Rodriguez was awarded the Helicopter Association International Pilot of the Year award for her efforts following the two back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes that struck the Virgin Islands in the fall of 2017.
A story about the award in the AINOnline aviation newsletter stated, “During the first storm, the pilot left her shelter and ventured two hours on a bicycle to reach her hangar at the local airport. Her helicopters were unscathed, and she immediately began flying support missions.” The story goes on, “During Hurricane Maria, Rodriguez moved her helicopters to a reinforced hangar in Puerto Rico and returned to the U.S. Virgin Islands to fly support missions after the storm had passed.”
Rodriguez piloted presidents and celebrities. Songwriter Kenny Chesney, who has a home on St. John, took to social and other media earlier this week to talk about Rodriguez.
“She was always the first person I saw when I landed and the last person I said goodbye to when I would leave [the] island,” he added. “I’m sure going to miss that.”
It was her life’s dream to fly. In a Source profile from 2012, Rodriguez, who went through five years of rigorous training as a rescue mission specialist picking up drones that the Navy used in its training maneuvers off the coast of Vieques, articulated what being a female pilot in a male-dominated field meant.
“We’d land on aircraft carriers,” she said. “I think I’m the first female helicopter pilot to land on a destroyer.”
Despite her high-profile career and public bravery, Rodriguez was also suspected of carrying out many more private kindnesses in the community.
Rodriguez’s brother, Enrique Rodriguez, said on Wednesday, “She was a superwoman, mother, daughter, sister and friend. Loyal like no other.” And so much more, he said.
Her loyalty was widespread and well known.
A northside St. Thomas resident who had provided shelter to her son Madison for quarantining in the fall when he returned to the island with his wife, Mo, said, “Maria was here with Madison, Mo and Nick [Maria’s husband Nick Van Heurck] on Sunday [Valentine’s Day] bringing me a card and chocolates.” Choking back a sob, he said, “We were talking about the house they were planning on building,” just down the street.
Meanwhile, a blue trampoline marks the spot on Tropaco point that held their dreams. A few weeks ago, this reporter, while walking in the area, was invited to join a group that was joyfully bouncing up and down on it. I declined. I wish now I hadn’t.
Editor’s note: Maria Rodriguez and Nick Van Heurck’s daughter Charlotte Van Heurck also resides on St. Thomas where she is the manager of Caribbean Buzz, the company her parents founded.