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Helicopter Crash Trial Date Set

Two damaged stage three compressor blades examined by investigators. (Photo courtesy NTSB)

The suit filed by families of those killed in a horrific St. Thomas helicopter crash against engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce could go to trial in early June 2025, according to court records.

The February 2021 disaster killed passengers Daniel Yanonne, Neisha Zahn, their son Tyler Yannone, and pilot Maria Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, flying for her business, Caribbean Buzz Helicopters, took the family on an aerial tour of western St. Thomas in a Bell 206B helicopter. Eyewitnesses saw a puff of smoke before the helicopter plunged from the sky on Feb. 15, 2021.

Lawyers representing the families allege defective engine parts caused an in-flight malfunction. In late January, National Transportation Safety Administration officials released their report on the crash, saying a “total loss of engine power” was caused by faulty compressor blades in the engine.

The civil lawsuit was moved out of the Virgin Islands to the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division. On May 23, Judge Karen Gren Scholer ordered both sides to sit down with a mediator — in person or through video conference — at least three months before the proposed June 2025 trial to see if an agreement could be reached out of court.

In autumn 2024, both sides are scheduled to introduce expert witnesses, with most evidence due in the case by late January 2025.

The NTSA report early this year confirmed Rodriguez did not have intoxicating drugs or alcohol in her system when the helicopter went down. It also detailed the Bell 206B-III helicopter’s age and history, its maintenance records, and debris found at the charred crash site.

The report highlighted the flight path, meant to be a 17-minute sightseeing tour, as the helicopter flew over St. Thomas’ west end to when it went down on a sunny day with light east winds of 12 knots.

Mobile phone video recorded by a witness as the helicopter flew near his house was also described in the report. Just after 3 p.m., a puff of dark-colored smoke came from the vicinity of the engine compartment, and the nose of the aircraft suddenly twisted left, then right before it descended into the steep, heavily wooded terrain, the report states.

The helicopter was visible in 14 seconds of the 24-second video, according to the report. The puff of smoke appeared 6.2 seconds into the video while the helicopter was moving at roughly 39 knots. It slowed to 30 knots for 2.5 seconds, then began to rapidly fall, moving at 68 knots before disappearing behind tall vegetation. Investigators estimated it hit the ground, landing skids first less than 2 seconds later.

The helicopter burst into flames upon impact in the steep, remote and heavily wooded area about 375 feet above sea level, according to the report.

It took a host of first responders — Emergency Medical Services, St. Thomas Rescue, V.I. Police, the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, and the Port Authority Fire and Rescue Division — to cut through the bush with chainsaws to reach the site, and two days to recover all of the victims, Fire Director Daryl George reported at the time.

Investigators from the NTSB combed the crash site for two days then moved the debris to Cyril E. King Airport for further examination on Feb. 20, 2021.

The highly technical report lists in detail the condition of the 1981-built helicopter’s parts: its propulsion and rotor systems, compressors, cockpit controls, engine and fuel systems, and more.

From late February to May 2021, the Materials Engineering Department at Rolls-Royce examined the aircraft’s compressor section, power turbine shaft, and compressor turbine shaft in microscopic detail in Indianapolis. Rolls-Royce’s 111-page report noted two broken blades in the aircraft’s compressor rotor. NTSB investigators found the impeller inducer, a part that sucks in air during flight, had likely been damaged by ingesting a hard object.

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