NORFOLK, Va. — About 1,200 sailors in dress-blue uniforms packed an auditorium on Friday to remember three of their colleagues who died after their helicopter crashed in the Atlantic Ocean.
A memorial ceremony was held at Devary Hall on Naval Station Norfolk, where friends, family and co-workers laughed and cried as personal stories about the men were told. Before the ceremony, a slideshow of personal photographs of the victims was displayed on a movie screen showing the men doing things that they loved, such as fishing, hanging out on the beach and smiling with their friends and families at home and during formal events.
Lt. Sean Christopher Snyder, a 39-year-old pilot from Santee, Calif., was recalled as a church youth group leader who joined the Navy at 17, married his childhood sweetheart and became a doting father of four. Those who knew him said his forceful personality melted away anytime he brought up his children. Snyder was a proud San Francisco 49ers fan who liked to hunt, fish and work on his motorcycle when he wasn’t flying, a job that he loved.
“To Sean, it wasn’t just a job. It was who he was,” said Cmdr. Josh Kinnear, executive officer of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 14. “He loved to lead. He loved to serve.”
Navy officials praised the diving and salvage unit that recovered Snyder, who was found in the helicopter’s cockpit several days after the Jan. 8 crash. The other two victims, 25-year-old Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Collins, an aircrewman from Truckee, Calif., and 29-year-old pilot Lt. Wesley Van Dorn of Greensboro, N.C., died after being plucked from the water by rescue helicopters and taken to a hospital.
Two other people were aboard the helicopter when it crashed about 18 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach and were treated and released from a local hospital. One of those survivors wasn’t originally supposed to be on the flight, but volunteered to go on it to help out someone else who had family obligations.
Severely banged up and requiring numerous stitches, that unidentified person told Navy Chaplain Jeffrey Ross that he was glad he was the one on that flight because the person he replaced had small children and he was thankful they didn’t have to see him the way that he looked.
That story was one of many stories told that detailed the selflessness of those aboard the MH-53E Sea Dragon.
Collins was remembered by colleagues as someone with a quiet confidence who always knew the right thing to say or do to put his colleagues at ease. He would organize a game of Frisbee at night with his friends where they used glow sticks for illumination, which his friends recognized was dangerous, but followed along anyway because they appreciated that he wanted everyone to have a good time. He had learned to operate without fear at a young age, skiing in northern California’s mountains years before he was even old enough to enter kindergarten.
Often times he made weird noises just to make others laugh, but was recalled as a family man who wasn’t afraid to tell his friends that he liked to regularly take his mother out on dates. And he never missed a chance to see his beloved wife, Cheyenne, whether she was at work or not. The two had just recently celebrated their first wedding anniversary and bought a house together before the crash.
Van Dorn was remembered for many things, but it was most frequently his ever-present smile. Often, it was his wife, Nicole, and their sons, Jaxton and Maddox, who brought that smile to his face. Friends remembered the Naval Academy graduate as someone who could have a positive impact on everyone around him, telling jokes to lighten the mood. He loved to go fishing, eat cookie dough and sip a slightly lukewarm Coors beer. Known for undertaking grueling workouts, Van Dorn was also known to joke about how many doughnuts and cheeseburgers he would like to eat.
Rear Adm. Troy Shoemaker, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, told reporters that the ceremony was a fitting tribute to the large impact the men had on their families, friends and colleagues.
“The huge number of folks that we saw in there today is just fitting testament to that impact and to their influence on this community,” he said. “In our community we pride ourselves on the camaraderie that goes with our business, and I think it came out in spades today.”
Shoemaker said a salvage unit is working to retrieve the helicopter from the sea so evidence can be turned over to an aviation mishap board to help determine what caused the crash.
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