MERRITT, N.C. --
During a routine pre-deployment exercise on February 10, 1999, an AH-1W Super Cobra crashed near the Pamlico Sound, about ten miles from Piney Island, N.C.
Search and rescue Marines with Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point’s Marine Transport Squadron 1, “Pedro,” responded to the accident in less than hour, flying in one of their HH-46E rescue helicopters, reports state.
Pedro immediately provided aid to the two stranded Cobra pilots, who were estimated to have been floating in the ice cold water for almost 30 minutes. Reports state the rocket’s aft retainer ring separated from the rocket launcher and struck the rear stabilizer of the helicopter, causing it to lose control.
The two pilots were recovered safely but most of their gear was not, including one of their helmets.
“When the pilot went down, his helmet somehow came off him,” said Bob Fruhling, who possessed the pilot’s lost helmet. A neighbor gave it to him after finding it washed up ashore near his home, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in August 2011. "I don’t think anyone knows what happened to it, or where it’s been since then.”
The neighbor gave the helmet to Fruhling and his wife, Beverly, because he knew they knew the commanding officer of MCAS Cherry Point, Col. Philip J. Zimmerman, and hoped with his help, they could get the helmet back to its rightful owner.
The Fruhlings, residents of Merritt, N.C., got in touch with Zimmerman, and the helmet’s journey back to its owner began. Their starting point was a label inside of the helmet that after all of these years, faintly read the name of the pilot who wore it, Capt. Dennis DeRienzo.
Zimmerman sent his executive officer, Lt. Col. Eric S. Weissberger, to visit the Fruhlings in Merritt to retrieve and see the battered helmet for himself.
“He said that it was amazing that everything was still intact,” Fruhling said of Weissberger. “There is a lithium battery attached to the helmet, and he could not believe it had not exploded after being submerged in salt water.”
After the visit, Weissberger brought the helmet back with him to Cherry Point, with hopes of returning it to DeRienzo, who is now a helicopter pilot for the New York City Police Department.
He contacted one of DeRienzo’s former colleagues, Lt. Col. Travis L. Powers, the executive officer of Pedro.
Powers, with help from other Pedro Marines, mounted the helmet onto a large plaque with DeRienzo’s name on it, and the squadron’s logo. He plans to travel to New York City to return the long lost helmet to its owner.
“I’m excited and grateful to be a part of this,” said Powers. “But I am more grateful that Dennis is still around to give this helmet back to. Too often in accidents like this, there is no happy ending.”