Local Soldier Survives crash that killed 10

June 10 2006 Buffalo News

Pfc. Nick Pilozzi celebrated his 19th birthday Sunday at a small, sim­ple Flag Day ceremony at GatewayPark on the North Tonawanda side of theErie Canal. He almost didn’t make it back from Afghanistan to mark the two oc­casions.

The baby-faced soldier from the City of Tonawanda believes that his grandfather’s prayer book arid grandmother’s rosary, which he had made a habit of keeping inside his Kevlar, may have had something to do with his miraculous survival.

 “I think they helped me out that night,” Pilozzi told The Buffalo News.

 Pilozzi was the sole survivor of a May. 5 helicopter accident in Kunar province of Afghanistan.  Ten other soldiers, including three close friends of Pilozzi’s, were killed when the CH-47 Chinook tumbled down the side of a cliff and exploded into flames.  Among the dead was another son of Western New York, Staff Sgt. Christopher T. Howick, 34, of Hamburg, who was a member of the helicopter crew.  Pilozzi, back in Tonawanda on his two-week leave, recounted the accident that claimed his com­rades’ lives.  It was night as members of Pi­lozzi’s unit, the 71st Cavalry Regi­ment, based at Fort Drum, wrapped up a lengthy mission dubbed Operation Mountain Lion, east of Abad, Afghanistan.  They were being extracted – or ”X-filled” in military parlance from the mission site and were loading up a Chinook helicopter with their gear.  

“I hopped on with my pack, a big green pack, got off and then back on,” Pilozzi recalled.”  

Three fellow soldiers from his unit – Spc. Justin L. ODonohoe of San Diego, Spc. David N. Tim­mons Jr. of Lewisville, N.C., and Pfc. Brian M. Moquin Jr. of Worcester, Mass. – were all busy packing more gear.

 That’s when Pilozzi noticed something odd. ”I felt [the helicopter] lift up in the air about six feet,:’ he said.       

He’s not sure why, but Pilozzi instinctively jumped out the back of the helicopter, badly banging up his right knee and smashing his upper lip.           

“The rotor blades were sheared off on the trees,” he recounted. ‘The engines throttled down, and it went down the side  of a cliff.  

Pilozzi watched in horror as the Chinook burst into flames as  it crashed down the side of the cliff, tumbling nearly all the way a down the 7,500-foot high em­bankment.  

“I watched it,” he said, his voice growing soft. ”1 saw one of  my buddies fall back into [the he­licopter.]  

Pilozzi grabbed his M-16 and raced down the mountain with other members of his unit.  

They knew there was no chance their fellow soldiers would survive the horrific accident, but that wasn’t going to mean they were going to leave them there.  

They made us promise,” he said. ”Dead or alive, we’ll get you out of there. 

Pilozzi carried his friends remains out of the wreckage. He was there as their flag-draped coffins were loaded into a plane to be shipped back to the United States for burial. He was also there when they paid tribute to all 10 at a memorial service in Afghanistan where their M-16s, helmets and dog tags were lined up in a row.

Pilozzi said he can’t close his eyes now without thinking of the accident, of the horrific sounds, the sight of the roaring fire and billowing smoke, that claimed his friends.  

He noted that all three of his friends who were lost that day, were engaged to be married. Tim­mons was a quiet and generous young man with an extraordinary selection of music on his Ipod., Moquin, known as “Boston,” was ”the life of the party,” Pilozzi said. And O’Donohoe, “Odie,” was , “extremely smart,” and ‘although he had inherited a great deal of money and didn’t have any fian­chal incentive to join the Army, he did so anyway. ‘They were my buddies,” he , said of them. Pilozzi, whose uncle is the Mayor of the City of Tonawanda, returned to Buffalo on Friday for his two-week leave.  

The first thing he did was to hug his mother.  

He’s now looking forward to enjoying her famous lasagna, his father’s meatballs and homemade red sauce and spending some quality time with his friends and family. At the Flag Ceremony on Sunday, Pilozzi paid tribute to his buddies and the seven others who perished that day.  

He told the small crowd that had gathered on the bank of the canal that, in the fiery wreckage of the helicopter, he and other soldiers who helped in the recovery efforts that day made a remark­able find.  

“Everything was burned to pieces,” Pilozzi said. “But in the middle was an American flag.” The flag had apparently been kept in the roof lining of the Chi­nook.  

A choir gathered at the cere­mony site on the bank of the ca­nal sang ”Let There Be Peace on Earth” as Pilozzi gently placed a bouquet of red, white and yellow carnations into the water.  

The choir then led the crowd in a round of “Happy Birthday” for Pilozzi, who smiled bashfully. After the ceremony, Pilozzi made a request of those Ameri­cans who aren’t in combat  

”We lost some good soldiers that day,” Pilozzi said. “Don’t for­get, we still have got soldiers over there fighting.”

 e-mail: mhecker@bujJnews.com  

 

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Published in: on July 13, 2006 at 12:37 am  Leave a Comment  

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