February 9, 2016
Six Marines died in what Rivera described as a “horrific” crash between a CH-53 Sea Stallion and a CH-46 Sea Knight within 20 minutes of the Sea Stallion’s takeoff.
Joe Rivera, 56 of La Verne, stands next to a picture of himself next to a Marine CH-53 helicopter from the early 1980's. Rivera was the lone survivor of a midair helicopter crash between a CH-53 and CH-46 on February 10, 1981 in Tustin. Six marines were killed in the crash while Rivera suffered a broken back, third degree burns and a multiple of other broken bones and injuries. (Will Lester/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin)LA VERNE
When Joe Rivera saw the white light, he thought he was dead.
And 35 years later, recounting the midair collision of two military helicopters over the Marine Air Station in Tustin at 7:20 p.m. Feb. 10, 1981, he remembered being aflame, his back broken and helicopter parts pinning him down as he hung upside down.
Christian, his 19-year-old son, sat quietly across from Rivera on Monday. Richard Villescas, Joe’s brother-in-law and best friend, slipped onto the sofa beside Rivera and gently rubbed his back as the 56-year-old former Marine hesitated over painful memories.
“It’s time,” Villescas said, looking around at loved ones who’d gathered at the Rivera family home to emotionally fortify the man they called “humble, heroic, generous and kind.”
It was the first time in 35 years that Rivera talked about the 1981 crash that killed six colleagues and almost claimed his life, the grueling and painful treatment and rehabilitative therapy he endured for years afterward and the spiritual faith and people he said repeatedly saved and sustained him.
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