Union calls for safety changes to help work­ers sur­vive next chop­per crash

Cape Breton Post - - CLASSIFIED -

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. (CP) — There will be a next time: that’s the fear of many New­found­land off­shore work­ers haunted by the crash of Cougar Flight 491, a union spokesman told an in­quiry Tues­day.

Brian Mur­phy, a lo­cal vi­cepres­i­dent of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, En­ergy and Paper­work­ers Union, called for bet­ter emer­gency re­sponse and train­ing to in­crease the chances of sur­vival if an­other he­li­copter falls from the sky.

“ There’s go­ing to be a next time. That’s the way we feel about it,” he told the in­quiry into off­shore he­li­copter safety.

“ When 491 hap­pened, too many of us said, ’Law of aver­ages. It was bound to hap­pen,”’ Mur­phy said. “It was over­due.

“ We were dis­ap­pointed and we were dis­heart­ened and we were sad. But we weren’t ex­actly sur­prised.”

Mur­phy and two other union spokes­men rep­re­sent­ing about 700 off­shore work­ers at the Hiber­nia and Terra Nova sites tes­ti­fied Tues­day.

They de­scribed a cor­po­rate cul­ture in which work­ers’ con­cerns about ill-fit­ting sur­vival suits, a lack of un­der­wa­ter breath­ing de­vices and he­li­copter in­ci­dents went unan­swered or were given short shrift — some­times for years.

There have been im­prove­ments since Cougar Flight 491, but the union is call­ing for more re­al­is­tic train­ing and open com­mu­ni­ca­tion, among other changes.

Three fam­ily mem­bers of those who were killed last year are to tes­tify Wed­nes­day.

The in­quiry was called af­ter the Cougar chop­per plunged into the sea about 60 kilo­me­tres east of St. John’s last March 12, killing 17 of 18 peo­ple aboard. Its goal is to en­sure off­shore he­li­copter travel is as safe as pos­si­ble.

Mur­phy said work­ers who travel more than 300 kilo­me­tres to three off­shore sites shouldn’t have to ride next to an aux­il­iary fuel tank in the passenger cabin.

Robert Decker, the sole sur­vivor of the Cougar dis­as­ter, told the in­quiry in Novem­ber that he sus­pects a large tank on the left side of the cabin would have com­pli­cated any es­cape from the fastsink­ing he­li­copter. It was lo­cated be­tween dou­ble seats and the win­dows.

Mur­phy said fuel tanks should be at­tached out­side the passenger cabin.

Sec­onds count in a catas­tro­phe, he stressed.

“It’s un­com­fort­able to even talk about. But if I’m in a sit­u­a­tion where I’m in that air­frame and it’s in the wa­ter and it’s up­side down and I’m strug­gling for sur­vival to get out, I don’t want any­thing in my way — any­thing that doesn’t have to be there.”

The Canada-New­found­land and Labrador Off­shore Petroleum Board, which reg­u­lates oil ac­tiv­ity, has ruled that he­li­copter travel is in­her­ently risky and that fuel tanks in the passenger cabin don’t in­crease that haz­ard.

Mur­phy also wants any chop­per that turns back to shore for tech­ni­cal prob­lems to be con­sid­ered a “po­ten­tial ditch­ing” that trig­gers a search and res­cue re­sponse.

He again called for a 24-hour mil­i­tary search and res­cue chop­per to be based in St. John’s — as the union and op­po­si­tion MPs have be­fore.

Ul­ti­mately, Mur­phy said he doesn’t care if res­cue is of­fered by the mil­i­tary or the off­shore oil op­er­a­tors. Those com­pa­nies con­tract backup emer­gency ser­vices from Cougar, but there is no fully ded­i­cated search and res­cue he­li­copter in St. John’s, the clos­est base to the oil sites.

“If in a con­trolled ditch­ing ... we sur­vive the ditch­ing, and if we get out of the air­craft and now we’re bob­bing around out there in the wa­ter in God knows what con­di­tion, I just want to get out of that right now,” Mur­phy said. “I want to go home.”

Mil­i­tary search and res­cue Cor­morants are based in Gan­der in cen­tral New­found­land. Na­tional De­fence of­fi­cials have re­peat­edly said that’s the best lo­ca­tion to serve the en­tire re­gion.

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