Safety must come first
‘It’s about choice,’ Shearstown woman tells Offshore Helicopter safety inquiry
Wednesday, Feb. 10 was an emotional day as three families told the Wells inquiry how their lives irrevocably changed when their husbands and fathers died March 12, 2009.
The widows of three offshore workers — Sharon Pike of Shearstown, Marilyn Nash and Lori Chynn — also told the inquiry the crash of Flight 491 was preventable.
And they appealed for significant safety improvements in helicopter travel for offshore workers to and from the oilfields.
Seventeen people — including Paul Pike of Shearstown, Burch Nash and John Pelley — died when their helicopter plunged into the ocean 55 kilometres east of St. John’s. There was one survivor.
Sharon Pike’s children, 24-year-old Andrea and 19-year-old Stephen, sat on either side of her as she tearfully spoke of her husband.
“Paul was a very private man who died in a very public way. I would like the public to remember him for the remarkable man that he was and not just as the man who was killed in the helicopter crash of Flight 491,” she said.
“He was a loving and caring man who touched many lives... and was always there when needed. He had a warm smile and a good word for everyone.”
A Shearstown man, who had moved to that CBN community from nearby Spaniard’s Bay, Pike worked for offshore contractor Crosbie Salamis aboard the White Rose production ship.
“Paul would want me to say to the manufacturer of the helicopter, to the operator of the helicopter, and to the oil companies that he did not have to lose his life on the morning of Thursday, March 12, 2009.
“ He did not have to die in such a horrific way.
“If these companies had acted upon the warning they had when the helicopter was forced to land in Australia in July 2008 and fixed the problem with the gearbox immediately, rather than allowing for a time frame of one year or 1,250 flying hours, Paul would be with his children and me today,” she said.
“Commissioner Wells, this inquiry is about safety. We can talk about safety and we can plan for safety, but it’s more than talking and it’s more than planning.
“It’s about choice. And whatever the reason, the wrong choice was made.
“To all the companies, please make the right choices in the future...and do not allow another family to endure the tragedy and the heartache that we have endured and continue to endure.”
She said her family’s “thoughts and prayers” are with each person who travels to the oilfields off Newfoundland.
“ Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than your safety,” Sharon said.
Robbed of happiness
Marilyn Nash, accompanied by daughters Alicia, 21, Allison, 16, and Alexandria, 15, told the inquiry that every family who lost loved ones in the helicopter crash has been “robbed of our happiness.”
Her husband Burch worked for Canship Ugland and Husky Energy, which operates the White Rose oilfield.
A phone call telling her of the crash was the most difficult thing she has ever faced.
“ Telling your children that their dad will not be coming home was absolutely heart-breaking. Just to see the look in their eyes tore my heart out,” she said sobbing.
On a few occasions, she said, Burch returned home saying he felt lucky to get home that day.
“Over the last eight to 10 months of my husband’s life, he began to have reoccurring dreams almost every night. He would never tell me what it was — he just said it was foolishness.”
A few days after his funeral, she found out about those dreams.
“Burch made a comment that he couldn’t stay out all night because he had to go to church, so he could get in with the Lord,” she said. “He told his friends the dream was, he was crashing in a helicopter and drowning, and he wanted to be sure that he would be brought home.
“My heart broke even more, if that was even possible. All I could think was how he had to feel every single time that he stepped on that chopper. He had to wonder if today was the day.
“ I truly believe the minute they turned around that Burch knew this was it, this is the end...the fear must have been unbearable.”
Marilyn told the inquiry the companies that knew of a problem with the helicopter mounting studs should have fixed it sooner.
“ They all died because some people decided that fixing this inexpensive part could wait, and they didn’t even bother to inspect those bolts before they left for the offshore.
“ Wouldn’t you think that knowing there was a problem with the bolts in the gearbox that it would make a point of checking to make sure that everything was OK?”
She also questioned the presence of the auxiliary fuel tank inside the helicopter’s passenger cabin.
“Recently the companies...moved the fuel tanks from one side to the other,” she said. “Doesn’t this still make it very difficult for every person to get out if they had to ditch?”
She said the accident could have been prevented.
“I hope and pray every single day this doesn’t happen again...I would not be shocked if this did happen to someone else again someday — but I pray to God that I’m wrong.”
Alicia Nash told the inquiry she lost her “supporter, protector and my best friend” the day her father died.
“It feels like only yesterday he came into my room to give me a goodbye hug and told me to make him proud.
An engineering systems design student at the Marine Institute, she expects to graduate in June.
“At first, I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right choice, and it wasn’t until I came home one day... and I told him what I was after learning and he looked at me and said ‘ Wow, sis’ — yep, that’s what he called me, sis — ‘I’m so proud of you.’
“And I didn’t have a second thought after that about my career choice until March the 12th... the one person I called my hero was gone.”
She often wonders if any good will come from the tragedy.
“It was mentioned before when we lost 84 lives at sea during the Ocean Ranger disaster that St. John’s, Newfoundland, should require a full-time search and rescue, dedicated helicopter provided by the government or industry — fully equipped to search and rescue standards.
“ So, now after losing another 17 lives at sea, will something along these lines finally be done?”
Lori Chynn, who has attended many of the inquiry hearings since October, said her husband was known for speaking up for what he believed in.
“ John gives me the strength to be here today.”
A paramedic and trauma nurse, he started working offshore in 2002 and three years later became the medic on the White Rose production ship. An avid outdoorsman, salmon fisherman and hunter, he also helped build the couple’s home on the Humber River in Deer Lake.
He played guitar, mandolin and “I truly believe the minute they turned around that Burch knew this was it, this is the end...the fear must have
— Marilyn Nash, wife of helicopter crash victim
Burch Nash banjo, and loved to sing.
“ John enjoyed getting together with others on the SeaRose to jam. One of the greatest moments of his life was Christmas 2008 on the SeaRose when he got to play with one of his heroes, Fergus O’Byrne,” Lori said.
She said her husband had an “aversion to flying,” though he did go on air ambulances as an emergency nurse.
He didn’t talk about offshore helicopter flights at home.
“But he did make it clear that he preferred the 16-to 18-hour boat ride.”
On the day of the crash, Lori received a phone call at work telling her John’s helicopter had gone down.
For two days, she expected her husband would be found alive because of his “training in trauma and response, his extensive medical background, as well as his determined personality.
“My only mental image was John going into crisis-response mode and helping everyone into the liferafts,” she tearfully told the inquiry. “Even with news that the lifeboats were empty, I believed with all my heart, given John’s determination, that he was still alive.
“ The devastation that followed is indescribable... My whole world, as I
knew it, was decimated.”
Lori said she feels in her heart the tragedy was preventable.
She said her husband would not have flown, if he had known about a Jan. 28, 2009, alert service bulletin advising Sikorsky S-92A operators to replace the aircraft’s titanium mounting studs with steel studs on the filter bowl assembly.
“Given John’s aversion (to) flying, I strongly feel that if he was provided with the information regarding the problems with the helicopter studs he would have opted not to fly on Flight 491 on March 12, 2009.”
The bulletin advised the bolts be replaced within 1,250 flight hours or one year, whichever came first. Without the bolts, oil can leak out of the gearbox.
Flight 491’s pilot reported an oilpressure problem less than 10 minutes before the helicopter crashed.
Cougar Helicopters, which flies offshore workers to and from the oilfields off Newfoundland, has testified the bulletin was reviewed, the parts ordered and they started arriving March 13. The studs were replaced after the crash.
“ There needs to be a pro-active approach, not a reactive one. In my opinion, the decision to fly the helicopters before waiting to replace the studs was a reactive tactic — not a pro-active stance.”
She questioned why offshore workers are not provided with the alert service bulletins.
“ I believe that workers have the right to be provided with pertinent information, so they themselves can assess the risk and make informed decisions on managing their own risk.”
She said offshore workers deserve first-class safety.
“For the workers to arrive safely to their offshore destinations, as Mr. Decker so eloquently put it, the helicopters need to stay in the air.”
She said survival suits, underwater breathing devices, and search and rescue are also vital to worker safety.
Godspeed to survivor
All three widows thanked Robert Decker, who told the inquiry in November 2009 how he barely survived the helicopter crash.
“ Robert, my family wishes you a happy, prosperous and, above all, peaceful future filled with all the pleasant things life has to offer,” Sharon Pike said.
“Each and every word was so hard to hear, but I hope he can continue to live a long and happy life,” Marilyn Nash said.
“ His compelling account (of ) March 12, 2009, and his perspective on helicopter safety speaks volumes and must be heard,” Lori Chynn said. “ I wish Mr. Decker a healthy and happy life. Godspeed.”
They also thanked everyone who helped in the days after the crash, including the Atlantic Osprey crew who recovered the bodies from the helicopter wreckage on the seabed.
Sharon Pike also had words of praise for the pilots of Flight 491.
“We know that they did everything humanly possible to bring all passengers on Flight 491 home safely. Please know that my family truly appreciates the heroic efforts of these two fine men.”
Sharon Pike of Shearstown, who lost her 49-year-old husband Paul, testified at the Offshore Helicopter safety inquiry last Wednesday, Feb. 10. She was accompanied by her son Stephen and daughter Andrea (not shown). Pike told the inquiry if the problem with the S92’s gearbox had been taken more seriously following an incident in Australia, the tragic crash might never have happened