Safety must come first

‘It’s about choice,’ Shearstown woman tells Off­shore He­li­copter safety in­quiry

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BYMOIRA BAIRD

TRANSCONTINENTAL ME­DIA

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?”

Speak­ing up

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

been un­bear­able…”

— 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.”

Pre­ventable

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

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