One survivor, one body recovered; 16 still missing after helicopter ditches
The province reeled with shock, but clung to fading hope as searchers continued to scour the North Atlantic overnight Thursday and Friday for survivors after a helicopter ditched in the ocean Thursday morning.
One survivor was rescued at the site, one body was recovered and 16 people were missing.
But Friday evening came and the search and rescue mission became a recovery operation handled by the RCMP and The Transportation Safety Board.
At an evening media briefing, rescue officials deflected questions about what went wrong with Cougar Helicopters flight 91 – focusing instead on hope for the overnight search for survivors. Members of the Canadian Forces used a Cormorant helicopter, a Hercules plane and four vessels.
Crew planned to use night-vision goggles and flares to comb an 11kilometre debris field around the crash site in search of 16 people, who, by regulation, should be wearing survival suits to keep a person alive in the frigid ocean for about 24 hours.
Maj. Denis McGuire, of the Coast Guard’s Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, told reporters “At this time, all we’ve got is the debris field and there is no indications of any survivors.”
“But the search will continue and, obviously, we will hope for the best. ... We’ll continue to search until there is absolutely no chance that survivors can be located. (We’ll search) until the last light (Friday). So that’s well beyond what someone can last in the water.”
There were two Cougar crewmembers aboard, carrying 14 passengers to Husky’s SeaRose production vessel and two workers to the Hibernia platform.
At 9:10 a.m. Thursday, a Cougar Helicopters Sikorsky S-92 shuttling workers to offshore oil platforms called in a mayday. Eight minutes later, it ditched in the ocean about 55 kilometres east of St. John’s.
A Provincial Airlines plane arrived 25 minutes later and dis- covered two people and two empty life rafts bobbing in the threemetre-high seas. The pilot reported seeing the Sikorsky chopper floating upside down in the water.
Shortly after that, a Cougar helicopter arrived and pulled one passenger – Robert Decker of St. John’s – to safety. Mr. Decker is recovering at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, suffering from salt in his lungs, a broken bone and hypothermia.
The Cougar chopper also removed one body. Officials are not releasing any information on the identity.
The survival suits are equipped with personal locator beacons (PLBs) that activate on contact with water. However, they were of no use in this tragedy.
Maj. McGuire reported “There were no signals whatsoever for any of the PLBs. We confirmed that.
“There were no signals received. I can’t speculate on why they would not have worked or what the issue may have been, but we did not receive any signals whatsoever.”
The beacons are designed to work on the surface and not while submerged.
Rick Burt, general manger of Cougar Helicopters, admitted “this is a very difficult time for Cougar, our colleagues, our customers and the families. Our thoughts and prayers are with them at this time.”
According to a Transport Canada aviation database, the pilot of the Sikorsky declared a mayday ‘due to a main gearbox oil pressure problem’. Transport Canada described the information as preliminary, unconfirmed data, which was subject to change.
Mr. Burt and Mike Cunningham of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) wouldn’t comment on the significance of the oil pressure problem Thursday night. Cougar has stressed its safety record in the past.
The company notes on its website it had never had an accident in 10 years of operations – a span of more than 48,500 flight hours.
Mr. Burt said the Sikorsky S-92 is a ‘new generation’aircraft. “This is a young fleet.” Mr. Burt said Cougar had suspended regular offshore opera- tions while the company assesses what happened. Cougar had suspended all flights to the platforms.
Husky Oil had also reduced work on the SeaRose production platform, but said oil production continued.
Husky’s Trevor Pritchard explained “It is the safest way to handle this kind of situation. If you stop production and start production, gas pressure moves up and down. It’s better to leave the facility as it stands.”
Paul Sacuta, president of the Hibernia Management and Development Co. (HMDC), said the two workers bound for the Hibernia platform were contract employees.
“They provide support to us, and in this case they were providing support for our shutdown activities.”
The companies brought in clergy and psychologists, including Glenn Sheppard, to help the families – who were staying at two St. John’s hotels. Police and public relations officials were intervening to prevent media from speaking with family members.
However, Mr. Sheppard has spoken with some.
“People react in different ways, of course, but everyone is fearful. Some people are quite upset. Others are tying to keep their emotions in check. Many are hopeful for good news overnight.
“Also the company spokespeople are being very careful in what they say because they want people to see this as a rescue as opposed to a recovery. That’s important. We are more or less there to comfort them and try to listen and understand. There’s nothing you can say to make this go away, so it’s more of just travelling along with them and being present with them.”
Charles Shewfelt, a representative with the Communications Energy and Paperworkers’union, which represents Hibernia and Terra Nova workers, said the union has been fielding a lot of calls from concerned people, “but we really don’t have any more information (than the media).”
He had spoken with workers at the Terra Nova oilfield who are shaken by the incident. He said the possibility of a crash is something that is always a concern.
“I think it’s always in the back of people’s minds. (We) hoped it would never happen. ... Unfortunately it has happened and it will have to be looked into.”
The chopper is on the ocean floor, under about 400 feet of water. The TSB said it would be possible to recover the helicopter, including its cockpit data recorder, from that depth.
Mr. Cunningham said “We’ve done it before. We’ve got the expertise. We’ll be bringing that in over the next few days. Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you more about that.”
Premier Danny Williams issued a statement expressing, “with a very heavy heart,” his condolences for the passenger confirmed dead.
“We also assure the families of those who remain missing, that the thoughts and prayers of all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are with them during this most difficult time.”
People milled around Cougar’s offices at St. John’s International Airport as news of the crash spread. Security officers guarded the main doors, and the police set up checkpoints at the entrance and exit of the parking lot. Company officials at the nearby Comfort Inn twice briefed family members before the officials met with the media. Hibernia worker Don Squires of St. John’s showed up at the airport when he heard what had happened, to show his concern for his fellow workers.
Squires was scheduled to be offshore, but was in a car accident two weeks ago.
“I’ve been flying back and forth for the past eight years out there. When you hear something like that, it goes to the heart, because over half a year (is) spent out there with these people. They’re like a second family.”
The Hibernia production platform shut down Wednesday for one week of routine maintenance.
Mr. Sacuta said “There was a couple of seats available and we took the seats in order to get people on board for the shutdown. It’s the first incident that I’m aware of in Eastern Canada with a helicopter ditching in the sea.”
St. John’s Telegram