Tragedy off­shore

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

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