Decker re­counts deadly crash

The Southern Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BY MOIRA BAIRD & ALISHA MOR­RIS­SEY

When the pi­lot of Cougar Flight 491 said “ Brace, brace, brace,” Robert Decker did just that – us­ing both hands to brace him­self against the seat in front of him.

It wasn’t part of his off­shore sur­vival train­ing, but it may have kept some air in his lungs when the he­li­copter plunged into the North At­lantic Mar. 12.? The or­der to brace came shortly af­ter Mr. Decker was shaken awake by an­other passenger.

“I’m not sure of the tim­ing, but it seemed al­most im­me­di­ately.”

‘Brace’ means the pi­lot is go­ing to at­tempt to land.

“That’s the first time I thought some­thing was se­ri­ous.”

Shortly af­ter­ward, the he­li­copter started mak­ing “ re­ally weird mo­tions.”

The call “ Ditch­ing, ditch­ing, ditch­ing” came al­most as the he­li­copter was plung­ing nose-first to­ward the sea.

“Al­most as soon as they said ditch, the he­li­copter lost con­trol.”

Looking out the win­dow, Mr. Decker knew when the he­li­copter was about to hit the wa­ter but has no rec­ol­lec­tion of the im­pact.

“The next thing I could re­mem- ber was wak­ing up in a sub­merged he­li­copter. It was in­stantly filled with wa­ter.

“It was kind of as if it was sink­ing the same way it was drop­ping through the sky.”

Mr. Decker, the sole sur­vivor of that crash, spent Thurs­day morn­ing tes­ti­fy­ing to a packed room at the in­quiry into off­shore he­li­copter safety. Many of those in at­ten­dance were the fam­i­lies of the 17 peo­ple who died aboard Cougar Flight 491 – all on hand to hear Mr. Decker’s first pub­lic ac­count of the tragic crash.

USUAL DAY

Cougar Flight 491 be­gan like any other Mr. Decker had made off­shore in his four years as a weather and ice ob­server for Pro­vin­cial Aero­space aboard off­shore oil rigs and pro­duc­tion plat­forms.

He had been home less than two weeks fol­low­ing a three-week stint off­shore. He was sched­uled to re­turn off­shore Mar. 13, but re­ceived a call on the evening of Mar. 11 to head out a day early.

Mr. Decker ar­rived at the Cougar He­li­copters he­li­port around 8 a.m., about an hour be­fore the sched­uled flight.

“It was a nice, clear sunny day. It was cold, light winds …

ev­ery­thing seemed like a reg­u­lar day.”

He checked in, was weighed, had his bags weighed, his cer­ti­fi­ca­tion to go off­shore was re­viewed and was is­sued a sur­vival suit.

Once the Cougar staff gave the go-ahead, pas­sen­gers donned their sur­vival suits. When the he­li­copter was ready for board­ing, the usual jock­ey­ing for the best seats be­gan.

“Ev­ery­body kind of mus­cles their way to the front of the line … and in sin­gle file line you fol­low a Cougar rep out to the he­li­copter.” The best seats are the sin­gle seats. “You don’t have to sit next to any­one or the aux­il­iary fuel tank.”

On the morn­ing of Mar. 12, Mr. Decker was in a sin­gle seat – the third one back – on the star­board side of the he­li­copter. Like all the pas­sen­gers, he wore a four-point harness seat­belt with a twist-release mech­a­nism.

Shortly af­ter the he­li­copter took off at 9:18 a.m., Mr. Decker fell asleep as he usu­ally did dur­ing his more than 50 flights off­shore. He was awak­ened by an­other passenger.

“When I woke up, I wasn’t ex­actly clear that there was an emer­gency, but I had re­al­ized that we were lower than cruis­ing or fly­ing alti­tude.”

He es­ti­mated they were cruis­ing at about 1,000 feet.

“Ev­ery­thing seemed nor­mal. The sound was nor­mal, the vi­bra­tion level was nor­mal – I mean, at that time, I thought we were still cruis­ing for the rig be­cause I had been asleep for the turn to­wards land.”

Then, the pi­lot an­nounced there was a “ma­jor tech­ni­cal prob­lem,” asked the pas­sen­gers to don their sur­vival suits and said they head­ing for the clos­est land.

“I can re­mem­ber know­ing there was a sig­nif­i­cant is­sue – I’ve never had to don the sur­vival suit on a flight be­fore.”

Mr. Decker pulled up the hood around his head, com­pletely pulled up the zip­per on the front of the suit and tight­ened the wrist seals.

“ Every­one got their suits on quickly.”

The or­der to brace came shortly af­ter­ward. He­li­copter pas­sen­gers are trained to cross their arms across their chest or face to brace for the im­pact of land­ing on wa­ter.

“I grabbed the seat in front of me … with both arms.”

The he­li­copter started mak­ing er­ratic mo­tions and Mr. Decker heard a high-pitched noise and the air­craft dropped. When the noise stopped, the he­li­copter pitched up­wards.

“That hap­pened about twice. I think that’s why I clung to the seat ahead of me … to get some sta­bil­ity.”

Then, came the call “Ditch­ing, ditch­ing, ditch­ing.”

Just as the he­li­copter was about to hit the wa­ter, the nose came up a bit and turned to the star­board side. Mr. Decker said he could feel the he­li­copter ro­tors were still turn­ing.

“It still seemed like the reg­u­lar vi­bra­tion of a fully turn­ing ro­tor – it was mov­ing.”

It was dark un­der­wa­ter, but he was able to see by the wa­ter-ac­ti­vated emer­gency lights on the pas­sen­gers’ sur­vival suits.

“They did emit enough light that I could see in­side the he­li­copter.”

His win­dow was bro­ken out, and so were other win­dows. He said the wa­ter pres­sure in­side the sink­ing he­li­copter made it dif­fi­cult to move his arms, but he man­aged to release his seat­belt.

The sink­ing chop­per was turned on its port side, and Mr. Decker es­caped through his star­board win­dow.

“The win­dow would have been di­rectly above me.”

With his arms raised above his head, he started his long as­cent to the sur­face, mov­ing to­wards light.

“I could look up and I could see it was get­ting brighter and brighter. Even­tu­ally, my arms broke the sur­face.”

He hadn’t any air left in lungs when he reached the sur­face, and at some point he had in­haled sea wa­ter.

“ I re­mem­ber cough­ing a lot. When I first got to sur­face, it seemed like I was still at risk of drown­ing.”

The first thing he did was in­flate his life­jacket – an in­flat­able col­lar de­signed to keep a per­son’s head out of the wa­ter. His hands were too cold to put on the sur­vival suit gloves or pull down the face shield.

“In­stantly I knew I had lost com­plete use of my hands.”

On the sur­face, he tried to get his bear­ings and saw scat­tered he­li­copter de­bris and two in­flated lif­er­afts. They seemed close enough to reach.

He tried to swim to one of them, but was ham­pered by a rup­tured ver­te­brae, bro­ken ster­num and a bro­ken an­kle.

“It kind of seemed like a los­ing bat­tle to keep head­ing for the lif­er­aft.”

The lif­er­afts are equipped with sea an­chors, but they have to be man­u­ally de­ployed.

“I was try­ing to re­main rel­a­tively calm. Ev­ery­thing seemed in­tact, but I could def­i­nitely tell there was wa­ter in my suit and I was very cold.”

Mr. Decker spent over an hour in the frigid North At­lantic, though he wasn’t aware how long he was there. By the time he was hoisted aboard a Cougar He­li­copters search and res­cue chop­per and was flown to hospi­tal, his body tem­per­a­ture was 28 Cel­sius – nine de­grees be­low nor­mal.

He was float­ing on his back when he saw the first plane on the scene, a Pro­vin­cial Aero­space air­craft.

“They were fly­ing re­ally high. I con­tin­ued to wave … I was yelling out and hop­ing that they’d see me.”

They did, tipped their wings and flew so low Mr. Decker could smell the plane’s ex­haust fumes. He talked to him­self, sang to him­self, but as the time wore on he was go­ing into shock.

“The plane kept fly­ing over­head and I was kind of think­ing … ‘maybe there’s a way that that plane could res­cue me.’ I was hop­ing that maybe they can throw some rope out and I can grab onto that rope and they can slow down a lit­tle bit.

“Ob­vi­ously, I wasn’t think­ing very clearly.”

When Cougar He­li­copters ar­rived at 11:03 a.m. – a lit­tle over an hour af­ter the he­li­copter ditched in the ocean – Mr. Decker couldn’t see very well, couldn’t move well and doesn’t re­mem­ber things clearly.

Cougar’s res­cue swim­mer, Ian Wheeler, was low­ered to the wa­ter.

“He was in the wa­ter next to me and I think I can re­call him say­ing ‘I have to get an­other piece of equip­ment.’

Mr. Decker re­mem­bered grab­bing Mr. Wheeler’s shoul­ders and say­ing “Please don’t leave me here.”

Shortly af­ter­ward, Mr. Decker was winched aboard the res­cue he­li­copter.

“I can’t re­mem­ber any­thing af­ter that.”

PHOTOBYJOE­GIBBONS/THETELEGRA­M

Robert Decker, 28, tells his sur­vival story af­ter the Mar. 12 crash of Cougar He­li­copter Flight 491. He’s shown on a tele­vi­sion screen dur­ing a live broad­cast on Rogers TV Thurs­day morn­ing as he answers ques­tions from lawyer Dan Sim­mons at the Jus­tice...

PHOTOBYALI­SHAMORRISS­EY/THETELEGRA­M

Robert Decker (left) the sole sur­vivor of the March crash of Cougar Flight 491, leaves the in­quiry on off­shore he­li­copter safety with his lawyer Dan Sim­mons Thurs­day.

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