A helicopter carrying offshore oil workers crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, in Canada’s easternmost province of Newfoundland (photo, from bbc.co.uk). One man, Robert Decker, was recovered alive, but two life-rafts were found empty near the place of the crash, said a search and rescue official on Thursday.
The Cougar Helicopters chopper went down with 18 people aboard, after issuing a mayday and an alert about technical problems at about 9:18 NT, or 7:48 a.m. ET.
After issuing the mayday, the helicopter turned back to St John’s, capital of Newfoundland, and crashed into the water about 37 minutes later, said the Transportation Safety Board. The crash is believed to have occurred about 87 kilometres east-southeast of Newfoundland.
One dead person was brought back to St John’s by searchers. No further details were released.
Listed in critical condition in hospital in St John’s, Mr Decker has aspirated sea water and is being treated in intensive care for hypothermia and a broken bone, a source told CBC News.
Lt. David Bowen, a Halifax-based official with military search and rescue, said search are trying to remain optimistic, even though the helicopter has sunk beneath the surface.
“This is a search and rescue mission”, he told CBC News.
“No set end time”
Thursday afternoon, officials in St. John’s were unable to say how many of the 18 people survived the crash. The helicopter was heading to two offshore oilfields, ditched into the ocean.
“We only have one person at this point”, Rick Burt, general manager of Cougar Helicopters, told reporters in St. John’s.
Officials are being cautious about the fate of the passengers aboard the helicopter, a Sikorsky S92 known as Cougar 911, said Denis McGuire, who works with the search and rescue co-ordination centre.
He told reporters : “We do not have any indication that anyone was in the life-raft.”
Speaking with reporters in Halifax, Maj. Paul Doucette, said authorities believe the crew aboard the Cougar were wearing survival suits.
“That improves the chances quite considerably”, he said.
“We don’t have a set end time .… They’re going as long as they can possibly go.”
If wearing a survival suit, a healthy adult could be expected to live for about 24 hours in the frigid Atlantic waters, said authorities.
It is the first time a helicopter has gone down in Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil industry.
The death of 84 men rocked the then-developing industry in 1982, when the Ocean Ranger, a drilling rig that was exploring for oil in the Grand Banks, sank during a winter storm.
Crew aboard Cougar 911 were largely working at the White Rose offshore oilfield, southeast of St. John’s. Two were stationed at the nearby Hibernia platform. And two of the people aboard the helicopter worked directly for Cougar Helicopters (photo, from cbc.ca).
Calgary-based Husky, the operator of the White Rose project, and Hibernia Management both said they are assisting with the search and rescue effort.
At noon, another chopper, also operated by Cougar Helicopters, arrived at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s with Mr Decker. He was rushed into the hospital on a stretcher. That helicopter had arrived on the scene within 45 minutes of its departure.
Earlier in the day, hopes had been high for a larger, immediate rescue. Emergency rooms had been cleared in Eastern Health, in order to prepare for what it described as patients who are critically ill and hypothermic.
But later, officials told ambulances that had been waiting near a helipad that they were not needed for the time being.
Two persons had been spotted in the water, Mr Bowen earlier told CBC News.
Julie Leroux, an official with the Transportation Safety Board, said the helicopter’s crew reported mechanical problems, but they did not know the nature of those problems.
As aircraft, including a military place and two Cormorant helicopters, were dispatched to the scene, high winds were reported.
The coast guard has also sent one of its ships, and companies active in the offshore oil industry have joined the effort. A supply ship was also en route to the scene.
Danny Williams, Newfoundland and Labrador premier, said the crash was a “terrible tragedy off of our shores”.
In a statement he said : “We are a seafaring people who have for centuries lived from the sea, people risking their lives every day to provide for their families and contribute to this province. And yet, we will never, ever be able to accept the loss of precious lives to the sea.”
Speaking during question period on Thursday, Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, said he had called Mr Williams earlier in the day.
“I know all of us in this chamber want to share our thoughts and prayers with the families who are anxiously awaiting word on their loved ones.”
In the meantime, crews arriving at Cougar’s base, near the main terminal at the St. John’s airport, were told they could not be ferried offshore on Thursday morning.
“All of a sudden, we saw the cameras and police”, said Rick Strickland, a steward aboard the Hibernia platform, describing the scene as he learned his transport to the Hibernia platform had been suspended.
Safety is a priority, said Mr Strickland, who has made regular shuttles to the Hibernia platform since 1997. Yet he has such assurance in the helicopters and their crew that he usually sleeps during the flights, which take between 75 and 90 minutes.
“It doesn’t scare me as such, no. [But] it always crosses your mind at some point”, he said.
Though Cougar 911 usually flies crews to and from the Hibernia platform, about 315 kilometres southeast of St. John’s, and St. John’s International Airport, on Thursday it was working with a crew stationed at the floating Sea Rose platform, at the White Rose field.