‘Better communication may have saved lives’

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A survivor of last year’s fatal helicopter crash off Sumburgh says better pre-flight communi­cation over emergency breathing equipment may have helped save some of those who died in the tragedy.

Stuart Mathers was travelling in a Super Puma L2 when it struck the water off Sum­burgh in August last year.

The 38-year-old from Dundee says passen­gers were unaware their life jackets were fitted with an “oxygen charge” which could have proved to be a vital survival tool while they were submerged.

He said he had given up hope of surviving the sudden crash when the aircraft ditched with 18 people onboard.

The accident has been the subject of an inquiry by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee, which has been sitting in Aberdeen to hear evidence from those involved in the offshore industry.

On Wednesday the crew of a Super Puma carrying 14 passengers sparked an alert after calling for help near Sumburgh.

Last week a special bulletin was issued by the Air Accident Investigation Branch which highlighted an undertaking by helicopter operators to amend safety briefings.

The crash, which happened on 23rd August, cost the lives of four people. Sarah Darnley, 45, from Elgin, Gary McCrossan, 59, from Inverness, Duncan Munro, 46, from Bishop Auckland, and George Allison, 57, from Winchester, all died in the tragedy.

Stuart Mathers.

Stuart Mathers.

Mr Mathers told The Shetland Times: “The life jackets we were wearing had an oxygen charge that nobody knew about.

“The briefing we watched prior to boarding the chopper did not inform us that we were in fact wearing this vital piece of equipment. That would definitely have made my exper­ience a lot less traumatic and I’m sure it would have saved others had they known about this lifeline.”

Mr Mathers attended this week’s inquiry in Aberdeen with fellow passenger Martin Tosh, who told his side of the story to The Shet­land Times when the incident hap­pened.

“Me and Martin attended that public inquiry in Aberdeen University on Monday hoping that we would get some answers on that,” said Mr Mathers.

“It was the first question that [chairwoman] Louise Ellman asked the panel, and not one of them had an answer of why we weren’t made aware of the [oxygen charges in the] jackets we were wearing.”

Mr Mathers said the life jackets worn in the aircraft had subsequently been tested by air accident investigators. The tests, he said, showed “every one” of the life jackets worked well, but the oxygen charges had not been used.

“None of us knew about it. Paul Hannon [of the AAIB] … said they had tested all the jackets as well. He couldn’t understand why they had not been used.

“When he asked me if I was aware of the oxygen charge I said, ‘no’. We’ve never had a briefing that says we have that in our vests.

“When I was told we were all wearing these vests and it had oxygen there I broke down. I felt like just collapsing.

“I gave up my life [on the helicopter]. I couldn’t find a way out, and there was no air to breathe. I believe I was one of the last ones out. When I came out of the chopper there was everybody in the water. I couldn’t believe the amount of people that were in the water.”

Mr Mathers backed calls made this week for a full public inquiry to be carried out into the crash.

“I believe it has to be done,” he said. “There’s been a break in the chain somewhere.”

He praised Mr Tosh for keeping him awake in the life raft after the incident.

“When I was in the raft I think I was going unconscious and he kept me awake. He kept slapping me to keep me awake. I was losing consciousness, and I can’t commend him enough for that.”

The AAIB report highlights three types of EBS in use:

• Compressed air systems, which are similar in design to a small breathing apparatus cylinder with a mouthpiece.

• Rebreather systems, which allow the user to rebreathe the air contained in their lungs by expelling a breath into a bag prior to entering the water.

• Hybrid systems, consisting of a rebreather system with a cylinder of compressed gas that provides a small initial inflation charge of air into the bag that can be supplemented with the user’s breath.

The special report cites the Life jacket Air pocket Plus (LAP) as one example of a hybrid system. The LAP has been widely adopted for use by UK North Sea operators.

The AAIB says that in 60 per cent of all helicopter ditchings the aircraft has inverted or sunk either straight away or after only a short delay.

“A capsize often occurred before evacuation of the occupants could be completed. Emergency breathing systems were developed to allow helicopter occupants to breathe underwater for a short period of time.

“The EBS can bridge the gap between the maximum breath-hold time of an occupant and the time required to complete an underwater escape, thereby increasing the chances of survival.”

It adds: “The pre-flight safety briefing material has been reviewed by the AAIB as part of its ongoing investigation.

“This has identified that the briefing material does not include fully representative information about the EBS.

“It does not highlight that the EBS provided may be a hybrid rebreather containing an air supply which is discharged automatically into the rebreather bag, or that the system can be used even if the wearer has not taken a breath before becoming submerged.

“Incomplete information in the pre-flight safety briefing material may give passengers the false impression that hybrid rebreathers such as the widely used LAP system are only of benefit if the user has taken a breath prior to becoming submerged.

“Knowledge that hybrid rebreathers contain their own supply of air may therefore influence a passenger’s decision on whether or not to use the EBS in an emergency situation.”

The report says the AAIB has approached oil and gas helicopter operators whose passengers are equiped with EBS.

“The operators have undertaken to amend their pre-flight briefing material to include information that hte hybrid system contains its own air supply which is discharged automatically, making the system usable even if the wearer has not taken a breath before becoming submerged.”

About Ryan Taylor

Ryan Taylor is a reporter at The Shetland Times

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