By NEIL RIDDELL
Sixteen people have been killed in the worst helicopter disaster in the North Sea since the Chinook tragedy more than 20 years ago.
A Bond-owned Super Puma helicopter had been on a routine crew change flight taking the 16 workers and contractors back to the mainland from BP’s Miller oil and gas field when it suddenly crashed into the sea around 14 miles off the north-east coast of Scotland in fairly calm weather on Wednesday afternoon.
It is not clear what caused the tragic crash, but a mayday call was made at around 2pm and eyewitness accounts indicate that the helicopter fell suddenly out of the sky, which some in the industry have suggested means there had been a catastrophic mechanical or technical failure.
Eight bodies have been recovered and taken ashore and coastguard vessels were continuing the search yesterday as The Shetland Times went to press, but Grampian police said no-one would have been able to survive in the North Sea for more than a few hours at this time of year and it was now simply a recovery operation. “The grim reality is that the crew of 16 on board has been lost,” said assistant chief constable Colin Menzies.
Police said eight of those on board were from the Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire area, while four others were from elsewhere in Scotland, three from England and Wales and one a foreign national.
It is the worst loss of life in a helicopter disaster in the North Sea since 1986, when the Chinook went down and killed 45 men just two miles from Sumburgh Airport.
Yesterday morning the search had grown to an extensive 30 square nautical miles and at one stage involved between 15-20 merchant vessels, three helicopters, two lifeboats and a Nimrod aircraft. NorthLink’s freight vessel the Hascosay diverted from its Lerwick to Aberdeen sailing yesterday morning to join in the search, before resuming its journey to Aberdeen Harbour.
The Bond Super Puma is the same model of helicopter as the one which ditched 500 yards from an oil platform in the North Sea last month, but was able to land safely on the water with no casualties. It is widely used throughout the industry because it is thought to have a good safety record, with as many as 1,000 civilian operators. The company yesterday decided to ground its fleet of Super Pumas and suspended eight flights, though a Bond spokesman said they retained “every confidence” in the model.
BP said it was temporarily ceasing to use Bond-operated Super Puma helicopters for passenger flights for compassionate reasons, to allow Bond to come to terms with the loss of two of its members of staff, and said alternative arrangements had been put in place to cover its offshore helicopter operations. A BP spokeswoman said: “This is not about confidence in Bond, this is about giving Bond and its staff time to come to terms with their loss.”
Jake Molloy, who is regional organiser for the oil workers’ union, said he feared confidence in the Super Puma model was going to be “irreparably damaged” by two incidents in the space of a few weeks. He said: “I have dealt with a number of concerns from the lads working offshore about this model. Understandably, the guys are worried about their safety and, after two incidents in such a short space of time, are now concerned about flying.”
Isles MP and Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott said the UK government should consider grounding all Super Puma helicopters if they felt it was necessary. He said: “The immediate issue is to re-assure men and women who are asked to fly today, tomorrow and next week. Today, our support is with the emergency services teams – our thoughts, sympathies and our support must be with the loved ones of those who have so tragically lost their lives.”
First Minister Alex Salmond said lessons had to be learned from the incident to ensure that the safety of those working in the North Sea was paramount and that a a public inquiry “will have to be considered” once the full facts are established. Speaking in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, he said: “We are all aware of the economic benefits brought by North Sea oil and gas. Millions, indeed billions of pounds. But we’re equally aware those benefits can come at a dreadful cost in human life. With this latest incident, over 100 crew and passengers have lost their lives in aircraft accidents in the North Sea over the last 30 years.”
Scotland Office minister Jim Murphy said in an emergency statement to Parliament yesterday that the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) had begun an inquiry into the incident. He praised the emergency services for their role in searching for the survivors on what he described as a “tragic day in the North Sea”. Mr Murphy said there had been no indications of a link between the crash on Wednesday and February’s incident involving a Super Puma.
- A full scale emergency was declared at Sumburgh Airport last week when a warning light started flashing in a Super Puma helicopter.
Almost 20 people were on board the aircraft when the incident hapened shortly after 8am on Friday.
The Sumburgh-based search and rescue helicopter was scrambled to escort the Puma, which landed safely without incident.
Fire tenders from Toab and Sandwick attended the scene, along with the police.
The aircraft was later given the all clear by engineers who carried out an inspection.