Cougar Helicopters uses the Sikorsky 92A to ferry workers to offshore oil platforms. ((CBC))

Families of victims of the chopper crash off the coast of Newfoundland last spring learned Tuesday that they will have the right to ask questions at a public inquiry into helicopter safety.

The inquiry was called after a Cougar Helicopter ferrying offshore workers to oil platforms crashed March 12, killing 17 people on board. Only one passenger survived.

Speaking in St. John's, inquiry commissioner Robert Wells – a retired Supreme Court judge – said he's aware that the hearings will be difficult for the victims' families.

"A natural death of a family member is one thing. This is something else ... so while it may be hard to appreciate what the families have gone through and are going through … that is in our minds also," he said.

A lawyer representing the families agreed.

"This is a very fresh matter," said Steve Marshall. "This tragedy happened not even 22 weeks ago and here we are already with an inquiry formed."

Marshall's firm is representing the families that are trying to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with the U.S. manufacturer of the helicopter that crashed.

Standing at the inquiry has also been granted to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Board (the agency that regulates the offshore industry), and the provincial government.

Wells has said he won't force the lone survivor of the crash, Robert Decker, to testify at the inquiry.

"He's been through a lot," Wells told reporters Monday. "I won't subpoena him. It's up to him."

Wells said the inquiry's role is not to investigate the cause of the crash or assign blame.

"That's the role of the Transportation Safety Board," said Wells.

He said the inquiry will look for ways to make travelling to offshore oil platforms as safe as possible.

Meetings about standing are expected to continue Wednesday. Testimony at the inquiry is scheduled to begin in October.

The Canadian Transportation Safety Board is responsible for investigating the accident.