Nfld. & Labrador

Cougar crash survivor says he was lucky

The sole survivor of a helicopter crash that killed 17 off the coast of Newfoundland this spring says he was lucky to survive the crash and believes that his training as a sailor may have helped.

The sole survivor of a helicopter crash that killed 17 off the coast of Newfoundland this spring says he was lucky to survive the crash and believes that his training as a sailor may have helped.

"I think it was probably luck," said Robert Decker, 28. "I was young, healthy and fit when this happened. Maybe the way I braced against the seat helped. Also, I stayed calm and didn't panic. Many people know I'm a sailor. Many times I've been thrown overboard. I think it may have helped me escape."

Decker said the emergency offshore training he received before the crash was not sufficient.

"It wasn't enough to prepare people. I was lucky. I was near a window. It sank port-side down. I was on the starboard side.

"It could have been someone else who survived instead of me."

Decker remained calm during his testimony but fought back tears when he thanked the Cougar rescue crew that saved him. He urged the inquiry to find ways to improve safety. Family members of those who died were among the 90 people in the room where Decker testified. Some could be heard sobbing as he spoke.

"I will not be flying anymore but others will be and they deserve to do it safely," said Decker.

Decker said there are clearly problems with the immersion suits that passengers wear during helicopter flight offshore.

"These suits fit no one," said Decker. "Joke was one size fits no one."

Earlier Thursday Decker said he doesn't remember the moment the chopper hit the water.

"Next thing I remember, I was waking up in a submerged helicopter," Robert Decker, 28, told an inquiry into helicopter safety being held in St. John's Thursday. "It instantly filled with water. It was dark but you could see the lights of the passengers' suits."

Decker was the only survivor pulled from the Atlantic Ocean after Cougar Flight 491 crashed into the North Atlantic 55 kilometres southeast of St. John's on March 12.

He broke free from the sinking helicopter and struggled to the surface.

"It was a very long ascent to the surface. I could see it was getting brighter and brighter. I got to the surface and I thought, 'I survived a helicopter crash.' I was alarmed that this had happened."

On the surface, he saw debris from the helicopter and two inflated life-rafts.

Losing consciousness

Decker said he saw a fixed wing plane fly low over the crash site.

"I could smell the exhaust."

Decker said he was getting cold and losing consciousness because of the cold water.

He said it prevented him from putting on the gloves and hood of his survival suit.

He recalled a Cougar search-and-rescue crew arriving and a rescue crew member talking to him.

"He spoke with me and said he had to get another piece of gear," said Decker." I remember grabbing him and saying: 'Please don't leave me here,' and that is the last thing I remember."

Hoisted from 3-metre waves

Decker was hoisted out of frigid three-metre waves by a Cougar search-and-rescue crew member and flown to the Health Sciences Centre in St. John's with serious injuries. He stayed there for more than two weeks.

Only one other person, Alison Maher, 26, made it to the surface that day, but she did not survive.

Sixteen other people, flight crew and passengers, dropped 178 metres to the ocean floor inside the wrecked chopper.

Their bodies were later recovered by Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigators using a remotely operated underwater vehicle.

In a statement last Spring, Decker said he did not know what happened to Alison Maher.

Inquiry commisioner Robert Wells, a retired supreme court judge, warned lawyers that Decker didn't want to be asked questions about what happened to others on the helicopter.

He said Decker would speak to family members privately if they wanted to ask him questions.

The wreckage was also raised from the ocean floor for an ongoing TSB investigation. The board is trying to understand what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.

Speaking at the inquiry in late October, TSB official Wendy Tadros said the investigation is months from completion.