Nfld. & Labrador

No signals from locator beacons in crashed helicopter: officials

Hours after a helicopter carrying offshore oil workers crashed into the Atlantic Ocean southeast of St. John's, officials have still not received any locator signals from the beacons attached to survival suits the people aboard were wearing.
A Sikorsky S92 helicopter flown by Cougar Helicopters crashed Thursday morning while en route to the White Rose and Hibernia oilfields. ((Cougar Helicopters))

Hours after a helicopter carrying offshore oil workers crashed into the Atlantic Ocean southeast of St. John's, officials have still not received any locator signals from the beacons attached to survival suits the people aboard were wearing.

A search and rescue operation will continue throughout the night for the 16 people still missing, out of a total 18 who were on board when the Cougar Helicopters chopper went down Thursday off Newfoundland, officials said during a news conference.

(CBC)

"At this time, all we’ve got is the debris field. No indications of any survivors, but the search will continue, and obviously, we’ll hope for the best," said Maj. Denis McGuire, a spokesman for the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax.

One man, Robert Decker, was recovered alive from the area where the Sikorsky S92 chopper crashed.

Searchers also brought back the body of one person killed in the crash to St. John's. No further details were released. Two empty life-rafts were also found near the crash site.

The helicopter was heading to two offshore oilfields. At about 9:18 a.m. NT, or 7:48 a.m. ET, its crew issued a mayday and an alert about technical problems, saying there was a main gearbox oil-pressure problem and requesting clearance to return to St. John's.

The Transportation Safety Board said the helicopter, which had turned back to St. John's after issuing the mayday, crashed into the water within 10 minutes of the mayday signal. The crash is believed to have occurred about 30 nautical miles, or about 55 kilometres, east-southeast of Newfoundland.

McGuire also said that so far, there were "no signals, whatsoever from any of the [beacons]."

"I cannot speculate on why they wouldn’t have worked or what the issues may have been, but we did not receive any signals," he said.

The low-power beacons are designed to work when people are on the surface of the water, officials said. All passengers and crew must wear a survival suit before they board a helicopter. Authorities said a healthy adult wearing a survival suit could be expected to live for about 24 hours in the frigid Atlantic waters. 

From left to right, Maj. Denis McGuire of the Search and Rescue Co-ordination Centre, Rick Burt, general manager of Cougar Helicopters and Trevor Pritchard of Husky Energy speak at a press conference regarding the helicopter crash in the North Atlantic. ((Paul Daly/Canadian Press))

Decker was listed in critical condition in hospital in St. John's. A source told CBC News he had aspirated sea water and was being treated in intensive care for hypothermia and a broken bone.

Earlier Thursday afternoon, officials in St. John's were unable to say how many people survived after the helicopter, which 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.

"This is a very difficult time for Cougar, our colleagues, our customers and their families," said Burt, who was visibly shaken during two afternoon briefings with journalists.

The crash is the first time a helicopter carrying offshore oil workers has gone down since oil was first pumped on the Grand Banks in 1997. The choppers are essentially shuttles for workers coming on and off shift, and are familiar sights in the skies of St. John's.

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.

In 1982, the then-developing industry was rocked when 84 men died when the Ocean Ranger, a drilling rig that was exploring for oil in the Grand Banks, sank during a winter storm.

Worried relatives gather at family centre

Passengers aboard the Cougar were largely working at the White Rose offshore oilfield, southeast of St. John's. Two were stationed at the nearby Hibernia platform. Two of the people aboard the helicopter worked directly for Cougar Helicopters.

Calgary-based Husky, the operator of the White Rose project, and Hibernia Management both said they are assisting with the search and rescue effort.

Another chopper, also operated by Cougar Helicopters, arrived at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John's at noon with Decker, who was rushed into the hospital on a stretcher.

Hopes had been high earlier in the day for a larger, immediate rescue. Eastern Health told CBC News that it had cleared its emergency rooms to prepare for what it described as patients who are critically ill and hypothermic.

However, officials later told ambulances that had been waiting near a helipad that they were not needed for the time being.

A family centre has been set up at the Comfort Inn next to the headquarters of Cougar Helicopters at St. John's airport. Worried relatives could be seen walking back and forth between the two buildings, while other people sat in their vehicles in the parking lot, listening to news reports on the radio and talking on cell phones.

Joe Delaney said he's concerned for his nephew, who went out on a flight this morning.

"He was here yesterday, got bumped off his flight, ended up coming back again this morning," he said. "So we're uncertain now as to where it stands."

High winds reported

High winds were reported as aircraft — including a military plane and two Cormorant helicopters — were dispatched to the scene.

The coast guard 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.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams described the crash as a "terrible tragedy off of our shores."

"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," Williams said in a statement.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking during question period on Thursday, said he had called 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."

Flights to Hibernia platform suspended

Meanwhile, crews that arrived 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.

Having made regular shuttles to the Hibernia platform since 1997, Strickland said safety is a priority. He has such confidence 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.