Nfld. & Labrador

Waves of sorrow: Search ends for 16 missing in chopper crash

The search ended Friday evening for 16 people who had been aboard a helicopter that crashed and sank in frigid waters east of Newfoundland.

Transportation Safety Board starts work on recovering sunken helicopter

A Cormorant helicopter and a Maersk supply vessel scan a vast area of the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday in an attempt to locate survivors after a helicopter crashed east of Newfoundland. ((Sgt. Steve Rutt/Canadian Forces))

The search ended Friday evening for 16 people who had been aboard a helicopter that crashed and sank in frigid waters east of Newfoundland, with grim-faced officials saying there was no chance the passengers were still alive.

Aircraft and vessels that had been combing a wide stretch of the ocean were called down at 7:30 p.m. NT in the search for any further survivors of the crash of a Cougar Helicopters aircraft that had been ferrying workers to two platforms in Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore oil industry.

(CBC) ((CBC))

One survivor had been rescued Thursday morning, shortly after the aircraft went down with 18 aboard. One body was recovered Thursday.

Maj. Denis McGuire told reporters the grim news at a news conference late Friday afternoon.

"As of this time, there are no other persons that we've located whatsoever," said McGuire.

"It appears that there are no survivors."

The chopper, which was transporting workers to platforms at the White Rose and Hibernia oilfields, went down minutes after its crew reported mechanical problems.

The matter will be turned over to the Transportation Safety Board and to the RCMP, who will treat it as a missing-persons case, McGuire said.

The TSB said earlier in the day it will begin work on Friday night on a complex effort to find and raise the sunken Sikorsky S-92 chopper, which is beneath about 120 metres of water.

The announcement brought a sad but expected end to two long and trying days that have captivated people in Newfoundland and Labrador.

His face showing resignation and exhaustion, Rick Burt, the general manager of Cougar Helicopters in St. John's, told reporters that the company's main concern in the past two days has been the welfare of the families of the missing.

"We've seen their hearts, and they've expressed as much concern about how we're feeling, if you can imagine," Burt said.

"However, we've just continued to be focused on them, both our employees and our customers' employees, all the people that were on the aircraft. So, it's been a challenging day, but we've come together as a group to support each other."

The crash has drawn an outpouring of sorrow, particularly in communities where residents lost family, friends, neighbours or colleagues.

"We know these people. We've hunted together, we've fished together, hockey, politics," said Don Drew, the mayor of Bay Bulls, south of St. John's, who knew several of those who died, including town resident Derrick Mullowney, a friend since childhood.

"Derrick is a part of our community, a very active part. He's the type of guy everybody knew and it's gonna hit us really hard," Drew told CBC News.

A mayday was issued at 9:40 a.m. NT Thursday as the helicopter crew reported problems, McGuire said. Until Friday morning, search and rescue officials had said the mayday was issued about 30 minutes earlier, with authorities mistakenly calculating Atlantic time as Newfoundland time.

Cougar Helicopters provides shuttle services for crews flying from St. John's to offshore oil platforms. ((Courtesy of Cougar Helicopters))

Authorities said the crew indicated it was "ditching," implying that a controlled crash was planned. The chopper went down about eight minutes later and sank.

Time had been precious in the search, as officials reckoned that the 16 missing people could last about 24 hours in the mandatory survival suits they wore during the flight. 

Military aircraft, coast guard vessels and company ships had been on the scene since Thursday morning.

Three aircraft and four ships had been working on the search on Friday. Overnight searchers had used night-vision goggles.

Indications since Thursday afternoon, however, suggested no new signs that would have led to further rescues.

The cause of the crash is not known, although information posted to a Transport Canada online database indicated that the mayday was called because of a "main gear box oil pressure problem."

Officials, however, maintain there is no definitive word on why the chopper went down.

"We don't have any of that information right now and we can't confirm what may have happened — that would all be speculation," McGuire said Thursday night.

'That chopper went down hard'

Two empty life-rafts were recovered near debris scattered over at least six nautical miles, or about 11 kilometres.

One body was recovered from the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday after a Cougar 911 helicopter crashed not long after reporting mechanical problems. (CBC)

As well, searchers have found no sign of the emergency beacons that each person was carrying in a survival suit. The beacons immediately set themselves off when a "sea switch" comes into contact with water.

Family members and friends had been bracing for the worst.

"Well, they're doing the best they can, but it doesn't look very promising right now," said Harold Mullowney, the brother of Derrick Mullowney.

"It looks like that chopper went down hard and they're probably still in it. We hope they're not," Mullowney said Thursday, when hopes for a rescue were highest.

Mullowney said his brother had a brush with the Ocean Ranger disaster, which lingers prominently in the memories of most people in Newfoundland and Labrador. Derrick Mullowney was off duty when the oil rig, which was exploring for oil on the Grand Banks, sank during a vicious winter storm in 1982, killing all 84 aboard.

The disaster prompted a royal commission of inquiry, which found weak safety measures and recommended a significant overhaul in training and security procedures.