17 July 2002

Eleven feared dead after helicopter crashes into North Sea

By Paul Peachey

Five people died and six more are missing after a helicopter carrying offshore workers plunged into the North Sea last night close to an oil rig off the East Anglian coast.

The Sikorsky S-76 went down last night while shuttling Shell workers between a gas platform and an oil rig, 25 miles north-east of Great Yarmouth.

The rescue operaation was scaled down this morning after hopes faded of finding the missing rig workers alive. The effort was instead concentrated on locating the ditched helicopter on the seabed in which the six bodies are thought to be trapped.

Rescue boats were launched from nearby rigs and quickly recovered five bodies and took them to the Sante Fe Monarch rig.

The RAF rescue centre at Kinloss said there was no sign of the helicopter, which is fitted with a device designed to keep it afloat if it ditches.

The cause of the crash is not yet clear, the head of Shell UK said today.

Clive Mather, chairman of Shell UK, told reporters: "It's a tragic morning. The situation remains much the same.

"We've recovered five bodies which were found very shortly after the helicopter went down.

"The search has carried on throughout the night and we're still looking for the six remaining passengers.

"We simply don't know what happened. All we can say at the moment is that it is just a terrible accident.

He confirmed that people working on a platform witnessed the crash. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has begun an investigation into the tragedy.

Experts said the crash, which happened in good flying conditions with visibility of about five miles, was unusual as fatal accidents involving helicopters in the North Sea normally happened in bad weather.

Possible causes could have been mechanical failure, causing the pilot to lose control of the aircraft, which has a good safety record and is well-maintained.

Reports suggested that most of the casualties were from East Anglia with some also from Scotland and Cleveland but Shell UK was unable to confirm this.

Mr Mather did say, however, that two Bristow pilots, three Shell staff, three AMEC staff, two AMEC sub-contractors and one person from Oilfield Medical Services were on board.

The passengers would all have been wearing survival suits, designed to help them stay afloat and protect them from the cold. They also have electronic devices that emita signal. However, no signals were heard from the missing men, said Flight Sergeant Alan Frendo-Cumbo, assistant controller at RAF Kinloss.

He said: "The water conditions are on their side. Survival times in those suits would be very good. We'll continue searching for as long as it takes."

The Cromer lifeboat, an RAF Sea King from Wattisham in Suffolk, and oil rig emergency craft searched throughout the night in the area in the Leman field which Shell jointly operates with Exxon-Mobil. Other vessels nearby joined the search. Hospitals were put on standby.

There was no indication what caused the crash in good weather conditions, minutes after it took off from the platform in the Clipper gas field. Bristow Helicopters, based in Redhill, Surrey, was employed by Shell to run the shuttle service. It operates more than 120 aircraft and specialises in moving offshore workers between rigs.

The company has established an emergency control centre in Lowestoft, Suffolk.