The fuselage of a downed helicopter that claimed the lives of 17 is lying on its side on the silt and gravel of the Atlantic Ocean floor, but it is largely intact, investigators said Saturday.
The probe into the crash took a step forward as officials confirmed they found the Sikorsky S-92, owned by Cougar Helicopters, and recovered various debris, which included parts of the chopper and personal belongings.
After wading through deep, murky waters, a remote-controlled camera confirmed they had found the fuselage.
Mike Cunningham, lead investigator with the Transportation Safety Board, said investigators hope that same camera will determine whether any bodies are still inside the helicopter.
“It's certainly quite clear how important it is to [their families]and it's just as important to us,” Mr. Cunningham said.
Police released a partial list of the dead, who represented the white and blue-collar workers from Newfoundland's offshore oil industry. One was a drill hand, another was a medic.
“We see this accident as something that we're all in together,” said Hank Williams, Cougar's base operations manager.
The helicopter crashed Thursday with 18 on board as it ferried workers to two of the province's offshore oil platforms, located about 350 kilometres east of this port city.
The lone survivor, Robert Decker, was in the Health Sciences Centre in St. John's in critical but stable condition.
“We continue to pray for his full recovery and have complete trust in his medical team,” his family said in a statement.
“To the family of Robert's co-workers and friends, you are in our every thought. Since our world changed on Thursday morning, there hasn't been an hour pass or a prayer said that hasn't included you. We feel your loss, we share many of your questions but at this point we have no more answers than you.”
The only body recovered so far was that of Allison Maher, 26, from the small Newfoundland town of Aquaforte.
Investigators are hoping to begin lifting the wreckage on Monday or Tuesday by luring straps through the openings of the fuselage and hoisting it aboard an offshore supply vessel.
“We want to ideally bring everything up in one piece,” Mr. Cunningham said.
Officials said they have recovered pieces of the helicopter, including doors and the interior bulkhead.
The helicopter is believed to be sitting 120 to 150 metres below the ocean's surface.
After the wreckage is pulled from the ocean floor, it will be brought back to St. John's for further investigation.
Investigators would remove the data recorders for a thorough inspection, Mr. Cunningham said.
“We look at everything through a microscope,” he said.
Transport Canada's aviation database had reported the pilot of the helicopter declared a mayday “due to a main gearbox oil pressure problem.”
The gearbox is located on the top of the fuselage under the main rotor head and serves as a link between the engines and transmission.
“It is like many components on an aircraft. It's very important,” said Charles Laurence, another Transportation Safety Board investigator.
“There's no backup system for a gearbox.”
Mr. Cunningham said the gearbox would be examined as the investigation unfolds.
“We totally dissect everything that we can and certainly that is going to be an area that will be examined,” he said.
So far, investigators have retrieved the upper and lower parts of the main entrance door, the aft cargo door and one of the emergency exit doors, which is still intact.
The lower part of the main entrance door was locked, but its upper part was in an open position, Mr. Cunningham said.
All aircraft have been restricted from flying within a 20-kilometre radius of the crash site.