The only survivor of a deadly helicopter crash that killed 17 off Newfoundland in March said today he regained consciousness as the craft sank quickly into the cold North Atlantic.
Robert Decker said his escape from Cougar Flight 91 was largely due to luck. "There is probably not a good reason," he said in his first public comments on the disaster. "It could just as easily have been someone else who survived."
The 28-year-old speculated that his odds might have been raised by his relative youth and health, his position in the helicopter and sailing experience that meant he knew how to react when thrown into cold water. He also said that offshore survival training could be improved but that the key is the safety of the helicopters themselves.
"I will not be flying offshore any more," Mr. Decker said. "But others continue to do it every day and they deserve to do it safely."
The flight had been normal at the start, the former ice spotter said -- so routine, in fact, that he promptly fell asleep. He did not wake until after the pilots had turned around. The helicopter was below cruising altitude, he realized, but he did not think anything was wrong until he heard the flight crew make an announcement.
"They said there was a major technical problem ... and we were heading for the nearest possible land," he testified.
Passengers were told to do up their survival suits but Mr. Decker said flights being turned back was common.
Events accelerated rapidly. The pilots told passengers to brace themselves, the aircraft began making "erratic motions" and unusual noises. Moments later the pilots said the helicopter was going in.
"Almost as soon as they said ditch the helicopter had crashed," the 28-year-old told an inquiry into the crash. "The next thing I remember is waking up in a submerged helicopter. The helicopter was sinking rapidly."
The helicopter was on its side, Mr. Decker said, meaning a broken-out window was immediately above him. He undid his seatbelt, pulled himself through the window and swam frantically for air. "It was a long ascent, I guess, to the surface. I didn't know how deep the helicopter was," he said. "I could look up and see it was getting brighter and brighter. I guess eventually my hands broke the surface and I could tell I'd survived the helicopter crash."
This is the first account of the last terrifying moments of the flight. Until today Mr. Decker has never spoken publicly about what happened and inquiry staff took special measures to shield him from attention. Media are not allowed to record any images in the building today -- before, during or after his testimony -- and the public area of the room was reserved for the families of those lost in the crash.
Other members of the public were urged to watch his appearance "via Rogers TV, in the first instance, or via the live webcast available at www.oshsi.nl.ca," according to a statement from the inquiry. "Please note that should there be an increased level of activity on the website, there could be issues with viewing the live stream."
The Cougar helicopter was carrying two crew members and 16 workers on a routine run to the offshore oil platforms when a mayday call was issued. With no oil pressure in the main gearbox the helicopter went down within eight minutes, after a failed attempt to reach land. Two passengers ended up outside the wrecked chopper before it sank. Mr. Decker was the only one recovered alive.
He testified today that he surfaced in the icy March waters with severe injuries. He spoke and sang to himself in an attempt to stay alert but became confused, thinking a plane he saw might be able to drop a rope. Eventually another Cougar helicopter hovered overhead and Mr. Decker, being unable to get into the retrieval basket, had a rescue swimmer lowered to assist.
"He was in the water next to me and I think I can recall him saying 'I have to go get another piece of equipment,'" he said. "I didn't know what was happening or what he was going to get but I can remember grabbing him towards the shoulders and saying 'please don't leave me here' and that's really the last thing I can remember seeing."
Mr. Decker, who worked as an ice spotter on an oil rig, said remembers nothing after that.
The inquiry is overseen by retired Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court judge Robert Wells who, at 76, underwent survival training so he could visit the offshore rigs. It will not assign blame for the crash of the Sikorsky S-92 but is seeking to improve offshore worker safety.
Already heard have been submissions from Transport Canada, the Transportation Safety Board and the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, which oversees the offshore industry.