Helicopter carrying 18 ditches in Atlantic

March 12, 2009 6:02:26 PM PDT
Canadian rescuers searched freezing waters for 16 missing people Thursday after a helicopter heading to Atlantic oil fields reported mechanical problems and ditched in the sea off Newfoundland. Of the 18 people aboard, one man was rescued and one body was recovered. Officials said the others were missing about 30 miles out to sea.

There were no signs of more survivors hours after the 8 a.m. EST accident, but rescuers were holding out hope since those aboard were believed to be wearing survival suits, which serve as life preservers and retain body warmth in frigid waters.

"We'll continue to search until there is absolutely no chance that any survivors may be located," said Maj. Denis McGuire of Halifax's Rescue Coordination Center.

The survival window is about 24 hours with the suits and water-activated locator beacons, said McGuire. Correcting an earlier statement, McGuire said there had been no signals from the beacons.

Water temperatures were right at freezing and the ocean was buffeted by strong winds and waves up to nine feet, officials said. Two life rafts were spotted in the water amid debris from the helicopter that was spread over a six-mile area, but rescuers later confirmed they were empty.

Survivor Robert Decker was listed in critical but stable condition at St. John's hospital after being pulled from the water by another helicopter. The center said one body had also been recovered.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families who are anxiously awaiting word on their loved ones," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in Parliament.

The crash came less than a month after a helicopter ferrying oil workers crashed into the North Sea off Scotland. All 18 aboard were rescued from the chilly waters after the aircraft landed upright a few hundred yards from the oil platform and was kept afloat by inflatable bags that deploy when the craft lands on water.

The Canadian S-92 Sikorsky helicopter, described as no more than four years old, had the same safety features when it went down 55 miles southeast of St. John's, the provincial capital, said Rick Burt of Cougar Helicopters, the operator of the aircraft.

The chopper called for help around 8 a.m. EST as it headed to two oil platforms, said Dave Bowen of the rescue center.

"Mechanical problems were reported, but we don't know the nature," Transportation Safety Board of Canada spokeswoman Julie Leroux said.

The pilot had said he would try to turn back to St. John's, Burt added.

The crew of a Provincial Airlines aircraft flying over the area reported seeing the craft floating upside down a few minutes after the crash.

The Hibernia oil platform is located about 200 miles east of St. John's. The helicopter had also planned to visit the nearby SeaRose oil platform.

Newfoundland's waters were the scene of tragedy in February 1982 when 84 people perished when a huge oil drilling rig, the Ocean Ranger, tipped over and sank in a storm with 70-foot-tall waves.

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Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.

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