THE names of four people killed after a helicopter ditched in the sea off Shetland have been released.
The four killed have been named as Duncan Munro, 46, from Bishop Auckland, 45-year-old Sarah Darnley from Elgin, Gary McCrossan, 59, from Inverness, and George Allison, 57, from Winchester.
A major rescue operation was launched after the Super Puma ditched two miles west of Sumburgh airport at about 6:20pm.
The Coastguard confirmed that 15 people had been rescued from the sea. All had some form of injury varying from “walking wounded”, rescuers said, to what were thought to be more serious injuries.
Medical teams from Aberdeen Royal Infirmary were flown by Sea King helicopter to Lerwick to treat the personnel being admitted to hospital there.
Rescue crews said that visibility was poor with a mist descending on the search area.
One of the men rescued, Sam Smith, described how the helicopter suddenly lost power and there was “no time to brace”, it has been reported.
His mother Amanda Smith told Sky News: “He said (the helicopter) seemed to lose power and there was no time to brace - they just dropped into the sea.
“He was by the window so he was able to escape that way as it rolled over.
“He said he had come off better than a lot of people, were his words.
“It doesn’t seem real.”
Two empty life rafts were located floating in the water close to the downed aircraft. Rescue crews insisted they would continue the search for the missing personnel.
The helicopter was on its way from the Borgsten Dolphin rig operated by the French oil giant Total and Dolphin Drilling.
CHC Helicopters confirmed that its stricken aircraft is a Super Puma L2, the same model of aircraft that crashed in 2009 off the coast of Peterhead with the loss of 16 lives.
An investigation later determined that the cause was a catastrophic gearbox failure.
A different model of Super Puma, the EC225, only resumed flying two weeks ago after being grounded following another ditching off Shetland last year.
Malcolm Craigie, the operations manger of the Lerwick lifeboat, told The Scotsman that the Super Puma vanished from the radar shortly before it was due to land at Sumburgh.
He added that the wreckage was washed inland and found upside down close to the bottom of the cliffs at Fitful Head.
He said: “We got a call just after 6:30pm that the helicopter had been approaching Sumburgh and air traffic control had lost sight of the aircraft on radar just short of the runway.
“We launched the lifeboat and en route we were informed that at that point five persons had been recovered. I don’t know who by. It took the crew about an hour to reach the scene.
“Our crew arrived just about 7:40pm and were alongside the upturned wreckage of the helicopter which was very close into the shore beneath the high cliffs at Fitful Head on the North east side of Sumburgh. They couldn’t get a line on it.”
Jim Nicholson, RNLI rescue co-ordinator, added that the helicopter was in an “inaccessible” position and that the weather in the area was not “particularly good”.
The Coastguard said 15 people were flown to Sumburgh airport by rescue helicopter, with one taken off the flight on a stretcher, and taken to Gilbert Bain Hospital in Lerwick. Eight were “walking wounded”. The conditions of the others were not detailed.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said: “The Coastguard Rescue helicopter based in Shetland, the RAF rescue helicopter from Lossiemouth and two Bond helicopters proceeded to the scene along with the RNLI all-weather lifeboats from Aith and Lerwick.”
Four helicopters were involved in the search for the missing three workers.
Northlink Ferries said it had diverted a ferry and a freight ship to help with the rescue.
“The Scottish Coastguard are in the lead of the operation, but I can confirm that the Hjatland passenger ferry and Helliar freight vessel are providing support”, a spokeswoman said.
The incident is likely to have far wider implications for the oil and gas industry in Scotland and even more so if aircraft are grounded again.
It is the latest in a series of problems with transfer flights between the mainland and oil and gas platforms. Earlier this year, at a summit in Aberdeen it was revealed that the confidence of the vast majority of the offshore workforce in the safety of the North Sea’s helicopter workhorse has been shaken as a result of the two Super Puma ditchings.
Two-thirds of the 1,604 oil workers who took part in an online survey, commissioned by industry body Oil & Gas UK, said their confidence in the safety of the Super Puma EC225 had decreased since the 2012 incidents.
Jake Molloy, the offshore organiser of the RMT union, told The Scotsman that the confidence of the North Sea workforce in the safety of the Super Puma fleet would be “completely shattered” by the latest incident.
“I fear the worst. It’s another Eurocopter helicopter and the L2 was also involved in the fatal crash in 2009”, he said.
“I don’t want to pre-empt what has brought it down because we don’t now what has brought it down. But, given the work that has gone on to try and rebuild confidence, I think you can safely say it is completely shattered now.” He added: “This couldn’t have happened at a worst time.”
Police Scotland was treating the crash as “a major incident”.
Mark McDonald, MSP for Aberdeen Donside, said: “It is sad to see the news of the helicopter ditching. I hope those who are missing are found.”
Oil workers are required to undergo intensive training before they set foot on installations. The course teaches them, using a simulator, how to free themselves from a helicopter that is underwater. Helicopter passengers wear life jackets and have emergency breathing apparatus, which gives them a few extra minutes of air.
The main risk once they have escaped the helicopter is hypothermia, which in the North Sea can set in within minutes in winter.
CHC operates one of the world’s largest civilian networks of search and rescue, emergency medical and humanitarian helicopter services.
The firm states on its website that its aircraft are among the most modern in the world, and that its crews trained to the highest international standard.
CHC said in a statement last night: “We can confirm there were 16 passengers on board, and two crew. The Maritime Coastguard Helicopter from Sumburgh is on the scene, along with other rescue services. Further details will be released when more information becomes available.”
A spokeswoman for Total added: “Total can confirm that a helicopter on contract to the company has been involved in an incident at 6:22pm while flying from its North Sea assets to Sumburgh in Shetland.”
CHC has established a helpline for concerned relatives on 01224 296866.