Toll from chopper crash off Scotland rises to 16

/ Source: The Associated Press

Police said Thursday that 16 people were killed when a helicopter went down off Scotland's northeast coast, announcing that the search for eight people still missing was now a recovery rather than a rescue operation.

Eight bodies recovered from the sea were brought ashore Thursday morning.

"The grim reality is that the crew of 16 on board has been lost," said Colin Menzies, assistant chief constable of Grampian Police.

The Super Puma helicopter was returning to Aberdeen from a North Sea oil platform when it crashed Wednesday afternoon in calm and sunny conditions, 14 miles (22 kilometers) off Peterhead in northeast Scotland.

BP said the helicopter, carrying 14 oil workers and two helicopter crew, was coming back from the company's Miller oil field.

Operator Bond Offshore Helicopters rejected calls by a trade union for all its Super Pumas to be grounded. The company said it had "every confidence in the Super Puma."

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said two lifeboats and seven other vessels, including ferries and fishing boats, were searching for the missing. Experts from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch were traveling to the scene of the crash on Thursday.

Helicopters have been used to ferry workers to and from the oil and gas fields off the Scottish coast since the construction of platforms there in the 1970s.

Second incident this year
Wednesday's crash was the second such incident in the North Sea this year, both involving the Super Puma. A Super Puma ditched in the North Sea in February, but all 18 people on board were rescued.

In Canada, 17 people died March 12 when a Sikorsky S-92A helicopter ditched in the Atlantic after declaring a mechanical problem. The chopper was carrying workers to two offshore oil platforms.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said a death toll of 16 would make this Britain's second-deadliest helicopter disaster.

The worst was in 1986 when 45 people died after a Chinook crashed into the sea off the Shetland Islands north of Scotland.

Extreme safety precautions
Safety was improved after the Chinook crash, and all offshore workers in the North Sea now have to complete tough training in a crash simulator. All wear survival immersion suits and are equipped with personal beacons and floatation devices.

The Super Puma is fitted with air bags, similar to those in cars, that deploy on contact with the water.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said his thoughts were with the families of those involved.

"It's at times like this we remember the risks and dangers people have to undergo working to meet our energy needs," he told reporters.

Buckingham Palace said in a statement that Queen Elizabeth II has sent a private letter of condolence to the families of the victims.