A helicopter carrying 14 people, including two Americans, crashed in the Baltic Sea off the Estonian coast Wednesday, and all aboard were believed killed.
The U.S.-made Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, operated by Finnish firm Copterline, was on a commercial flight from the Estonian capital, Tallinn, to Helsinki, Finland, when it went down in strong winds shortly after takeoff near the island of Naissaar, about three miles off the coast, officials said.
Pictures from an unmanned underwater robot sent to the wreckage on the seabed, some 160 feet underwater, showed bodies inside, rescue spokesman Aivar Murikse said.
“It seems like everybody is inside,” Murikse said. He said the hull was nearly intact, but the front windows were shattered and the cabin was filled with water. “Probably they died at the impact moment,” he added.
Divers would try to recover the bodies Thursday, officials said.
Kairi Leivo, a spokeswoman at the Estonian Embassy in Helsinki, said the two pilots were Finns and the passengers included six Finns, four Estonians and two U.S. citizens. Their names were not released.
Bill Davnie, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, said he didn’t know the identities of the Americans but all embassy personnel and members of a U.S. team participating in world athletics championships in Helsinki were accounted for.
U.S. officials said the National Transport Safety Board would provide assistance to Estonian and Finnish investigators.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but a storm in the area caused operators to cancel ferries between Tallinn and Helsinki and wind speeds of more than 45 mph were recorded on the Baltic Sea.
However, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Jaana Aduson said wind speeds at the time and place of the crash were only 14 mph. She said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash.
Copterline managing director Kari Ljungberg said the pilots were experienced and well-trained.
Ljungberg said the company had no information about the cause of the accident, but said that the weather was not to blame and that the helicopter flew at a “normal height.”
Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said there was no hope of finding anyone alive and Finnish Interior Minister Kari Rajamaki sent condolences to the families of the victims.
The helicopter disappeared from radar screens at Tallinn’s air traffic control a few minutes after taking off from the city’s harbor at 12:40 p.m., said Tonis Lepp, a senior Copterline pilot.
Two bangs heard
Pilot boat skipper Mati Ojase told Estonia’s Kanal2 television he heard two bangs before seeing the helicopter nosediving into the sea, the Baltic News Service reported. He said there was no fire or smoke.
When rescuers arrived, the tail section was sticking out of the water while the rest of the aircraft was submerged, said Mati Raidma, head of the Estonian rescue service. The helicopter then sank, leaving only scattered debris floating.
Copterline has operated commercial helicopter flights across the 50-mile Gulf of Finland since 2000 without any previous accidents. The crossing takes about 18 minutes.
Last year, Finnish aviation authorities temporarily banned the company from flying helicopters in bad weather due to inexperienced pilots. The restriction was lifted after the company made necessary changes to flying policy.