Decker recounts deadly crash
Robert Decker, 28, the lone survivor of Cougar Helicopter Flight 491 which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean March 12, arrives at the Wells Inquiry on Offshore Helicopter Safety Thursday in St. John's. Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram
When the pilot of Cougar Flight 491 said "Brace, brace, brace," Robert Decker did just that - using both hands to brace himself against the seat in front of him.
It wasn't part of his offshore survival training, but it may have kept some air in his lungs when the helicopter plunged into the North Atlantic on March 12.
The order to brace came shortly after Decker was shaken awake by another passenger.
"I'm not sure of the timing, but it seemed almost immediately," he said. "Brace means the pilot is going to attempt to land.
"That's the first time I thought something was serious. "
Shortly afterward, the helicopter started making "really weird motions."
The call "Ditching, ditching, ditching" came almost as the helicopter was plunging nose-first toward the sea.
"Almost as soon as they said ditch, the helicopter lost control."
Looking out the window, he knew when the helicopter was about to hit the water but has no recollection of the impact.
"The next thing I could remember was waking up in a submerged helicopter. It was instantly filled with water.
"It was kind of as if it was sinking the same way it was dropping through the sky."
Decker, the sole survivor of that crash, spent Thursday morning testifying to a packed room at the inquiry into offshore helicopter safety.
Many of those in attendance were the families of the 17 people who died aboard Cougar Flight 491 - all on hand to hear Decker's first public account of the tragic crash.
Cougar Flight 491 began like any other Decker had made offshore in his four years as a weather and ice observer for Provincial Aerospace aboard offshore oil rigs and production platforms.
Decker had been home less than two weeks following a three-week stint offshore. He was scheduled to return offshore on March 13, but received a call on the evening of March 11 to head out a day early.
He arrived at the Cougar Helicopters heliport around 8 a.m., about an hour before the scheduled flight.
"It was a nice, clear sunny day. It was cold, light winds … everything seemed like a regular day."
He checked in, was weighed, had his bags weighed, his certification to go offshore was reviewed and was issued a survival suit.
Once the Cougar staff gave the go-ahead, passengers donned their survival suits.
When the helicopter was ready for boarding, the usual jockeying for the best seats began.
"Everybody kind of muscles their way to the front of the line … and in single file line you follow a Cougar rep out to the helicopter."
The best seats are the single seats.
"You don't have to sit next to anyone or the auxiliary fuel tank."
On the morning of March 12, Decker was in a single seat - the third one back - on the starboard side of the helicopter.
Like all the passengers, he wore a four-point harness seatbelt with a twist-release mechanism.
Shortly after the helicopter took off at 9:18 a.m., Decker fell asleep as he usually did during his more than 50 flights offshore.
He was awakened by another passenger.
"When I woke up, I wasn't exactly clear that there was an emergency, but I had realized that we were lower than cruising or flying altitude."
He estimated they were cruising at about 1,000 feet.
"Everything seemed normal. The sound was normal, the vibration level was normal - I mean, at that time, I thought we were still cruising for the rig because I had been asleep for the turn towards land."
Then, the pilot announced there was a "major technical problem," asked the passengers to don their survival suits and said they heading for the closest land.
"I can remember knowing there was a significant issue - I've never had to don the survival suit on a flight before."
Decker pulled up the hood around his head, completely pulled up the zipper on the front of the suit and tightened the wrist seals.
"Everyone got their suits on quickly."
The order to brace came shortly afterward.
Helicopter passengers are trained to cross their arms across their chest or face to brace for the impact of landing on water.
"I grabbed the seat in front of me … with both arms."
The helicopter started making erratic motions and Decker heard a high-pitched noise and the aircraft dropped. When the noise stopped, the helicopter pitched upwards.
"That happened about twice," he said. "I think that's why I clung to the seat ahead of me … to get some stability."
Then, came the call "Ditching, ditching, ditching."
Just as the helicopter was about to hit the water, the nose came up a bit and turned to the starboard side. Decker said he could feel the helicopter rotors were still turning.
"It still seemed like the regular vibration of a fully turning rotor - it was moving."
It was dark underwater, but Decker was able to see by the water-activated emergency lights on the passengers' survival suits.
"They did emit enough light that I could see inside the helicopter."
His window was broken out, and so were other windows.
He said the water pressure inside the sinking helicopter made it difficult to move his arms, but he managed to release his seatbelt.
The sinking chopper was turned on its port side, and Decker escaped through the starboard window.
"The window would have been directly above me."
With his arms raised above his head, he started his long ascent to the surface, moving towards light.
"I could look up and I could see it was getting brighter and brighter."
"Eventually, my arms broke the surface."
He hadn't any air left in lungs when he reached the surface, and at some point he had inhaled sea water.
"I remember coughing a lot," he said. "When I first got to surface, it seemed like I was still at risk of drowning."
The first thing he did was inflate his lifejacket - an inflatable collar designed to keep a person's head out of the water.
His hands were too cold to put on the survival suit gloves or pull down the face shield.
"Instantly I knew I had lost complete use of my hands."
On the surface, he tried to get his bearings and saw scattered helicopter debris and two inflated liferafts. They seemed close enough to reach.
He tried to swim to one of them, but was hampered by a ruptured vertebrae, broken sternum and a broken ankle.
"It kind of seemed like a losing battle to keep heading for the liferaft."
The liferafts are equipped with sea anchors, but they have to be manually deployed.
"I was trying to remain relatively calm," he said. "Everything seemed intact, but I could definitely tell there was water in my suit and I was very cold."
Decker spent over an hour in the frigid North Atlantic, though he wasn't aware how long he was there.
By the time he was hoisted aboard a Cougar Helicopters search and rescue chopper and was flown to hospital, his body temperature was 28 Celsius - nine degrees below normal.
He was floating on his back when he saw the first plane on the scene, a Provincial Aerospace aircraft.
"They were flying really high. I continued to wave … I was yelling out and hoping that they'd see me."
They did, tipped their wings and flew so low Decker could smell the plane's exhaust fumes.
He talked to himself, sang to himself, but as the time wore on he was going into shock.
"The plane kept flying overhead and I was kind of thinking … 'maybe there's a way that that plane could rescue me.' I was hoping that maybe they can throw some rope out and I can grab onto that rope and they can slow down a little bit. Obviously, I wasn't thinking very clearly."
When Cougar Helicopters arrived at 11:03 a.m. - a little over an hour after the helicopter ditched in the ocean - Decker couldn't see very well, couldn't move well and doesn't remember things clearly.
Cougar's rescue swimmer, Ian Wheeler, was lowered to the water.
"He was in the water next to me and I think I can recall him saying 'I have to get another piece of equipment.'
Decker remembers grabbing Wheeler's shoulders and saying "Please don't leave me here."
Shortly afterward, Decker was winched aboard the rescue helicopter.
"I can't remember anything after that."