Post-crash chronology

Moira Baird
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Seventeen people - 15 offshore workers and two air crew - were killed March 12, 2009, when a Cougar Helicopters Sikorsky S-92A plunged into the ocean 55 kilometres southeast of St. John's.

Robert Decker, the sole survivor of the crash, was hoisted from the ocean by a Cougar search and rescue (SAR) team. The team also recovered the body of another passenger, Allison Maher.

Robert Decker of St. John's, a survivor of the Cougar helicopter crash is taken by stretcher from another Cougar helicopter on the landing pad at the Health Sciences Centre March 12, 2009. - Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Seventeen people - 15 offshore workers and two air crew - were killed March 12, 2009, when a Cougar Helicopters Sikorsky S-92A plunged into the ocean 55 kilometres southeast of St. John's.

Robert Decker, the sole survivor of the crash, was hoisted from the ocean by a Cougar search and rescue (SAR) team. The team also recovered the body of another passenger, Allison Maher.

Here is a chronology of events since the crash.

March 12, 2009 - Helicopter flights offshore are suspended following the crash.

March 13 - The Canadian Coast Guard ends search and rescue operations at 7:30 p.m. for 16 missing people aboard Flight 491. The Transportation Safety Board leads the recovery of the bodies and helicopter, which lies on the seabed under 178 metres of water.

March 16 - Nine bodies are recovered from the wreckage of Flight 491 and brought to St. John's.

March 17 - The Atlantic Osprey arrives in St. John's with the remaining seven bodies along with the helicopter wreckage.

March 18 - More than 1,000 people attend an ecumenical service at the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in memory of the 17 people who died on Flight 491.

March 19 - Premier Danny Williams calls for a review of standards for survival suits. The current standard dates back to 1999. The offshore oil industry says that review is in the works by the Canadian General Standards Board.

March 20 - The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) says it found two broken bolts in the Flight 491 wreckage. Those mounting studs attach the oil filter bowl assembly to the helicopter's main gearbox. Without them, oil can leak out of the gearbox.

March 20 - The offshore regulator, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB), asks oil companies to address concerns raised by offshore workers in June 2008 about their survival suits. (Ensuing fit tests revealed about nine per cent of workers did not have properly fitting survival suits.)

March 23 - The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority grounds all Sikorsky S-92A helicopters in that country until titanium mounting studs are replaced with steel studs. It says the "broken studs resulted in rapid loss of oil." Transport Canada issues a similar directive.

March 26 - The TSB says two broken mounting studs on the oil filter bowl assembly broke off during flight - not on crash impact. Minutes before the crash, Flight 491's pilot reported a loss of oil pressure.

April 8 - An inquiry into offshore helicopter safety is established by the CNLOPB.

April 18 - Retired Newfoundland Supreme Court Justice Robert Wells is appointed inquiry commissioner with a mandate to make helicopter travel safer for offshore workers flying to and from the province's oilfields. His mandate does not include addressing where the Department of National Defence stations its SAR bases.

May 18 - Helicopter flights offshore resume. Those without properly fitting survival suits continue to travel offshore by supply boat. By November, most are fitted with custom or modified survival suits and resume flying. A handful still travel by boat.

June 11 - The survivor of the March 12 crash and the families of the Flight 491 victims launch a lawsuit in a U.S. court against Sikorsky, manufacturer of the S-92A helicopter. It alleges the company made false claims that the helicopter will fly for 30 minutes if oil leaked out of the main gearbox. Flight 491 flew about 10 minutes after losing oil pressure.

July 14 - The lawsuit against Sikorsky is discontinued so both sides can "engage in alternative dispute resolution before further litigation," according to court documents.

Oct. 19 - The Wells Inquiry begins public hearings.

Nov. 5 - Sole crash survivor Robert Decker testifies at the Wells inquiry, describing in vivid detail how he escaped the submerged helicopter and awaited rescue in the frigid ocean. He was hypothermic when rescued. Decker told the inquiry: "I don't think that anyone will ever know why it was that I survived this disaster and the others did not. There probably is no good reason - just luck."

Jan. 5, 2010 - Lawyers confirm the March 12 crash survivor and families of the crash victims settle out of court with S-92A helicopter manufacturer, Sikorsky.

Jan. 12 - Oil companies tell the Wells Inquiry they'll review why it took them nine years to equip offshore workers with underwater breathing devices. They also commit to report their findings to the commissioner.

Feb. 3 - Cougar Helicopters tells the inquiry its dedicated SAR helicopter is contracted by other offshore oil industries in the Northwest Territories and the U.S. to be airborne in 20-30 minutes. In Newfoundland, its SAR team must be airborne in one hour or less.

Feb. 10 - Three families of Flight 491 victims tell the Wells Inquiry the crash was preventable and they call for significant improvements to helicopter safety. One widow says the helicopter mounting studs should have been fixed sooner: "They all died because some people decided that fixing this inexpensive part could wait, and they didn't even bother to inspect those bolts before they left for the offshore."

Feb. 11 - The Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour calls for a separate safety agency for the offshore oil industry - taking that role away from the CNLOPB. Others, including former labour leader Bill Parsons and NDP Leader Lorraine Michael, made similar calls.

Feb. 12 - Inquiry commissioner Robert Wells recommends offshore oil companies provide a dedicated SAR helicopter that can be airborne in 20 minutes. He also recommends a ban on night flights until the SAR helicopter is equipped for nighttime rescues. Both recommendations are accepted by CNLOPB.

Feb. 18 - The CNLOPB's chief safety officer admits the offshore regulator could have done more to speed up the introduction of underwater breathing devices. The board kick-started the process in February 2001 with a letter to the oil companies.

Feb. 18 - The CNLOPB also admits a one-hour wheels-up for SAR services provided by Cougar Helicopters isn't in keeping with Recommendation 56 of the Ocean Ranger inquiry report for full-time SAR in St. John's. The Wells Inquiry wraps up public hearings.

Feb. 19 - The oil companies submit plans to the CNLOPB for carrying out Wells' recommendation for a full-time SAR helicopter in St. John's. They also start a worldwide search for a helicopter to do the job.

March 1 - The offshore oil industry announces it's raising $1.5 million for the Flight 491 Legacy Fund to create scholarships in memory of the 17 people who died in the helicopter crash.

Source: Telegram files

Organizations: Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, Transportation Safety Board, Canadian Coast Guard Wells Inquiry General Standards Board U.S. Federal Aviation Authority Transport Canada Department of National Defence Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour Flight 491 Legacy Fund

Geographic location: St. John's, U.S., Northwest Territories Newfoundland

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