Lone crash survivor, families seek answers

Tara Bradbury tbradbury@thetelegram.com
Published on November 5, 2011
Robert Decker of St. John’s, a survivor of the Cougar Helicopters crash on March 12, 2009, is taken by stretcher from another Cougar helicopter on the landing pad at the Health Sciences Centre. Decker and 15 of the families have sent three unanswered letters to the federal minister of transportation seeking answers on the crash. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

The families and the lone survivor of the Cougar Helicopters crash in 2009 say Ottawa is ignoring them in their quest for answers.

Robert Decker and the families of 15 of his co-workers, who perished in the crash of the Sikorksy S-92 helicopter, have written a letter to the federal transportation minister, asking for answers relating to the manner in which Transport Canada certified the helicopter’s main gearbox.

They want to know why Canadian regulators didn’t take action after the same model of Sikorsky chopper nearly crashed in Australia. That incident, in July 2008, involved a failure of the same titanium studs that caused the Newfoundland crash eight months later.

It wasn’t until six weeks before the Cougar crash that regulators called for steel studs to be installed within one year or 1,250 flight hours.

Joe Fiorante, the lawyer representing Decker and the families, said this is the third letter they have written to Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities  Denis Lebel, and they have yet to receive a response. A call from The Telegram to Lebel’s office for comment Friday wasn’t returned.

“These families have been devastated by this accident. They are entitled to the courtesy of a response,” the letter to Lebel reads.

“More troubling is the fact that it appears from your silence that you are unwilling to investigate how this helicopter was certified so that the steps necessary to prevent recurrence of this tragedy can be properly identified and implemented.”

Fiorante told The Telegram the families aren’t the only ones with questions — retired Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court Judge Robert Wells, commissioner of the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry, had some of the same concerns in his second-phase report.

“The accident itself and then the Wells commission both point to the fact that there were signs of an obvious safety defect in the transmission of that helicopter and it’s never been adequately explained how our regulator, Transport Canada, missed that,” Fiorante said.

“What (the families) are calling on the minister to do is to investigate how the regulatory system failed. In other words, why the safeguards that are supposed to be in place to protect the flying public didn’t work in this case, and there’s never been an adequate explanation for that. It’s not something that the Transportation Safety Board went into.”

For the families, it’s not as much a matter of closure as a matter of safety, Fiorante said.

“This was obviously a tragic accident, and unless someone looks very deeply into the question as to why the regulatory system failed, we’re not going to find all of the causes and fix them so that this doesn’t happen again,” he said.