Five years ago the people of the province, going about their regular morning matters, heard the news that the morning of March 12 was going to be anything but routine. A helicopter had crashed into the ocean with 18 people aboard.
The crash would have only one survivor.
Since then it has been an often-told story. The occurrences of that morning have been repeated by journalists, lawyers, safety experts and, most importantly, loved ones of the victims. The facts were memorized, but were difficult to speak of.
“In some ways it’s hard to believe it’s five years. Sometimes it feels like yesterday. Sometimes it feels like 20 years ago,” says St. John’s Coun. Danny Breen, brother of Peter Breen, who was on Cougar Flight 491.
As March rolls around each year, Breen says, there is an anticipation in knowing the anniversary is close.
As significant times click off on the clock today, Breen says he will remember where he was and what he was learning. In those early hours he still thought there would be a positive outcome. He remembers noticing ambulances that were on deck for when the survivors were brought ashore weren’t rushing to the scene of their arrival. A particularly hard moment when the life rafts were found floating on the ocean’s surface, empty.
The helicopter had turned around to head back to St. John’s after the pilot radioed in news of an oil pressure drop in its gearbox. A mayday was received about 9:40 a.m. and the pilot ditched the aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean about 10 minutes later. A nearby Provincial Airlines flight was on the scene in minutes. It reported seeing the Sikorsky chopper floating upside down and two people in the water.
About an hour and 15 minutes after ditching lone survivor, Robert Decker, was taken from the water.
Once the bodies of the people still inside the helicopter were recovered and the chopper was brought up, the long road of recovery began for the family and friends of those who had been lost. The arduous task of an inquiry began for many others.
Justice Robert Wells led an Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry, held at the request of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB). The result was a series of recommendations to improve offshore safety.
Harold Mullowney’s brother, Derrick, was on the helicopter that day.
“It doesn’t get old. It’s still with you everyday,” he says.
Safety in the offshore has probably improved over the five years, Mullowney says, but he believes the risks have increased. One of the recommendations made by Wells, that of an independent, stand-alone safety regulator to help improve safety conditions in the industry, is very important to Mullowney.
“Unless the political will is there to act upon them, they will remain recommendations,” he says.
As the industry starts to look further and further for more oil, Mullowney says, safety measures put in place must match the risks being taken. Otherwise, Cougar 491 won’t be the only offshore helicopter tragedy anniversary the province will have to mark.
“The next one is going to be in a much more difficult situation, I’m sure,” he says.
Those lost in the crash are: John Pelley, Matthew Davis, Corey Eddy, Tim Lanouette, Thomas Anwyll, Peter Breen, Gary Corbett, Wade Drake, Wade Duggan, Colin Henley, Ken MacRae, Derrick Mullowney, Burch Nash, Paul Pike, Allison Maher, Keith Escott and Gregory Morris.