Union calls for safety changes to help N.L. workers survive next chopper crash

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - There will be a next time: that's the fear of many Newfoundland offshore workers haunted by the crash of Cougar Flight 491, a union spokesman told an inquiry Tuesday.
Brian Murphy, a local vice-president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, called for better emergency response and training to increase the chances of survival if another helicopter falls from the sky.
"There's going to be a next time. That's the way we feel about it," he told the inquiry into offshore helicopter safety.
"When 491 happened, too many of us said, 'Law of averages. It was bound to happen,"' Murphy said. "It was overdue.
"We were disappointed and we were disheartened and we were sad. But we weren't exactly surprised."
Murphy and two other union spokesmen representing about 700 offshore workers at the Hibernia and Terra Nova sites testified Tuesday.
They described a corporate culture in which workers' concerns about ill-fitting survival suits, a lack of underwater breathing devices and helicopter incidents went unanswered or were given short shrift - sometimes for years.
There have been improvements since Cougar Flight 491, but the union is calling for more realistic training and open communication, among other changes.
Three family members of those who were killed last year are to testify Wednesday.
The inquiry was called after the Cougar chopper plunged into the sea about 60 kilometres east of St. John's last March 12, killing 17 of 18 people aboard. Its goal is to ensure offshore helicopter travel is as safe as possible.
Murphy said workers who travel more than 300 kilometres to three offshore sites shouldn't have to ride next to an auxiliary fuel tank in the passenger cabin.
Robert Decker, the sole survivor of the Cougar disaster, told the inquiry in November that he suspects a large tank on the left side of the cabin would have complicated any escape from the fast-sinking helicopter. It was located between double seats and the windows.
Murphy said fuel tanks should be attached outside the passenger cabin.
Seconds count in a catastrophe, he stressed.
"It's uncomfortable to even talk about. But if I'm in a situation where I'm in that airframe and it's in the water and it's upside down and I'm struggling for survival to get out, I don't want anything in my way - anything that doesn't have to be there."
The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, which regulates oil activity, has ruled that helicopter travel is inherently risky and that fuel tanks in the passenger cabin don't increase that hazard.
Murphy also wants any chopper that turns back to shore for technical problems to be considered a "potential ditching" that triggers a search and rescue response.
He again called for a 24-hour military search and rescue chopper to be based in St. John's - as the union and opposition MPs have before.
Ultimately, Murphy said he doesn't care if rescue is offered by the military or the offshore oil operators. Those companies contract backup emergency services from Cougar, but there is no fully dedicated search and rescue helicopter in St. John's, the closest base to the oil sites.
"If in a controlled ditching ... we survive the ditching, and if we get out of the aircraft and now we're bobbing around out there in the water in God knows what condition, I just want to get out of that right now," Murphy said. "I want to go home."
Military search and rescue Cormorants are based in Gander in central Newfoundland. National Defence officials have repeatedly said that's the best location to serve the entire region.
The Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the Cougar crash.
It's not within the mandate of inquiry commissioner Robert Wells to lay blame or wade into intense debate over where military search and rescue services should be stationed.
Murphy praised the "selfless efforts" of the Cougar backup rescue crews that responded to the scene. They rushed to save Decker because every military chopper was out of the province on training in Nova Scotia that day.
It took the Cougar crew about 45 minutes to equip the helicopter with a rescue winch before it could race to Decker's aid. By the time he was plucked from the frigid water, he had been losing body heat for about 75 minutes in a leaking survival suit and was severely hypothermic.
Decker's ordeal shook the faith of many workers in the equipment they depend on to save their lives, said the union leaders.
Murphy said every minute a crash survivor spends in the water is too long.
Current military response times of 30 minutes to two hours pale in comparison to what offshore workers in other parts of the world can count on, Murphy said. Search and rescue crews in the North Sea, for example, are to be airborne 15 minutes after an emergency call.
Offshore workers in Newfoundland and Labrador deserve no less, Murphy said.
Sheldon Peddle, local president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, said there has to be a way to ensure worker concerns about helicopter safety are not just heard but acted on.
"Some of these issues ... they've been around for a long time. And it doesn't seem like there's a way to get anything changed once we bring it up and we talk about it," he said.
"Something has to change with where our issues go after they leave our facilities and after they get to the CNLOPB."

Organizations: Energy and Paperworkers Union, Hibernia, Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board National Defence Transportation Safety Board

Geographic location: ST. JOHN'S, Newfoundland and Labrador, Terra Nova Gander Nova Scotia North Sea

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