Offshore oil rig workers, it is oft repeated, have one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. In safer parts of the globe, the weather and workplace injuries are the most common threat to life and limb. But in volatile regions, like the Middle East or the Nigerian coast, the platform and crew face the added peril of terrorism or piracy.
But rarely do we spend time pondering the perils of actually going to work on an oil rig. That will change, for a while at least, in the wake of Thursday’s helicopter crash off Newfoundland in which 17 lives are feared lost. One passenger is confirmed dead and the lone known survivor is in hospital.
The private Cougar Helicopters chopper, which was ferrying oil workers to the Hibernia and Sea Rose offshore platforms, reported mechanical trouble and soon afterwards slammed into the ocean.
As Owen Myers, a former oil rig worker who is now a lawyer, told the Canadian Press, the chopper runs from St. John’s to the oil rigs are so commonplace now that many people think of them as a bus route. That, of course, is just an illusion. Helicopters are inherently more finicky machines than earthbound vehicles and an ordinary shuttle service does not require you to don a survival suit, or to take a hands-on ocean-ditching course, before you board.
It appears that despite such precautions, it might not have been humanly possible for the bulk of the passengers and crew in Thursday’s crash to escape on time. If, as suspected, the Sikorsky slammed hard into the water, the debilitating impact might have killed or knocked out most of the occupants while cold water came rushing into the fuselage.
Getting out fast is the key to survival for crash victims, but getting out there fast is just as crucial for rescuers.
A Hercules aircraft was overflying the crash site within an hour at 10:34 a.m., but it was a second Cougar chopper that actually performed the rescue after arriving on the scene at 11:10 a.m. The first military helicopter arrived an hour late, at 11:28 a.m. because it had to be dispatched from Nova Scotia. The Cormorant chopper crews normally stationed in Gander, N.L., were in Cape Breton on a joint training exercise, and Cougar had been duly put on notice to cover the area.
“Obviously, if the incident happened on the southwest area of the island, (the Cormorants) would have been there much quicker, (but) we have to take every opportunity that we can to get the training done,” Maj. Denis Maguire told CBC News.
He’s right. Training is a matter of life and death for rescuers, too. That’s the one constant they face; the timing or location of disasters is unpredictable. Whether the delay made a difference, in terms of lives, in this instance is dubious. Not all tragedies are preventable, no matter how hard you prepare for the worst.