By Chris Saunderson
Rescue crews had yesterday given up all hope of finding alive eight oil workers missing after a Super Puma helicopter crashed into the North Sea.
It is now almost certain that all 16 people on board the doomed chopper have died, despite the heroic efforts of mercy crews involved in the search.
A search and rescue helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth and Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft from RAF Kinloss were stood down after an intensive search. Both the military aircraft were involved in a massive rescue operation in February when another Super Puma was forced to ditch into the North Sea.
In stark contrast to the elation felt on that occasion when all 18 men on board survived, the crews’ return to their Moray bases this time was tinged with sadness.
RAF spokesman Michael Mulford said the pilot of the helicopter made a may day call at 2pm on Wednesday, and described the silence that followed as “ominous”.
In addition to the two military rescue crews, the search, at its peak, involved up to 20 merchant vessels and two lifeboats. The search area covered 30 square nautical miles.
As the bodies of eight people recovered from the crash site 16 miles off Peterhead were taken ashore, an air accident investigation got underway.
It is believed that efforts are due to begin today to retrieve the black box flight recorder from the wreckage, where the bodies of the eight missing people may also be.
None of the names of those who died have been released, but Grampian Police said that half of those on board were either from Aberdeen or Aberdeenshire. Four others were from Scotland but outwith Grampian, three were from other parts of the UK and one victim is understood to have lived overseas.
Sympathy for the family and friends of those who perished have been expressed across Moray, where the oil industry has overtaken fishing as the main source of employment in coastal communities.
Buckie councillor Gordon McDonald said that the tragedy would be felt particularly hard in his ward, which was heavily reliant on the offshore sector. He said the community would face an anxious wait while those involved in the crash were identified.
“Obviously it’s a grave concern to Buckie,” he said. “We have had tragedy in the past with the fishing industry, but you do not get used to it. Something like this always comes as a body blow to the community.
“The community is very good at rallying around at times like these, and will be giving as much support to they can to any family and friends affected by this tragedy.
“Like the fishing industry, the offshore oil and gas industry is a little village, and it’s likely that most people employed in it will know of or have worked with someone involved.”
Councillor McDonald said it was horrifying that two accidents involving Super Puma helicopters had taken place just a matter of weeks apart. However, he does not believe that the latest tragedy will lead to people looking for work back on shore.
He said: “These have been accidents, and the latest one a very tragic accident. I think people in Buckie are realistic enough to understand the dangers of being out at sea or out on an oil rig, and the families also know the realities of working in those environments.”
Councillor David Stewart, whose ward includes the coastal strip from Burghead to Lossiemouth, said the thoughts of everyone would be with those who have lost loved ones.
He added: “This will be felt in communities all over the North-east. It is a small, close-knit community and although we are used to tragedy right along the coast because of the fishing industry, it’s still very shocking.
“I have a son-in-law, a brother and a nephew who work in the offshore industry, as well as many friends. They all accept that getting on and off the rig by helicopter is just part and parcel of the job, but it must be a very worrying time for all those involved in the oil industry.”