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Sole survivor of Cougar 491 crash to testify at chopper safety inquiry

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - The sole survivor of the Cougar Flight 491 crash, which killed 17 people earlier this year, will share his first detailed public account of his harrowing story at an inquiry into helicopter safety, the probe heard as it started Monday.

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - The sole survivor of the Cougar Flight 491 crash, which killed 17 people earlier this year, will share his first detailed public account of his harrowing story at an inquiry into helicopter safety, the probe heard as it started Monday.

Robert Decker escaped through a window of the submerged chopper after it plunged into the North Atlantic in March as it was ferrying workers to two offshore oil platforms off Newfoundland's east coast.

Inquiry co-counsel Anne Fagan stressed that Decker is still recovering at home. But the weather observer on the Hibernia oil platform, just 27 years old when the Sikorsky S-92A hit the sea, felt it was important to take part, she said.

Decker will describe the crash, his ascent to the surface and "how the cold water affected his ability to escape," Fagan said.

Decker, who spent nearly three weeks in a St. John's hospital, is tentatively set to testify at the inquiry Nov. 5.

He has so far only offered a single brief public statement, saying he released his seatbelt and escaped through a window shortly after the crash, remaining calm until he was rescued.

In his opening remarks, inquiry commissioner Robert Wells said it was his aim to improve the safety conditions associated with carrying workers to the offshore. But he acknowledged that all risks cannot be eliminated - a reality that "can't be sugar-coated."

"Our climate and weather make escape from a downed helicopter very difficult," said the 76-year-old retired judge, who went through simulated crash training as part of his preparations.

"If in this collaborative effort we can come with measures which will improve safety and bring down the likelihood of an accident or accidents, we will be doing a tremendous service to the industry and to the population of Newfoundland and Labrador."

Family members of those who died onboard sat in the back of the small hearing room as proceedings began. They declined comment.

Wells is to assess whether offshore helicopter risks are as low as is reasonably practical, according to his mandate. He will hear from oil and gas industry regulators, helicopter operators, safety experts and the makers of survival suits worn by the hundreds of workers who fly to and from three offshore oil sites more than 300 kilometres southeast of St. John's. And he will hear from workers and the families of those who died.

His recommendations to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, a joint regulator of oil and gas activity, are due March 31, but they're not binding.

Wells has already indicated more time will likely be needed.

Inquiry hearings resume Tuesday with the board expected to describe search and rescue obligations and how they're met. Those submissions are expected to take much of the first week.

Testimony from officials at Transport Canada and the Transportation Safety Board is scheduled to follow.

The inquiry was called after the chopper taking workers to the Hibernia and Sea Rose platforms crashed into the North Atlantic, about 60 kilometres east of St. John's.

The Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the crash.

It's not up to Wells to lay blame or wade into the recurring debate on whether a 24-hour military search and rescue helicopter should be stationed in St. John's.

There have been repeated calls for one - including from the union that represents offshore workers, along with opposition Liberal and NDP MPs.

A royal commission into the 1982 sinking of the Ocean Ranger drilling rig, killing all 84 workers on board, specifically recommended a search and rescue helicopter at the airport nearest to offshore operations: St. John's.

But the federal government and the military have rebuffed such calls.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay has said that Gander, in central Newfoundland, is the best location due to weather and other factors. But he said he will wait to see recommendations from this inquiry before saying more.

Cougar usually offers backup search and rescue services to the Canadian Forces but was called into action on March 12. That's because the military Cormorant helicopters based in Gander were on a training exercise that day in Cape Breton.

Randy Earle, lawyer for the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union representing about 700 offshore oil workers, said someone must act if Wells finds holes in the system.

"If there's a gap in safety, if DND (National Defence) does not have the resources, or the federal government is not willing to alter the distribution of resources, the people who operate the offshore oil industry have to fill that gap."

 
 
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