A huge search was launched when the Sikorsky S76 chopper which crashed into the water and broke up off the Norfolk coast. RAF helicopters, lifeboats and oil rig support vessels raced to the scene but there was little hope of finding any survivors. Within two hours of the 7:50 pm crash the bodies of six of those aboard had been recovered. Rescuers searched desperately for the other five in the gathering darkness 28 miles north-east of Cromer but hopes were fading fast. The chopper, operated by Norwich-based firm Bristow, was believed to be flying between a platform and a nearby rig.
The cause of the crash, which happened in good visibility, was not clear. A Bristow spokesman said there had been 11 people, nine passengers and two crew on board. Three of the passengers were Shell staff members, three others from Amec Engineering, (one was an Amec employee, two were Amec subcontractors), and one was with Oil Field Medical Services. The other two were the Bristow pilots.
Six people were confirmed dead last night by Great Yarmouth Coastguard, which was conducting the search operation. A spokesman said: "A helicopter ditched off Cromer with 11 aboard. "We have recovered six bodies and are looking for five others. We are not expecting to find survivors." The helicopter came down close to a Shell-Esso operated rig on the Leman Field. One report suggested rig workers were being ferried back to Great Yarmouth for shore leave. But the Bristow spokesman insisted: "It was flying between the Clipper platform and the Santa Fe Monarch rig. It is about 15 to 25 miles. "At this stage we have no information as to what happened."
The coastguard said damage to the Sikorsky's fuselage and the injuries sustained by the bodies indicated it had disintegrated on impact. One official said: "There was wreckage picked up. There was no whole helicopter — it had broken up."
Another official reported: "We received a mayday call and within minutes the fast rescue boats from the rig were on the scene. "But the impact had been so severe the occupants we found had suffered appalling injuries and had not survived. "Normally, if a helicopter manages to make a controlled landing into water it will float long enough for the passengers and crew to escape and probably survive. "But it seems this one hit the water at a high speed, judging by the amount of damage it sustained and the injuries the victims suffered." Pilots flying over the area also reported seeing pieces of floating wreckage. The bodies recovered from the scene were taken to the Santa Fe Monarch rig.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said that a Sea King helicopter, Rescue 125, had been scrambled from RAF Wattisham. A Met Office spokesman described the weather conditions as "light winds with good visibility". He added: "There were no dangerous flying conditions." A Scotia rig support helicopter was also in the area and available if required. Senior paramedics and ambulance crews were on standby.
The James Paget Hospital in Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth, was on full alert — with the mortuary ready to receive bodies. Elayne Guest, a spokeswoman for the 500-bed hospital, said: "When we first heard of the incident we cleared our accident and emergency department to await injured casualties. "But we have since been told to expect up to 11 bodies. We have made sure that there is space available in our mortuary to take them." Anxious relatives of workers on offshore rigs were last night calling the hospital for news. Spokeswoman Ms Guest added: "We have had lots of anxious people phoning us, wondering whether their relatives were on board. "Unfortunately we have been unable to tell them anything because we do not know any details." She confirmed that all of the bodies recovered were due to be brought into Great Yarmouth by a rig command and control boat. She said: "They're definitely not being airlifted — they're coming in by boat unless some of those missing are suddenly found alive. "But they’ve been in the water for hours so we're not holding out much hope." The bodies were due to arrive ashore about 4:00 am before being taken to the hospital by ambulance.
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