Fourteen passengers and crew dead after helicopter crashes in the sea off Estonian coast (UPDATED 00:00, 11.8.2005)
Passengers and crew still in helicopter fuselage on sea bed
A Sikorsky helicopter belonging to the commercial operator Copterlines went down in the sea close to the island of Naissaar, some five kilometres from Tallinn, the Estonian capital, shortly before 1 p.m. local time on Wednesday.
The helicopter was carrying 12 passengers and a crew of two. According to the Finnish Foreign Ministry, six Finns are among the passengers, together with four Estonians and two U.S. citizens. The crew members are also said to be Finnish citizens.
At a press briefing after 4 p.m. at the Estonian Interior Ministry, the Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said all the evidence pointed to the fact that all those aboard had perished.
The site of the crash was quickly located and an Estonian Coastguard helicopter and three rescue vessels were rushed to the scene. A rescue helicopter containing divers was also despatched from Finland.
The crashed helicopter left Tallinn at 12.40, bound for Helsinki on a scheduled 20-minute crossing, and it vanished from radar screens three to four minutes later.
At this early stage, no firm theories have been put forward for the possible cause of the accident, but the winds at the time are believed to have been 17-20 metres a second. Divers searched the scene, and according to reports at 16:00, the passengers and crew remain in the hull of the helicopter on the sea bed, in 45 metres of water.
Initial reports that the helicopter had been brought to the surface using pontoons were denied later in a statement from the Finnish Embassy in Tallinn. It is expected that attempts to float the submerged craft to the surface will take place on Thursday morning. Choppy seas hampered the work of rescue teams on Wednesday afternoon and evening, but a robot camera has been down to the sea bed and images of the wreckage have apparently been analysed.
An eyewitness on shore claimed to have heard two loud bangs immediately before the chopper went down, but said he saw no signs of smoke or fire on the stricken aircraft.
Whilst nothing has as yet been ruled out, Estonian authorities have said that there have so far been no signs that terrorism might be involved in the crash.
Divers at the scene also reported that the fuselage of the helicopter was damaged, but that it was in one piece.
One thing that is already apparent is that the safety systems on the helicopter did not deploy: in a case of engine failure and ditching at sea, the craft should have come down slowly and floats should have been deployed to keep it upright and on the surface.
This did not happen, and divers also noted that the fuselage was upside down on the sea bed. When the first rescue teams arrived, within 15-20 minutes of the helicopter's disappearance, all that was found on the surface was the rotor blade and an oil slick.
Copterline is Finland's largest company operating commercial helicopter flights.
The firm's Sikorsky S-76 C+ helicopters have been in service between Helsinki and Tallinn since 2000, with more than 20 connections daily. Around 75,000 passengers were carried last year.
The company has cancelled all further flights today, but the helicopters have not thus far been grounded.
The Finnish Civil Aviation Authority placed restrictions on the operations of Copterline aircraft in May of 2004, owing to apparent shortcomings in pilot training. At the time the helicopters were limited to flights in good weather, but the restrictions were lifted in September 2004 after the CAA were satisfied by changes to training programmes made by the company.
Although it was blustery on Wednesday, with occasional strong gusts of wind in the Gulf of Finland, visibility was not seriously impaired.
Hydrofoils and some of the smaller fast ferry connections between Helsinki and Tallinn remained in port on Wednesday, but at least the initial view is that the conditions were not severe enough to warrant keeping the helicopters on the ground.
Indications are, however, that some of the passenger victims, who included five Finnish men and one woman, may have chosen to fly to Helsinki after learning that the high-speed ferries were out of service.
A commission of inquiry with members from Finland and Estonia has been set up to investigate the cause of the accident, and the onboard flight recorder will be examined at the first opportunity to see if it can shed light on the events leading up to the crash.
We shall naturally return to the subject in greater detail in Thursday's edition.
The Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs requests that enquiries regarding possible victims of the helicopter accident be directed to the police at the National Bureau of Investigation on 09-838 86766. The NBI has reportedly also sent a victim identification team to the site.