Robert Decker leaving the inquiry into offshore helicopter safety in St. John's in Nov. 2009. CBCThe sole survivor of a helicopter crash that killed 17 people says top federal officials haven't acted quickly enough to improve helicopter safety following the tragedy east of St. John's almost three years ago.
Robert Decker, 30, has only spoken publicly once before – at an inquiry into offshore helicopter safety months after the crash on March 12, 2009.
In an exclusive interview with CBC Radio’s, The Current, he said he’ll never forget the day he struggled out of the sinking helicopter and then waited an hour in the freezing ocean to be rescued.
“It was a horrible thing to have to go through and you can only imagine how horrible it is for the families [who lost loved ones] and have to think about that day for the rest of their lives,” said Decker, who was hospitalized with broken bones and damaged lungs for days after the crash.
Decker was a weather observer on the Hibernia oil production platform hundreds of kilometres east of St. John's. He no longer works offshore but he’s speaking out now because he wants Transport Canada to get to the bottom of some lingering questions.
“No one has explained why the helicopter was ever certified to fly in the first place and I think that someone still has to answer that question,” he said.
"We are looking for answers from the government to let us know why the helicopter was certified to fly? …and why after an incident that happened in Australia in July of 2008 that nothing was done to correct the problem."
Decker was referring to an emergency landing made by a Sikorsky S92-A helicopter near Broome, Australia. That incident involved the same type of helicopter that crashed near Newfoundland.
In both cases the helicopters ran into trouble after their main gearboxes lost oil pressure.
Companys using Sikorsky S92A helicopters have already been ordered to replace titanium studs that sheared off in the Cougar helicopter that crashed near Newfoundland. (Courtesy: The Transportation Safety Board)In Australia, the helicopter landed safely seven minutes after the problem was identified.
In Newfoundland, the helicopter crashed into the ocean 11 minutes after it began losing oil pressure.
A letter to the federal government co-signed by Decker says "Transport Canada should never have certified as airworthy a helicopter that could not fly for at least 30 minutes after the complete loss of main gearbox oil."
"We're looking for the answer to the question why was this helicopter ever certified in the first place and then, why after this incident happened in Australia in July 2008, nothing was done," he told CBC.
Decker and the families have written letters to former Transport Canada minister Chuck Strahl and current minister Denis Lebel.
"There was no response to the first letter so we followed up with a second letter in June and still there was no response. So we followed up with a third letter in November and finally there was a response…but essentially there were still no answers to the questions that we were concerned about,” said Decker.
'It’s shocking that it has taken so long to get a response'—Robert Decker
In his response Lebel said Transport Canada has initiated a comprehensive review of offshore helicopter operations to determine if other specific regulations are needed and said that he’ll be in a position to provide a response very soon.
“It’s shocking that it has taken so long to get a response and the response doesn’t answer any of the concerns we have,” said Decker.
He believes the S92-As that continue to fly oil industry workers offshore from St. John's should be replaced.
'There are safer helicopters that would be better suited for the job'— Robert Decker
"People are still flying on the S92 helicopter. It still doesn’t meet the 30-minute, run-dry time so essentially, I don’t know if we are any further ahead,” he said. "There are so many helicopters. It's essentially a standard that they all meet the 30-minute, run-dry time. So there are safer helicopters that would be better suited for the job.”
In the interview Decker recorded with CBC Tuesday, he answered questions carefully and frequently turned off his microphone to speak the lawyer he brought with him.
Decker was careful to keep his emotions in check but he did reveal that the crash still haunts him.
“There's not a day that goes by that I don't see a helicopter fly overhead and I think 'Oh God there are still people going out there everyday'. This is their work. This is their life,” he said.