THE Shetland Coastguard helicopter happened to be in the area by chance on a training exercise, and but for that it is thought none would have survived the worst North Sea aviation disaster.

Rescuer Captain Gordon Mitchell recalled the “devastation” of the downed Chinook helicopter 30 years ago today, when 45 people were killed just over two miles away from its Sumburgh, Shetland destination on its return from the Brent oilfield.

He was amazed to find two survivors.

Loading article content

The tragedy came swiftly after a catastrophic engine failure, which caused the twin rotor blades to collide, plunging the Boeing 234LR Chinook 100ft into the sea.

It was a further quirk of fate that saved young engineer Eric Morrans, after he had earlier changed his planned seat for the journey, while pilot Pusht Vaid smashed his way through a window to swim clear of the aircraft.

Captain Gordon Mitchell said he and the three crew automatically went into operational mode, setting aside their own emotions at the sight of the sickening scene in front of them.

Morrans, only 20 at the time, was found clinging to a life raft, which he couldn’t lift himself into because of his injuries, and the pilot was holding on to a piece of floating wreckage.

It is only after the event, says Mitchell, that the human cost and the suffering comes back.

The 79-year-old said: “It is all kind of fresh in my memory, but it was just part of the job.”

The weather was fine and clear and the rescue crew were surprised by the call.

Mitchell said: “We were puzzled.

“We didn't know what had happened.

“We got there and saw the devastation.

“We saw two people to be rescued.”

He went on: “It is only when you get time to reflect that you think of the devastation and the children and the mothers and fathers and families that are going to be suffering.”

The crew couldn’t see any others to lift from the sea and Vaid and Morrans were flown to Lerwick’s Gilbert Bain Hospital.

Morrans was reported as saying at the time: “The whole cabin seemed to shake violently and the back end dropped dramatically towards the sea with the nose obviously in the air.

“Looking towards me was this audience of faces looking towards me totally shocked.

“I did almost nothing to save myself.

“It was just luck, the grace of God if you want to call it that.”

Vaid reportedly said: “We went from 100mph to 0mph.

“It was a very violent move. I reckon that’s when most of the men died.

“My co-pilot, as the handling pilot, broke his neck.

“I was sitting back and my back was resting, whereas he was leaning forward.”

He was quoted as saying he only realised how serious the incident was when he saw “bodies surfacing all around”.

According to the report by the Department of Transport Air Accidents Investigation Branch at Farnborough, the two survivors owed their lives in part to the fact that the coastguard helicopter spotted wreckage.

Had the coastguard not seen this and been able to winch the two survivors to safety within 10 minutes, then locating the helicopter would have been dependent on the Automatically Deployable Emergency Location Transmitter (ADELT), and the official report revealed that destroyed on impact.

The report’s conclusion was that the immediate cause of the accident was the failure of the modified spiral bevel ring gear in the aircraft’s forward transmission.

Not all were as lucky as the two survivors, and at a tribute service in Aberdeen on Saturday families of those who lost their lives in the Sumburgh disaster and other North Sea tragedies joined together for a poignant moment of remembrance.

They were at the service of commemoration in the Kirk of St Nicholas, which is home to the Oil and Gas Chapel that houses the Books of Remembrance where the names of those who have died offshore are inscribed.

It was opened by the lighting of a large candle for all who have died offshore since the industry began.

An additional candle will be lit to commemorate the 45 men who died when a Chinook helicopter crashed off Sumburgh on November 6, 1986.

An Act of Remembrance, where the names of those added to the Book of Remembrance are read out, was followed by a piper’s lament, and a minute’s silence.

Rev Pauline Nixon, a Church of England vicar whose husband Neville died in the Sumburgh disaster, spoke to the gathered families.

Chaplain to the oil and gas industry, Rev Gordon Craig, said the service was a “special time for families who have lost loved ones offshore to come together”.

He said: “It seemed very appropriate that this year, one day before the 30th anniversary of the worst disaster to occur in the industry that we commemorate those lost during our annual service.

“What all the families share is the suddenness of their loss and getting that horrible knock on the door to be told their loved one is not coming back.”

Families previously told of their pain even years after the disaster, and at one stage the parents of planning engineer Colin Hepburn, who was 28 when he was killed in the tragedy, said it was “something you never get over”.