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Four offshore workers dead after helicopter ditches off Shetland

The Super Puma helicopter crashed two miles west of Sumburgh Airport on Friday evening.

Victims of Shetland helicopter crash on August 24 2013: Duncan Munro, Gary McCrossan, George Allison, Sarah Darnley.

Four offshore workers have died after a helicopter ditched in the sea off Shetland.

The Super Puma L2 aircraft crashed at 6.20pm on Friday off Fitful Head, around two miles west of Sumburgh airport at the south tip of the islands.

The victims have been named as Duncan Munro, 46, from Bishop Auckland, Sarah Darnley, 45, from Elgin, Gary McCrossan, 59, from Inverness and George Allison, 57, from Winchester. Ms Darnley is thought to be the first woman killed in an offshore industry helicopter crash.

Police Scotland confirmed that the bodies of three people had been recovered and work is under way to recover the fourth casualty from the upturned aircraft.

Of a further 14 people who were on board the helicopter, 12 survivors returned safely to Aberdeen on Saturday evening and two people remained in hospital in Shetland.

Operator CHC said it was withdrawing all Super Puma AS332 L2 helicopters from service until more information about the crash was available.

The helicopter, which had 18 people on board, lost contact with air traffic control while approaching the airport on the southern tip of Shetland's main island. It was transporting workers from the Borgsten Dolphin platform in the North Sea for Total.

The survivors, including both crew members, were taken to Gilbert Bain Hospital in Lerwick, where a specialist medical team was flown in from Aberdeen to treat them.

The four victims have been named by police

Victims: From left, Duncan Munro, 46, Gary McCrossan, 59, Sarah Darnley, 45, George Allison, 57.

An RNLI spokesman said two of the bodies were recovered by a lifeboat crew from Lerwick.

"The lifeboat crew transported the bodies to Sumburgh and we are liaising with other authorities as things develop," he said.

"Obviously this is the news that everyone, including our lifeboat volunteers, dreaded. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of those concerned."

Mark Abbey, Regional Director, Western North Sea for CHC Helicopter said: “I would like to extend my personal thanks and the thanks of everyone at CHC to all the emergency services and organisations involved in the rescue and recovery last night and in the subsequent medical attention, care and support on the ground in Lerwick.

“Following the incident, flights in Aberdeen have been suspended today as a mark of respect for the events of yesterday. Globally, we have temporarily suspended operations of all AS332L2 aircraft until more information is available."

The search operation, involving coastguard helicopters, police, RAF and RNLI, was extended overnight to hunt for missing people in the darkness.

The rescue team managed to move the helicopter to a more accessible position where it could search for missing people.

One of the men rescued, Sam Smith, described how the helicopter suddenly lost power and there was "no time to brace".

His mother Amanda Smith told Sky News: "He said [the helicopter] seemed to lose power and there was no time to brace — they just dropped into the sea.

"He was by the window so he was able to escape that way as it rolled over.

"He said he had come off better than a lot of people, were his words.

"It doesn't seem real."

A lifeboat and rescue helicopter search the waters off Shetland on Friday night

Search: A lifeboat and coastguard helicopter involved in the rescue operation. Picture: Dave Donaldson

The coastguard said the helicopter's life rafts were found empty and some wreckage from the aircraft had washed up at the southern end of Sumburgh.

A spokesman said: "The aircraft was on approach to Sumburgh Airport at approximately 6.20pm when contact was lost with air traffic control.

"We can confirm there were 16 passengers on board and two crew."

Investigators from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch have been called to the scene.

Two lifeboats from Lerwick and Aith were being helped at the scene by helicopters from the coastguard, RAF Lossiemouth and two Bond rescue helicopters.

Jim Nicholson, RNLI rescue co-ordinator, said he understands two of the bodies were recovered in the area where the helicopter crashed.

"The bodies came to the surface close to the helicopter wreckage," he said.

"The helicopter was in a pretty inaccessible place but the lifeboat crew were able to get to them using an inflatable craft.

"It's fortunate there were not more casualties in a helicopter crash of this kind.

"There appears to have been a catastrophic loss of power which meant the helicopter suddenly dropped into the sea without any opportunity to make a controlled landing."

RNLI lifeboat surveys the wreckage of the Super Puma helicopter

The Aith lifeboat crew towing the wreckage of the helicopter from the crash scene

The rescue team then spent hours securing the helicopter and moving it to a more accessible location where it is waiting to be loaded on to a vessel.

Mr Nicholson praised the efforts of the rescue agencies involved.

"I think it's been a very long night and I think the crew have been tremendous."

In a statement, Oil company Total said: "Further to the CHC operated Super Puma L2 helicopter crash in the UK North Sea near Shetland at 6.20pm on Friday evening, in which four people from contractor organisations are confirmed to have been killed, Total E&P UK would like to offer sincere condolences to the families of those who tragically lost their lives.

"Our thoughts are also with the 12 other passengers and two air crew who were also on board the flight, and their families. One Total E&P UK employee was among the passengers and the others represented 12 separate contractor organisations."

Pat Rafferty, Scottish secretary of the Unite union, said the incident was "deeply concerning".

"This is the fifth major incident in the last four years involving Super Puma helicopters in the UK offshore industry and the second resulting in fatalities. It's unacceptable and it can't go on," he said.

He added that his immediate thoughts were with the families of those involved.

Mr Rafferty said the rescue of the survivors of the accident was " testimony to the bravery and skills of the rescue services".

He went on: "This brings into sharp focus once again the very precarious nature of the transportation of workers to and from offshore platforms.

"The health and safety of working people is our priority and we will be watching events closely as they happen."

At a meeting of the Helicopter Safety Steering Group (HSSG), representatives from oil and gas companies and offshore unions recommended a temporary suspension of all Super Puma commercial passenger flights.

A statement from the group said: "The HSSG, supported by the Step Change in Safety Leadership Team, has taken the precautionary measure of recommending temporary suspension of all Super Puma commercial passenger flights to and from offshore oil and gas installations within the UK.

"This does not apply to the use of search and rescue helicopters for emergency response.

"HSSG will closely monitor the situation and will only recommend resumption of flights by one or more of the Super Puma variants when it considers that sufficient factual information is available to support the decision."

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