I am grateful to Parliament for the opportunity to make a statement concerning the recent tragic events in the North Sea. On 23 August, a CHC Super Puma AS332 L2 crashed 2 miles west of Sumburgh airport on a flight from the Total E&P UK-operated Borgsten Dolphin drilling rig.
A search and rescue operation was launched immediately and included a Coastguard Rescue Service helicopter; a Royal Air Force rescue helicopter and a BP jigsaw rescue helicopter; Aith and Lerwick RNLI lifeboats; Sumburgh, No Ness, Lerwick and West Burra coastguard rescue teams; and a Sumburgh airport fire and rescue vessel. Additional helicopters from the RAF and BP jigsaw were also brought in to assist.
I pay tribute to the brave men and women of our emergency services who assisted in the rescue. On Friday, I visited Police Scotland’s Aberdeen division headquarters, where the gold and silver command centres for the operation were based, and I spoke with representatives from Police Scotland, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the strategic co-ordinating group. I thanked them personally for their dedication and professionalism during the emergency response and for their continuing work in terms of investigation and supporting the families of those who were involved in the incident.
We should also acknowledge the role of the voluntary sector—the British Red Cross, the Royal Voluntary Service and others—as well as that of members of the public who assisted in searching the coastline of Shetland. Those are the people who, in a selfless way, step up to the mark when tragedy strikes and make our communities resilient, and they deserve our thanks into the bargain. A number of merchant vessels also responded to the emergency. Parliament should recognise the efforts of those who are not part of the emergency services—for example, people working on commercial ferries—who responded as seafarers to assist in providing additional capacity to deal with the emergency.
Eighteen people—16 passengers and two pilots—were on board the helicopter. Fourteen people, including both pilots, were rescued but, tragically, four people—Duncan Munro from Bishop Auckland, Sarah Darnley from Elgin, Gary McCrossan from Inverness and George Allison from Winchester—lost their lives in the accident. I know that our country and the entire chamber will join me in expressing our deepest sympathy and condolences to their families, friends, colleagues and loved ones at a profoundly difficult time.
The UK oil and gas chaplaincy has opened a book of condolence for those who wish to pay tribute to the four workers, which is available to sign at the oil chapel in the kirk of St Nicholas or online. The First Minister signed the book on behalf of the Scottish Government on Monday 26 August.
A humanitarian assistance centre for relatives was established last Thursday under the auspices of the Grampian strategic co-ordinating group and led by Aberdeen City Council, working in partnership with oil and gas industry members. It is providing practical and emotional support to those affected by the incident.
The oil and gas chaplain, the Rev Gordon Craig, is providing direct support to the families and friends of those involved in the accident. Mr Craig is also working in partnership with the operating companies, the police and the local authorities to provide wider support as and when appropriate. If the families feel it appropriate, that may involve arranging a memorial service at a later date.
As the search and rescue phase of the incident is over, the police and the Air Accidents Investigation Branch are focused on carrying out their investigations into the accident. Considerable police resources have been deployed, together with a significant investigation team from the AAIB, which immediately dispatched a team of investigators and support staff to Aberdeen and the Shetland Islands. The investigation is well under way.
In early advice on the circumstances of the incident, the AAIB stated last Thursday that the helicopter landed intact and upright in the water. Later that day, the AAIB confirmed that it had recovered the flight recorder. The investigation continues at pace, but so far no conclusive findings have been released about the cause of the accident. The Scottish Government and its agencies will liaise with the AAIB as the investigation progresses, and we will provide any assistance that we can to the investigation.
The AAIB is aware of the urgency required in determining the cause of the accident, in particular in relation to reassuring the men and women who are asked to fly today, tomorrow and next week. They must have confidence that the helicopters are safe. As the aviation industry regulator, it would be for the Civil Aviation Authority to take, if necessary, applicationropriate action in the event of any safety recommendations made by the AAIB following its investigation.
It is entirely understandable that concerns about helicopter safety have been heightened because of the close proximity of incidents in the North Sea—this is the fifth incident since 2009 and the second involving fatalities. On Saturday 24 August, the helicopter safety steering group took the precautionary measure of recommending the temporary suspension of all Super Puma commercial passenger flights to and from offshore oil and gas installations in the UK. That suspension did not apply to the use of search and rescue helicopters for emergency response.
On Thursday 29 August, the helicopter safety steering group reviewed its earlier decision in the light of the new information from the AAIB and agreed to lift the voluntary temporary suspension of flights on the L1 and EC225 Super Puma helicopters. That decision was arrived at unanimously. The L2 will remain temporarily suspended from passenger revenue flights only. That means that only 16 of the total 75 helicopters in the North Sea sector remain affected. The matter will be subject to on-going review as new information comes to light.
We know that the five incidents since 2009 involved only two specific types of aircraft: the L2 and the EC225. The EC225 has been subjected to stringent tests and analysis since it was grounded following the October 2012 incident. The helicopter safety steering group regards the EC225 as the safest helicopter available for offshore operations anywhere in the world. The steering group will need to work hard in the coming weeks and months in order to get that message across to the workforce and to help rebuild the confidence of the offshore community.
In addition to releasing the suspension on the L1 and EC225s, the helicopter safety steering group has also launched a far-reaching communications campaign across the industry to engage with the workforce in an effort to rebuild confidence. The boots on campaign has the unanimous support of all industry stakeholders, including the trade unions, the operators and the three helicopter companies in the north-east. Rebuilding the confidence of the men and women who travel to and from our offshore installations must be the key priority.
I pay tribute to all the parties involved in the oil and gas industry in Aberdeen who have been working tirelessly together since the incident to address its consequences. It has been a strong process of co-operative and respectful working between the three helicopter companies, the operating companies, the trade unions—Unite and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—and the emergency services in the north-east to respond appropriately to the incident and to take steps to address the genuine concerns about helicopter safety.
To make further progress in addressing concerns about safety, we need to understand the cause of the accident. I have spoken to the United Kingdom minister of state, Greg Barker, and he shares our desire to arrive at an early explanation for the tragic events so that we can learn the lessons and take whatever action is required. Once we know the cause of the incident, we can determine what further inquiry is required to do all that we can to assure all interested parties about the safety of helicopter transport. Law officers and ministers will consider those matters once the findings of the AAIB investigation are known.
In the meantime, the helicopter safety steering group has stated that it will commission a far-reaching independent and strategic review of helicopter safety in the North Sea. That is the right and proper thing to do, and we will support the HSSG as it seeks to establish that initiative. An important foundation of that work must be ensuring that the thinking that is implicit in the step change initiative, which was a product of Lord Cullen’s comprehensive and compelling inquiry into Piper Alpha, is applied to helicopter safety just as it is applied to the production of safety cases, installation by installation.
The oil and gas industry will work collectively to learn lessons from the accident and to ensure that any safety recommendations are implemented quickly to enhance the safety of those who work offshore. It is vital that the safety and security of employees are assured at all times. In the past 35 years, more than 60 million passengers have been carried to and from the platforms. Tens of thousands of flights take place every year. It is the industry and the Government’s duty to work with the trade unions and the offshore community to learn lessons from the latest accident and to take every possible step to ensure that safety is enhanced and remains the first priority for those who service the oil and gas industry in the North Sea sector.