A man who helped lead the search after the North Sea helicopter crash that killed 16 men has spoken of the heartbreaking moment he found belongings of the dead.
Vic Sutherland was the coxswain of the Fraserburgh Lifeboat crew who were sent to the scene of the wreckage after hearing the mayday call 10 years ago yesterday.
Fourteen oil workers, the pilot and co-pilot died in the Super Puma crash disaster and Vic says being sent to the search and rescue effort is one of the hardest duties he has had to fulfil in his 27 years with the RNLI.
“Not a week goes by when I don’t think about those few days. I still feel for the people who were lost,” said Vic, 47.
As Vic, a full-time coxswain mechanic, was taking time off from duty to look after his poorly wife Pamela, it was completely by chance he happened to be in Fraserburgh Lifeboat Station when news of the tragedy came through over the control radio – but he had no hesitation in sailing out with the rest of the crew.
As they headed towards the scene, 12 miles north of Peterhead, the crew were told it was likely all 16 onboard the helicopter would not have survived.
Vic said: “All of us had friends and family who work offshore and the feeling of dread ran through us that it could be someone we knew among the dead.
“The crash scene was one of chaos and carnage. People were looking for survivors.”
After an hour or so, the search became more organised and involved 26 vessels – including oil tankers, ferries and supply boats – but was called off at around 10pm due to fading light.
“Not a week goes by when I don’t think about those few days”
After a debrief, Vic was home for less than four hours.
“I didn’t sleep a wink after all that had happened. We went out the following morning and were finding kitbags and trainers belonging to the dead, which was utterly heartbreaking. It was overwhelming at times.
“The crew are volunteers and one of the lads who had been searching on Wednesday was an oil worker and had to fly out to the platforms the next day. You can imagine how he felt.
“The search ended that Thursday night. That time, sailing back into Fraserburgh, was one of the most solemn times I’ve ever known. Everyone was affected by it.
“There wasn’t a word spoken in the wheelhouse.
“I remember being full of guilt because all we wanted to do was bring the bodies back to their families, to give them something, and I felt there must be something more we could have done. We were all gutted.
“I didn’t sleep at all on Thursday or Friday night. We watched the news at the weekend and when news came of the remaining eight bodies being found, it was closure for us, as we knew the families would have their loved ones back.”
Vic said two positives to come out of the tragedy are the “amazing” fundraising families affected have done for the RNLI and the “lifelong friendships” made with those families.
Audrey Wood, whose son Stuart, 27, died in the crash, raised £235,000 for north-east RNLI lifeboat stations, helped by her family and friends.
Vic was one of those to attended a fundraising evening at the Douglas Hotel in Aberdeen last month. He said: “I have made lifelong friendships with Audrey and her relatives and the funds they and other families have raised has been absolutely amazing.
“It was an honour to be invited to the fundraising event. I have such respect for the families who have shown such strength and positivity in their loss.”