A survivor of a horror helicopter crash at sea has told how “training kicked in” to enable him to escape from the submerged aircraft and then attempt to save another passenger.
Matthew Bower, 31, was one of 16 offshore workers on the CHC Super Puma helicopter which ditched in the Atlantic Ocean seven years ago, two miles from Sumburgh Airport in Shetland.
Four people died in the tragedy, which took place in low cloud on August 23, 2013.
Mr Bower, who was working as a chemist on oil platforms at the time of the crash, told a fatal accident inquiry that routine submersive pool training had saved his life.
He described how he sat opposite the “bubbly” Sarah Darnley and spoke to her prior to the crash, but later learned the 45-year-old from Elgin had tragically died.
He went on to attempt to save 59-year-old Gary McCrossan, of Inverness, who had also managed to escape the submerged helicopter, but then suffered a heart attack while on a life raft.
Mr Bower was sitting directly behind the pilots, facing towards the rear of the helicopter.
He said he had fallen asleep during the flight but when he woke he saw Sarah Darnley in a “panicked” state.
Mr Bower said: “It was quite clear she was worried about something.”
He said the helicopter lurched from one side to the other and he saw the sea out of the window, approaching them quickly.
“We were in dense cloud,” he told the inquiry.
“There was some sort of movement which brought me out of my sleep.
“Sarah was opposite me and looked quite panicked. I remember Sarah. She was quite a bubbly character.
“I did not know her previously but in only a few minutes saw her as quite an extrovert.
“Very, very quickly there was this lurching. We seemed to drop out of the cloud. The sea was significantly closer than expected.
“It was quite clear we were falling. I remember the sea coming towards us quite quickly.
“It seem the chopper had lurched to one side and the pilot was trying to right it. We were lurching left to right.”
Mr Bower said he went into the brace position and as the helicopter instantly began to fill with water, he added: “This is when your training kicked in.”
He managed to open the window next to him and escape, and quickly managed to get onto the underbelly of the helicopter.
Joined by other passengers, he managed to get in one of two life-rafts that had inflated.
He said: “I was helping people onto the liferaft.”
On that raft was Mr McCrossan, who he saw had started to suffer from a heart attack.
He and another survivor attempted to save his life, but he said there had been no signs of life and Mr McCrossan was then airlifted by a search and rescue helicopter.
Mr McCrossan was later pronounced dead.
Mr Bower told the inquiry that the pool training simulation he had received, which was compulsory every four years, at the time had “saved my life”.
He was clear that while his hobby of open water swimming was an advantage in surviving, it was “the training got [that] me out of the helicopter”.
“I believe the training save my life. My hobby, perhaps, helped afterwards, more than others who were suffering from shock.”
Mr Bower said he was thankful for the training and the fact he had the advantage of being an open water swimmer. He said he was able to return to flying offshore three years after the tragedy and suffers no long-term effects.
Another recalled how he still has nightmares seven years after the horror tragedy.
Former offshore scaffolder Paul Sharp, 55, told the inquiry: “I remember we broke cloud cover and heard certain noises, then started going down pretty fast.
“There was a crack and a whinny sound before hitting the water.
“It was like a film. All I could see was water on the left and sky on the right, then we just hit water. You could still hear the engine, but not the rotors.
“I remember someone screaming. There was sheer impact on hitting water. The water came in so quickly.”
Mr Sharp managed to escape and reach the surface, but added: “You just think you are going to die. I was hallucinating.
I thought I was going to die there. But I pulled the tab to release the window, but it came out in bits. I punched the window out.
“It was just panic at the time.”
He said he reached the surface but struggled as his survival suit had been filling with water.
He told sheriff principal Derek Pyle: “I still have nightmares. I still suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety.”
When asked if he had any recommendations on how offshore operations could be improved, he said: “They should have wave simulations. The [training] helicopter should be put down with force to show the impact on the seats.
“The seats in the helicopter should be more padded.”
The pilot Capt Martin Miglans suffered spinal injuries from the crash
Mark Martin, 51, who was an offshore construction supervisor at the time of the accident, said he believed the survival training in the offshore industry had deteriorated over the years.
He said the rigorous training provided by the Robert Gordon University team in Aberdeen in the 1980s had been “excellent”, but standards had since become less stringent.
He added: “The Robert Gordon [training] got me to the surface.
“Their training was more realistic, rather than the modern-day ways which are easy exercises with a day in the pool.”
Talking of the day of the tragedy, Mr Martin recalled seeing Duncan Munro and Sarah Darnley on the flight, but once the helicopter entered the water he said they were “not moving”.
He added: “I remember it being foggy. I could just make out the cliffs of Sumburgh beach. It looked like we were hovering. The pilots were looking at each other in a panicked state.
“The helicopter shot to the left and shot to the right and then lurched into the sea.
“The cabin started to fill with water. There was no warning that we were going to a ditched state.”
He said his survival suit had also filled with water.