Helicopter nosedives into bay, takes lives of crew and passengers

  • 2005-08-17
  • By Ksenia Repson
TALLINN - Twelve passengers and two crew members died on Aug. 10 when a commercial helicopter flying to Helsinki crashed in Tallinn Bay just minutes after taking off from the Estonian capital.

Thirteen bodies were recovered by a team of 16 Finnish divers in the first two days after the crash, but an extensive search failed to recover the body of the second pilot.

The passengers included six Finns, four Estonians and two U.S. citizens. The Estonian victims included Ruta Kruuda, 38, wife of entrepreneur Oliver Kruuda, and Kristel Soll, 40, Oliver Kruuda's sister.

Interior Minister Kalle Laanet said the safety belt of the missing pilot's seat was unfastened, but it was still impossible to assert whether his seatbelt was unbuckled during the flight.

However, commission member Tonu Ader said the pilots most likely opened the safetybelts themselves, although it was not clear when and under what circumstances.

"We have ruled out the option that the pilots took off with unfastened seatbelts, and it is extremely unlikely that the belts sprang open themselves in the course of the accident," he said.

The helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76, belonged to Copterline, a Finnish-owned outfit that runs flights between the two capitals.

The helicopter was pulled from the sea in one piece on Aug. 13. The vehicle's emergency pontoons opened upon impact but failed to activate for unknown reasons, Ader said after investigating the wreckage.

"If the pontoons had inflated, the helicopter would have remained floating on the water's surface," the expert explained.

According to Economy and Communications Minister Edgar Savisaar, the blades of the chopper's main rotor were broken, but its hub seemed to be in good order. The tail rotor of the machine had fallen off.

"One of the pilot-seat windscreens was badly shattered - much worse than could be detected by the sonar pictures," Savisaar said.

Police chief Robert Antropov said the passports of both pilots 's Peter Fredriksson and Seppo Peurala 's were found in the helicopter cabin.

Forensic experts issued a preliminary report claiming that all the victims died by drowning.

One week after the tragedy, which is already being referred to as the worst aviation catastrophe in recent Baltic history, experts were still at a loss for an explanation as to why it occurred.

The two most probable theories involve a faulty rotor blade, which could have broken off, and a collision with a large bird. Two fishermen in the area at the time said they heard two loud bangs before seeing a helicopter nosedive into the water five kilometers away.

Tonis Lepp, head of Copterline's Estonian operations, denied the possibility that the helicopter struck a bird, and the commission has ruled out bad weather as the cause of the accident.

A commission was set up under the auspices of the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Communications to investigate the accident. Minister Edgar Savisaar said a preliminary report would be completed by Sept. 10, while a final one would be ready only in a year's time.

The commission decided on Aug. 15 to send the helicopter's black box for decoding to the United Kingdom, a ministry official announced.

At a press conference on Aug. 11, government officials tried to assure that the accident was not due to a terrorist attack.

"New witnesses have been interviewed and their statements do not refer to an act of terror. Neither Estonian nor Finnish security police have any information referring to terrorism," Antropov said.

Commission Chairman Taivo Kivistik said the investigation's aim was not to find the culprits, but to establish the cause of the accident in order to prevent such a disaster from happening again.

Meanwhile, border guards will continue to search for the lost pilot by helicopter with the help of Finland's Merikarhu ship, equipped with echo-sound and an underwater robot. Officials will also patrol by watercraft along the western shore of the Viimsi Peninsula and the eastern shore of Naissaar Island. Foot squads have been appointed to check the coastline.

Both Estonian and Finnish Copterline workers bowed their heads for two minutes of silence at noon on Aug. 12 in remembrance of the disaster. Rescue operations were stopped in respect for the moment of silence. Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip has asked that Finnish officials schedule a day of national morning.