Amundsen awaits word from TSB on Sept. 9 chopper crash salvage operation
"We all want answers on the cause of this tragedy"
The crew of the Coast Guard research icebreaker, the Amundsen, now in Resolute Bay, and directors of the research network Arctic Net, which uses the vessel in the summer, may learn today if the Transportation Safety Board will allow the icebreaker to assist with the salvage operation of the Amundsen’s downed helicopter in McClure Strait near Banks Island.
That’s where the helicopter from the Amundsen crashed Sept. 9, killing three people.
Marc Thibault, commanding officer of the CCGS Amundsen, Daniel Dubé, the helicopter pilot, both of Quebec City, and Klaus Hochheim, a scientist affiliated with the University of Manitoba, all died while conducting a routine ice observation tour.
The helicopter now lies under about 420 metres of sea water.
The first priority for ArcticNet, the Amundsen program, and all people onboard is to help with the salvage operation if the TSB asks for their help, said Martin Fortier, the executive director of ArcticNet.
“We all want answers on the cause of this tragedy, knowing very well that not finding the helicopter would greatly reduce the chance of ever finding the exact cause,” Fortier told Nunatsiaq News.
The equipment on board, which includes a remote operating vehicle, sounders and “moon pool” tank, which goes directly down into the water below the ship, make the Amundsen “an obvious candidate for the operation, maybe working in tandem with a second vessel,” he said.
“We have heard all kinds of scenarios and a final decision is expected on Monday afternoon hopefully,” Fortier said this past weekend.
Meanwhile, ArcticNet continues to weigh its options regarding the rest of its research tour in the Arctic, which was due to head to the Beaufort Sea before returning to Quebec City in mid-October.
“The first step was to assess the state of mind of people on board and their willingness or not to continue,” Fortier said.
A new captain and two counsellors were brought on board Sept. 10, when the Amundsen arrived in Resolute Bay, he said.
Some people were sent home right away Sept. 10 and brought south as part of a crew change of the CCGS Louis St-Laurent, also in Resolute Bay.
“Every single person on board is offered the opportunity to go back home. Some will be leaving in the coming days. Many are grateful to be going through this together while on board for a few days,” Fortier said.
All research work on the Amundsen has been called off “until further notice,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Polar Continental Shelf Program in Resolute is lodging people from the Amundsen until they are flown south.
“If TSB tasks the Amundsen for a salvage operation, most of the scientists onboard will be sent south. We will only keep the people needed to operate the instrumentation needed for the salvage,” Fortier said.
As for the Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm Bo 105 helicopter that crashed, Fortier said similar twin-engine helicopters are already attached to the other Coast Guard ships.
“There is a great chance that we will have to use BO 105’s in the future and we need to make sure they are safe,” Fortier said. “There is great concern that the helicopter would suffer important damage due to salt water corrosion if we were to wait until next year to recuperate it.”
If the TSB decides not to involve the Amundsen in the recovery of the helicopter, the ArcticNet board of directors, along with the lead researchers in charge of programs conducted on board, will then have to make a decision on the continuation or termination of the scientific mission, Fortier said.
That decision will be based on numerous factors — but “first and foremost the willingness, health and safety of the people on board,” he said.
The assessment from the new Amundsen captain onboard is also part of the final decision process.
If a limited research program continues in 2013, the Amundsen will retrieve five moorings that are now deployed in the Beaufort Sea as part of the ArcticNet-Beaufort Regional Environmental Assessment program.
“The ice conditions are also a factor for us to go back in the Beaufort — the further we wait, the less likely we will go,” Fortier said, adding that “given the uncertainty, delays and the present situation,” ArcticNet already cancelled activities, including its 2013 Schools on Board program, which was to start out of Kugluktuk Oct. 1.
The bodies of three men who died are now with the coroner in Edmonton and will likely be released to their families later this week.
“Some of us are now contemplating three funerals for close colleagues and friends in about a week,” Fortier said. “Difficult times for many of us.”