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Court / Helicopter crash inquiry to be held virtually

Preliminary hearing sets starting date at 31 August, seven years after fatal accident happened off Sumburgh

Four oil workers died when this Super Puma L2 crashed into the sea off Shetland in August last year - Photo: Peter Hutchison/ShetNewsThe wreckage of the Super Puma L2 helicopter on 23 August 2013.

THE FAMILY of a woman killed in a helicopter crash off Shetland are “dismayed” that video conferencing technology will be used to conduct the inquiry into the incident.

Lawyer Alan Rodgers told a sheriff that the relatives of Sarah Darnley, 45, would prefer a “traditional” Fatal Accident Inquiry to take place into how a Super Puma chopper crashed in 2013.

Ms Darnley, of Elgin, Moray, was a passenger on the helicopter. She and fellow passengers Gary McCrossan, 59, of Inverness; Duncan Munro, 46, of Bishop Auckland; and 57-year-old George Allison, Winchester, lost their lives during the incident.

A Fatal Accident Inquiry will be held later this year to establish the causes of the accident.

Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland NewsSheriff Principal Derek Pyle. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

Sheriff principal Derek Pyle – the judge tasked with presiding over the case – has announced that the inquiry would be conducted using information technology due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. The inquiry was due to be heard at Inverness Sheriff Court.

Rodgers, who is acting for Ms Darnley’s family, indicated his clients’ unhappiness during a virtual hearing on Friday.

He said they were concerned they would be unable to use the app which will be used to conduct the hearing.

He added: “The family have asked me to register their dismay about the decision to hold the inquiry virtually.

“They would prefer it for a more traditional inquiry to take place in Inverness. They are not blind to the problems caused by the Covid crisis. However, they wish me to record their dismay.”

Sarah Darnley and her fellow passengers were offshore workers. They were onboard a Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma helicopter belonging to CHC Helicopters when it crashed on approaching Sumburgh Airport on 23 August 2013.

The aircraft was flying workers off the Borgsten Dolphin oil platform.

In 2016, a report said flight instruments were “not monitored effectively” by the pilots in the moments leading up to the crash.

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) said a lack of monitoring meant a reduction in air speed was not noticed by the pilots.

Attempts to recover control of the aircraft were too late, they said. The report also said the impact with the water had been “survivable”.

It said one of the four victims had been unable to escape, one was incapacitated by a head injury, one drowned before reaching the surface, and the other died in the life raft from a chronic heart condition.

The hearing on Friday was held after a decision was taken earlier this year to delay the inquiry because of the coronavirus public health emergency.

In January 2020, sheriff principle Pyle criticised the length of time it has taken to arrange the inquiry. He said the time delay was like “wading through treacle”.

“Seven years have gone by, far too long in my view but we are stuck with that. In any view, my determination will not be reached until seven years have passed,” he said.

The sheriff principal for Grampian, Highlands and Islands said his sympathy lay with the families of those involved.

“All the dismay and grief that they suffered is going to have to be revisited by them. That is something that is to be deplored. We need to crack on.”

On Friday, Advocate Depute Martin Richardson QC said that Covid-19 had disrupted preparation for the inquiry.

He added: “The Crown is confident that it is able to complete the work that needs to be done for the inquiry to go ahead.

“The Crown estimates that it would take three to four weeks to complete all the evidence in the inquiry.”

Sheriff Principle Pyle told the lawyers in the case that the time that has lapsed since the crash meant that inquiry should be held as soon as possible.

He added: “It is a priority that inquiry has to be dealt with fully and comprehensively.”

Sheriff Principle Pyle said he noted the Darnley family’s dismay but concluded that he had no other option but to conduct the inquiry virtually. He added: “I have had to take into account a whole series of other considerations.”

It is hoped the inquiry will begin on 31 August. Sheriff Principle Pyle said that if that was the case, the inquiry would be completed by the end of September and he would issue his opinion the following month.

By James Mulholland (of Edinburgh Court Press Service)