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Court / Wishart says delay in helicopter crash ruling should trigger ‘fundamental change’ in fatal accident inquiries

The helicopter salvage operation under way in August 2013. Photo: Garry Sandison

SHETLAND MSP Beatrice Wishart says the “inexcusable” gap of seven years between the 2013 helicopter crash off Sumburgh and the recently concluded fatal accident inquiry should trigger fundamental changes in the system.

Wishart said that “instead of knowing exactly what happened and why, everyone involved has been weighed down by the bureaucracy of this investigation”.

In a determination published yesterday (Monday), Sheriff Derek Pyle ruled that pilot error was the reason behind the accident, which directly claimed four lives.

However, he said it is “impossible to come to any definite conclusions in a comprehensive way” about the reasons behind the error.

Sarah Darnley, 45, of Elgin, Duncan Munro, 46, from Bishop Auckland and George Allison, 57, of Winchester, drowned after the helicopter hit the sea 1.7 miles from Sumburgh.

Fifty nine year old Gary McCrossan, from Inverness, died from heart failure following the crash.

One survivor, Sam Bull, took his own life four years later aged 28 after suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

Following Monday’s ruling, Wishart said: “My thoughts are with the families and friends of those who were lost in this terrible incident”.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart. Photo: Shetland News

“The pain of losing a loved one is like no other, and I would pay tribute to the strength and determination shown by those involved in this inquiry,” she added.

However, the MSP continued saying that there are “serious questions” over the fatal accident inquiry process.

Fatal accident inquiries are held to investigate deaths in industrial accidents, in prisons, and deaths where it is felt necessary to hold a public inquiry, and they are led by a sheriff in court. The procurator fiscal is responsible for presenting the evidence.

Wishart has written to Scotland’s chief legal officer the Lord Advocate to request that he gives consideration to fundamental reform in the fatal accident inquiry process.

Commenting, the Liberal Democrat said: “If there are no fundamental changes to the system, a delay like this will only happen again.

“It is time to look at removing fatal accident inquiries from the Crown Office’s responsibilities, and making changes that mean that this never happens again.”

General secretary of the offshore union RMT Mick Cash, meanwhile, said he was “disappointed that the FAI [fatal accident inquiry] predictably kept the scope of the inquiry very narrow, looking at the events at the precise moment of the tragedy”.

“There was no consideration of the wider aspects of what led to the tragedy and the loss of four lives, including RMT member Sarah Darnley,” he said.

The family of Darnley have also said the findings of the fatal accident inquiry have brought them “no closure”.

Michael Bull, whose son Sam tried to resuscitate one of his fellow passengers after escaping from the wreckage, has also spoken publicly following the inquiry findings in a bid to raise awareness of the huge impact trauma can have on people.

Sheriff Pyle was initially critical of the time it took for the Sumburgh inquiry to reach court, but he said in his determination that the Crown had apologised and provided an explanation for the delay.

The sheriff said while the accident occurred in August 2013, the Crown did not lodge the formal notice for the inquiry until November last year.

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

In his determination Sheriff Pyle said the “delays in air accident inquiries seem to be endemic” and often “despite its best efforts, beyond the control of the Crown”.

The sheriff explained that the Crown has two duties – two investigate the circumstances of the accident, and to investigate whether a crime may have been committed.

He said it is “almost inevitable” that the latter – a criminal investigation – will take much longer, due to the gathering of evidence.

“But the principal difficulty for the Crown when performing its criminal investigation of air accidents is that the AAIB [Air Accidents Investigations Branch] takes control of the investigation of the circumstances of the crash,” the sheriff continued.

“This will include, for example, the transporting of the recovered items of wreckage to the AAIB facilities at Farnborough. Doubtless, much written material, such as the pilot flying records and the maintenance records of the helicopter, will also quickly end up in the possession of the AAIB.”

He noted that the court process for the Crown to gain access to the cockpit voice recorder took 18 months, with the AAIB prohibited by law to release it without a court order.

The application to make the recorder available to the Crown and the police was opposed by the British Airline Pilots Association and the two pilots of the helicopter.

“It can therefore be seen that in practice the Crown and the police could not properly conduct the criminal investigation until the AAIB had completed its own, which was not until March 2016 – well over two years from the date of the accident,” the sheriff said.

“But the obstacles before the Crown do not end there.

“The AAIB report cannot be used for the purposes of any criminal proceedings and AAIB personnel can be called to give evidence in such proceedings only in the most exceptional circumstances.

“Thus, to a large extent the Crown and the police have to start from scratch long after the accident has occurred and without the opportunity to take the informed advice of the crash investigators.”

Sheriff Pyle said he encouraged consideration being given to establishing a protocol between the Civil Aviation Authority and the Crown for the investigation of air accidents.