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Helicopter with 16 people down in North Sea

A helicopter returning from a North Sea oil platform went down off the northeast coast of Scotland yesterday with 16 people on board, and police said at least eight were killed.

Scotland's Grampian Police said eight bodies have been recovered from the sea. Authorities searched for the eight remaining people but Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland's nationalist government, said the outlook was grim.

"It looks like we might be might be facing (Britain's) second-worst helicopter support incident in history, in terms of the number of fatalities," he said. "Eight bodies have been recovered, and I am afraid to say the outlook for the other eight people involved is extremely bleak."

BP said the helicopter was returning to Britain from the company's Miller oil field.

Jake Molloy, spokesman for the oil workers union Oilc, said the helicopter was a Bond Super Puma Flight 85 N, which had been due to arrive at Aberdeen Heliport at 2:15 pm local time (1315GMT).

Brian Taylor of the drilling contractor KCA Deutag said he believed ten of his crew were on board, nine from the UK and one from elsewhere in Europe.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said two Royal Air Force helicopters and a Nimrod airplane went to the area, along with ships in the vicinity.

Helicopters have been used to ferry workers to and from the oil and gas fields off the Scottish coast since the construction of platforms there in the 1970s.

Wednesday's crash was the second such incident in the North Sea this year, both involving the Super Puma. In a February crash, everyone was rescued.

In Canada, 17 people died March 12 when a Sikorsky S-92A helicopter ditched in the Atlantic after declaring a mechanical problem. The chopper was carrying workers to two offshore oil platforms when it crashed.

The worst crash in the North Sea was in 1986 when 45 people died after a Chinook crashed into the sea off the Shetland Islands north of Scotland.

Safety was improved after the Chinook crash, and all offshore workers in the North Sea now have to complete tough training in a crash simulator. All wear survival immersion suits and are equipped with personal beacons and floatation devices.

The Super Puma is fitted with air bags, similar to those in cars, that deploy on contact with the water.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said his thoughts were with the families of those involved.

"It's at times like this we remember the risks and dangers people have to undergo working to meet our energy needs," he told reporters.

Buckingham Palace also said in a statement that Queen Elizabeth II has sent a private letter of condolence to the families of the victims of the helicopter disaster.


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