The Pyle Super Puma inquiry: let the courts decide

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In the light of a Fatal Accident Inquiry into a North Sea helicopter crash that claimed that lives of 14 oil industry workers in 2009, the Crown Office Scotland should review its decision not to prosecute any of the parties involved.

Nearly five years after a Super Puma helicopter operated by Bond Offshore Helicopters crashed in the North Sea killing 14 oil workers and two crew, the Sheriff Principal chairing the Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI), Derek Pyle, found that the crash could have been avoided.

The report of the six week inquiry into the circumstances of the crash was published on 14 March 2014, and has attracted considerable heavyweight press coverage, not only in Scotland but throughout the UK.

While the report of the inquiry provides many answers to questions surrounding the cause of the crash there remains a considerable body of support among bereaved families, friends and former colleagues for legal action to determine criminal responsibility.

Within just one day of the publication of the Pyle inquiry report, the Crown Office for Scotland – the body in Scotland with the responsibility for investigating and prosecuting criminal offences – announced that it had changed nothing in regard to its earlier decision not to prosecute.

The Herald reported the Crown Office decision in its feature on the inquiry on 14 March: “For a criminal prosecution to have taken place, the crown would have to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. The Sheriff Principal makes clear that a reasonable doubt remained over the technical cause of the crash. The evidence presented during the FAI has not altered the insufficiency of evidence therefore the decision not to hold a criminal proceeding remains the correct one.”

The extensive coverage of the inquiry all identified that the Sheriff was in no doubt that had the necessary precautions been taken, and the agreed procedures followed, the deaths may have been avoided. The inquiry found that Bond had failed to remove and examine a part of the gearbox just a week before the crash – a task specified in the aircraft maintenance manual – because of a failure in communication with the manufacturer, Eurocopter. Had the company done so, the Sheriff said, the accident may have been avoided.

The Sheriff Principal found that the cause was a catastrophic failure of the helicopter’s main rotor gearbox, caused by spalling (fracturing of metal) in the gearbox.

“The essential fact is that everyone in the company well knew that maintenance must be done by the book. On one occasion, that fundamental rule was broken. It resulted in the failure to detect a significant fault in the helicopter’s gearbox, which possibly, but only possibly, resulted in the crash,” he said.

Channel 4 News reported the reaction of Audrey Wood, who lost her son Stuart Wood in the crash, saying: “On hearing the evidence at the fatal accident inquiry we were surprised and disappointed at the decision of the Crown Office not to proceed with prosecution. How they arrived at that decision will haunt us.

“Safety is absolutely paramount and everything must be done by the book. There can be no excuse for not doing this. The length of wait for nearly five years has been intolerable for all the families and we, the families, feel let down by the system.”

Those who died in April 2009 were: pilots Paul Burnham, 31, of Methlick, and Richard Menzies, 24, of Droitwich Spa. Also killed were Brian Barkley, 30, James Costello, 24, Alex Dallas, 62 and Vernon Elrick, 41, all of Aberdeen; Stuart Wood, 27, of Newmachar; Warren Mitchell, 38, of Oldmeldrum; Leslie Taylor, 41, of Kintore; Raymond Doyle, 57, of Cumbernauld; James Edwards, 33, of Liverpool; Nairn Ferrier, 40, of Dundee; Nolan Goble, 34, of Norwich; Gareth Hughes, 53, of Angus; David Rae, 63, of Dumfries; and Mihails Zuravskis, 39, from Latvia.

It is not too late for the Crown Office Scotland to review its decision not to prosecute. We must have faith in our criminal justice system to determine the central question that remains unanswered – did any party fail to discharge its legal duties and by doing so was it culpable for the unnecessary deaths of 16 workers? Only the courts can decide this.

Neal Stone is director of policy and communications at the British Safety Council.


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