08 September 2005

South Africa: Dive team tells of helicopter rescue mission

Commercial divers working on the Mhlathuze Water sea outfall pipeline on Saturday spoke yesterday about their involvement over the weekend in the dramatic search, rescue and recovery of the crew and helicopter wreckage from the National Ports Authority helicopter which crashed into the sea at the entrance to the harbour.

The group of divers had been out at sea working from the dive support vessel, Ocean Stroom, and a smaller ski boat, Sharka, when they heard a yacht call Port Control that the NPA marine pilot transfer helicopter had gone down.

Dive Supervisor Ivan van Rooyen said that when the call came over the radio, he and several dive team mates from Durban-based Dive Solutions were demobilizing from their offshore dive site about three kilometres off port limits of Richards Bay Harbour due to poor offshore weather conditions.

"When we heard the call I got four of my divers into the ski boat and we raced to the scene to assist where we could. We managed to pick up two survivors (helicopter pilot Johan Basson and marine pilot Ashwani Pathak) who were on the surface in lifejackets," Van Rooyen said.

"We were told there was a third person in the aircraft at the time of the incident, but sadly there was no sign of where the helicopter had gone down. It was later decided that the search and recovery of the third crew man and wreckage would take place on Sunday at first light. We brought the two men back to the small-craft harbour, where paramedics took them to hospital.

"The marine pilot had serious back injuries and was in great pain."

On Sunday morning, Ivan van Rooyen of Dive Solutions remobilized his team of divers in conjunction with the National Sea Rescue Institute's Station 19, to recommence the search and recovery operation.

The wreckage was eventually located by the harbour dredger using sonar equipment.
Police divers managed to remove the body of the engineer/winch man at about 07.00.
Dive Solutions divers salvaged the helicopter wreckage by carefully lifting it from the bottom of the harbour entrance using heavy-duty subsea floatation bags known as parachutes, and then the wreck was towed very slowly by the Ocean Stroom to the tug basin from where it was taken out of the water and removed to the helicopter base
to be inspected by the civil aviation authority.

Van Rooyen described the final lift of the aircraft onto the quayside as extremely delicate, requiring careful securing to the crane cable to prevent the aircraft breaking up.

"It was a technically challenging underwater salvage operation to lift the wreckage up in one piece from the seabed, but with experience and the right resources at our disposal, we were able to complete our work to the satisfaction of the Authorities involved."

All role-players involved in the search and rescue and salvage operations came in for high praise from Harbour Master Captain Ravi Naicker.

Source: www.ports.co.za


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