Search widened for missing helicopter

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UPDATED: The search continued on Friday for a Russian MI-8 helicopter with eight people on board that crashed into the sea just off Svalbard’s Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg late Thursday afternoon. Norwegian authorities mounted a major search and rescue operation, but it’s believed the helicopter sank to the seafloor. The search was expanded Friday with a submarine and Norwegian Coast Guard vessel.

Barentsburg is a Russian settlement on Svalbard that’s home to around 435 people, mostly Russians and Ukrainians working for mining company Arktikugol. It enables Russia to have an important presence on the Arctic archipelago that’s administered by Norway, and has undergone major renovation in recent years. The helicopter was owned by Arktikugol, with its passengers reported to be researchers for a Russian Arctic institute. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The helicopter was owned by the Russian mining company Arktikugol, which has long run coal mining operations at both Barentsburg and Pyramiden on Svalbard. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that the helicopter was on its way from Pyramiden to Barentsburg when it was reported missing around 4pm after failing to arrive at Barentsburg’s small landing pad as planned.

Russian news agency TASS reported that the helicopter was flown by an experienced pilot. Russian news bureau Interfax reported that the passengers on board were researchers from the Russian institute for the Arctic and Antarctic, AANII. They were believed to be staying at Barentsburg, which still has active coal mining operations, a hotel and a population of around 435. Barentsburg has recently undergone major renovations and forms Russia’s most important presence in the international territory administered by Norway, after Pyramiden became a ghost town following the suspension of mining operations.

Norwegian officials sent rescue helicopters from Svalbard’s main settlement of Longyearbyen along with the local authorities’ search and rescue vessel Polarsyssel and other boats. The hospital at Longyearbyen prepared for a major emergency and additional medical staff was flown up from Tromsø to assist.

NRK reported on Friday that the search continued “with unabated force,” and expanded with the arrival of the Norwegian Coast Guard vessel KV Barentshav and a remote-controlled mini-submarine, a so-called ROV that was sent to the scene of the crash during the night. An Orion aircraft used for surveillance and reconnaissance was also sent from Norway’s air base at Andøya. Despite current political tensions between Norway and Russia, the Russian and Norwegian communities on Svalbard have a history of cooperation, especially in emergency situations, and Norwegian officials appear keen to do all they can to help.

The Russian mining company Arktikugol controls Barentsburg, which is characterized as a company town and the site of a coal mining operation. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The seasonal darkness in the Arctic forced rescue crews to use spotlights  on Thursday afternoon and evening over the water where the helicopter was believed to have crashed. The crew of an SAS flight had reported seeing a glimpse of light in the area while on approach to Longyearbyen’s airport, and oil slicks were spotted on the water. Air bubbles also appeared and operations leader Tore Hongseth told NRK there was a strong smell of jet fuel in the area where the search was underway.

“Information we have indicates there’s an object on the seafloor that we can reasonably presume is the helicopter or parts of it,” Hongseth said. “One of the vessels involved in the search and rescue effort could see the object on its sonar equipment.”

NRK reported the crews weren’t giving up hope of finding survivors, and the rescue effort continued through the night. Efforts were launched to obtain the remote-controlled submarine to reach the helicopter wreckage, and the weather initially was relatively calm and clear. That changed during the night, though, when winds increased and stirred up waves that disrupted visibility and made conditions more difficult.

“Reports and observations made in the area indicate the worst has happened, but we know that this type of helicopter has life rafts on board,” Geir Mortensen of search and rescue central for Northern Norway (HRS) told NRK Thursday night. “We must never give up too early, there’s still hope.”

Chances of finding any of the eight on board alive were running out, however, as temperatures fell toward minus-10C: “The possibilities of finding survivors decline as time passes,” Hongset told NRK on Friday morning. “We won’t give up until we are certain we have searched the entire area.” A storm was forecast heading into the weekend.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund