A SPECIALIST survey vessel was today due to sail out to the North Sea to lead the daunting task of recovering the wreckage of the doomed Super Puma, as Scotland's First Minister suggested a public inquiry may be needed to learn the full lessons of the disaster.
A massive search operation for the eight missing men was finally called off at 6pm last night after RNLI lifeboats, fishing boats and ferries had helped in the grim hunt.
The Vigilant, which was already deployed in the search operation, has been tasked by the government's Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) with finding the helicopter fuselage – in which their bodies are believed to be entombed.
It was travelling back to Peterhead last night to pick up specialist survey equipment before returning to the scene for the first stage of what will be a massive investigation to establish the precise cause of the tragedy.
As with previous disasters in the North Sea oil and gas industry, a fatal accident inquiry is certain to be held. But Alex Salmond, addressing a sombre Scottish Parliament yesterday, said that a full public inquiry may be required.
Such an inquiry, chaired by High Court judge Lord Cullen, was held into the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, the world's worst offshore tragedy, in which 167 oilmen died.
He told MSPs: "It seems clear to me that an inquiry in public will have to be considered, and this will be a matter to be considered by the law officers and by ministers."
Mr Salmond continued: "We're all aware of the economic benefits brought by North Sea oil and gas – millions, indeed billions, of pounds. But we're equally aware those benefits can come at a dreadful cost in human life. With this latest incident, over 100 crew and passengers have lost their lives in aircraft accidents in the North Sea over the last 30 years.
"It's our duty as a government and as a parliament, working with the oil and gas industry and its workforce, to learn the lessons of this accident and to do all in our power to ensure that safety is the ultimate priority. Let that stand as the memorial we can give to the lives of those who died so tragically."
Bernard Looney, BP's managing director for North Sea operations, also spoke yesterday of the need to ensure that the 16 men had not died in vain.
Mr Looney said: "It is imperative that we learn from this incident. It is imperative that we get to the bottom of this incident – that we establish the root cause. That is the purpose of the AAIB investigation, which will take some time. It will take some patience, quite frankly."
Jim Murphy, the Secretary of State for Scotland, also pledged that the government would take the "necessary action" to protect North Sea safety levels.
He told MPs: "The Air Accidents Investigation Branch is conducting a full investigation into the circumstances of the event and a team of 14 branch staff has been deployed to Aberdeen, including experts in helicopter operations, engineering, flight recorder replay and data analysis."
Sue Todd, offshore development officer with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, said the task of locating the wreckage would be helped considerably by the fact that the crash had been witnessed by the crew of the Norman Aurora, a standby boat that was less than three miles from the impact site.
But she also revealed the helicopter's emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) – a vital tool in helping to locate downed aircraft and sunken ships – had failed to function. She said: "The EPIRB should float free. They have a hydrostatic release on them. We weren't made aware of any EPIRB detection. Whether it didn't float free or was damaged, I don't know."
Ms Todd stressed the failure of the vital signal had not hampered the massive operation mounted on Wednesday after the Super Puma plunged from the sky and apparently disintegrated on impact. Nevertheless, The Scotsman understands the apparent failure of the beacon to operate will form a key part of the investigation.
Ms Todd said the Puma would be lying at a depth of about 92 metres. A potential search area of three square miles had been identified. She added: "There is every possibility the (missing] men are entombed in the wreckage. These guys would have been strapped into their seats. If this incident was sudden and catastrophic they may not have had time to escape, despite their training."
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