David Leask: The deadly commute

THE nerves are showing. But so is the humour. Sebastiaan Basmenger has lit up as he waits to be airlifted to his job on one of the North Sea's rigs. "I am going to enjoy this," he says, taking the stub of a filterless cigarette from his mouth and smiling. "It could be my last one."

The 38-year-old Dutch engineer has cause for a little trepidation. He is about to be a passenger on the first flight scheduled by Bond Offshore Helicopters since one of their aircraft mysteriously fell from the sky on Wednesday, killing all 16 people on board. He and half-a-dozen co-workers aren't put off, though. "We have to get to our work," he says outside Bond's base at Aberdeen Airport. "And this is the only way to do so."

Colleagues, fleeces zipped up against the morning breeze, shuffle around their sports bags and agree. One admits to being "a bit apprehensive inside"; another shakes his head and falls silent when a friend mentions last week's tragedy. Sharon Gammack, a 26-year-old steward from the Buchan village of Mintlaw, shrugs and takes a puff of her cigarette as she waits to check in. "My dad and my brother work offshore," she said "My other half works offshore. For us, getting on a helicopter is like getting on a bus. It is just part of doing your job. Yes, it's dangerous. But it only hits home when something big happens like this."

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What about the people left behind when she and the rest of her family head for the rigs? What about your mum? "Oh, she's fine," Gammack answers, if not entirely convincingly. "She just said: 'See you in two weeks.'"

Last week, when the news came through, thousands of hearts went into thousands of mouths. The partners, the friends and families of offshore workers all stopped for a second when they heard there had been another helicopter crash in the North Sea. Their first thought: where is my loved one? Then, inside their heads, they started listing their friends and acquaintances; who was due to fly? "Aberdeen is basically a big pit village; and the mine is the North Sea," said one city insider yesterday. "It might be a city, but everybody knows somebody who works offshore. When they say 'close knit' about Aberdeen, they mean it."

More than 100 men and women have died in helicopter crashes in the past 30 years. More still have lost their lives in tragedies, big and small, on the rigs themselves. Fully 167 died in the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988. And, almost unnoticed amid news of the Bond crash, another man was killed in an offshore accident on Wednesday. So, after decades of exploring for black gold, how does the North-east cope with the human cost of a barrel of oil? Stuart Finnigan and his friend Graham Davidson stand in the chilly grey kirkyard at St Nicholas in the centre of Aberdeen and try to think of words. They are on their way to the Aberdeen's "oil and gas chapel", a beautiful 12th century corner of the kirk now devoted to the men and women who live, work – and sometimes die – offshore, to lay flowers and sign a book of condolences. First, though, they have to decide what to write on their bouquets. It's not easy.

"What can you say?" asked Finnigan, a 34-year-old former paratrooper with dark shadows under his eyes. "We knew most of those guys; we worked with them; we were playing Call of Duty with them in the rig's computer room just two or three weeks ago. They were mates." Finnigan and Davidson are both radiation protection engineers, specialists, like all those who died, helping to decommission BP's Miller platform more than 100 miles north-east of Aberdeen. The two men list names of their friends: Moose – James Costello; Woody – Stuart Wood; and Brian Barkley, three of the dead. "I suppose you can't engineer out all the danger," said Finnigan. "There are things you just can't control. These were all great guys. They remind me of the soldiers going up in helicopters in Iraq or Afghanistan. It's risky."

Davidson, who has turned very pale, said: "I was supposed to be flying out to Miller today. I said I would. But I am not sure I wanted to and it would have been quite hard to go through with it. Anyway, they've cancelled. The company decided to slow down the work on Miller; to let people home to think about things and be with their families. They would have all known the guys and they would take things pretty hard. It isn't easy for the families." Finnigan agrees. "My wife knew I was home. But on Wednesday night she just burst into tears. All I could do was reassure her that I am here."

Feelings were much the same on the Miller platform, workers said. One, engineer Ian Morrison, a 45-year-old from Aberdeen, was supposed to be on the flight that crashed, but was asked to stay offshore 15 minutes before it left. "Morale on the platform has obviously been hit hard," he said. "I think there is just a general feeling of devastation, and I think people realise how easily it could have been them. A few guys have expressed real concern about flying again and if I could find an alternative way to get home… I would take it."

Jake Molloy has seen these fears ebb and flow before. For more than a decade he has run OILC, a union, now part of the RMT, that has fought for better safety offshore. He has also seen workers come to terms with the fact that there is no other way to get to their work than by helicopter. "There is no alternative," he said yesterday, as he sipped tea from a Morning Star mug in his Aberdeen office and fielded calls from the occasional nervous flier. "Individuals may opt to postpone flying in order to rid themselves of any anxieties they have. But, if they want to work, they are going to have go back on helicopters. There is no other way.

"I think most workers just accept flying as part of the process. Nobody is going to let the companies adopt more dangerous ways of getting offshore. With the kind of seas we get out there, there is no way we are going to add additional risk by having men winched onto rigs from boats. So we have to put our trust in the hands of the experts, in the hands of the authorities. If you can't trust these people, you should not be out there."

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There have been times when the trust has broken down. Back in 1986, a twin-rotored Chinook crashed into the sea east of Sumburgh Airport in Shetland, and all 45 people on board died. Some workers refused to get back on helicopters. Some left the industry. There was talk of a crisis of confidence. Molloy, then a young worker, remembered the accident well. Unemployed, he took the chance after the accident to get back offshore. "I needed the work, so when I got the call to go back out, I said 'yes'. What they didn't tell me was that I was going to fill a dead man's shoes, that I was going to the Brent Delta platform to replace the guys who died.

"When I got on the rig I went into the accommodation and looked for a locker. One had a guy's name on it that I knew. I asked if any of the lockers were free and someone said, 'yes', the one with the guy's name on it. 'He was killed on the Chinook,' he said. That was hard. That was horrific. I had worked with the guy before and had no idea he was one of the dead. I could not believe it. I had to put my gear into his locker. The other workers on the platform were pretty cut up. They were taken to Shetland and had to wander around a hanger looking at body parts, trying to identify them by tattoos and things. That, of course, was in the days before anyone had heard of post-traumatic stress disorder."

Last night, as it emerged the authorities were having difficulties identifying those remains they had found at the crash site, many in the oil industry remembered the Chinook tragedy, and its mauled and unrecognisable victims.

Molloy eventually became a helicopter landing officer. He manned one of the decks on Brent Delta and handled the flight of another historic crash, of a Super Puma of the kind that went down last week. That accident, in horrendous weather in 1992 off the Cormorant Alpha platform, was to transform helicopter safety, forcing the introduction of new all-weather survival suits, new seatbelts and other innovations. The measures did not stop the deaths. But flying has become safer.

Alex Salmond, the First Minister, when paying tribute to those who lost their lives in last week's tragedy, stressed 60 million passengers had been carried to and from North Sea rigs. Flying, experts said, is no more dangerous than commuting to work by car.

Some oil workers were yesterday still nervous, especially after two accidents in such quick succession. Mark James, 31, from Middlesbrough, was on the Super Puma that ditched in February without loss of life. He watched Wednesday's events with horror.

He said: "At this moment in time I definitely won't be going offshore. I have been going to counselling and seeing doctors; they've been asking if I would go back offshore. On Tuesday, they said to me: 'What's the odds of it happening again?' I said: 'Probably a million to one.' But it happened a day later. I couldn't believe it."

Scotland on Sunday understands that no oil worker has refused to fly since Wednesday's accident. Some, however, especially older men who have been working in the industry since its heady first years in the late 1970s and 1980s, are understood to be thinking of calling an end to their careers.

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Most desperately want to know what happened to the Super Puma; how it came to plummet into the sea with no warning, its pilot only able to blurt out a few words over the radio: "Mayday, Mayday! Oh, f***…" Confidence, industry insiders said, will only really come when the Air Accident Investigation Branch reports back on the crash's causes.

Molloy's union and some others have called the kind of Super Puma that crashed to be grounded until the reason for the accident is known. Many in the industry, however, admit that removing the main workhorse of the North Sea from service would cause a huge upheaval – and hurt businesses already struggling thanks to the recession.

Some in the oil sector, however, still feel their industry doesn't get the recognition it deserves from everybody else in Scotland, in Britain. North Sea oil, in today's political debate on the future of the Union, is often dismissed as a gift from the gods, something unearned. "I know 16 men who would disagree with that," said one man waiting to sign the book of condolences in the kirkyard of St Nicholas. "It takes astonishing engineering and amazing courage to drill in the North Sea. What has happened this week, I think, shows the real price of a barrel of crude."