Witness tells different story of downed helicopter

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff
Posted Aug. 03, 2009, at 8:05 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — The damaged helicopter from the luxury yacht Lady Christine was hauled to Belfast Harbor on Monday and then to the Belfast Airport to await inspection from the Federal Aviation Administration. A witness indicated the Saturday incident was significantly more serious than initially reported.

The helicopter flight originated from the helipad aboard the Lady Christine, a 185-foot luxury yacht that was docked in Bangor last week and owned by Scottish billionaire Irvine Laidlaw. The gleaming white vessel had departed Bangor and was moored in Castine Harbor before the afternoon flight Saturday.

Authorities said the small helicopter landed in the waters of Swains Cove off Little Deer Isle, an island off the Hancock County coastline, some five to seven miles from where the yacht was moored. Four people escaped from the aircraft after the emergency landing, which broke the helicopter’s windows.

A rotor blade also was broken and later patched with duct tape, visible as the machine was off-loaded onto a Belfast Boat Yard tractor-trailer. The Sunset Destroyer, a private barge owned by Pendleton Yacht Yard in Islesboro, brought the crippled helicopter to the mainland.

The helicopter — which was floating on deployed air bags — was towed close to shore Saturday by a lobster boat, according to authorities. Curtis Barthel, commanding officer of Coast Guard Station Rockland, said that the captain of the Lady Christine told officials that the pontoons, which were cracked, were just a temporary fix.

“He called me up and said that they’ll start losing air and the helicopter will sink,” Barthel said Monday. “Those air bags were only meant for the people to escape. We towed it into shallower waters to make it easier to recover.”

Coast Guard crews also hoped to be able to contain the fuel if the helicopter sank, although as it turned out there were only 30 gallons or so on board, Barthel said.

Information distributed to the media on Saturday from federal agencies about a helicopter going down differed from accounts of those who witnessed the incident firsthand.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard indicated that the helicopter executed a controlled landing.

“The only thing controlling it was gravity,” said Mary Offutt, who lives nearby and saw the helicopter fall from the sky and into the water. “It was flying around overhead and then it just dropped. It came down spinning like a corkscrew. There was a huge splash.”

Officials also said Saturday that the helicopter was not significantly damaged and that no one was injured.

Offutt, however, said she talked to yacht crew members at the crash scene on Sunday who called the helicopter a total loss. She also said one of the four passengers in the helicopter was taken to a local hospital and then transferred to a facility in Bangor.

“When we saw what happened, I figured everyone had died,” the woman said.

Several other witnesses called, e-mailed or posted comments on the Bangor Daily News Web site on Sunday and Monday offering a different version of the events than what was described by authorities.

Jim Peters, a spokesman for the FAA in New York, said his understanding of what happened is exactly what was distributed over the weekend.

“It’s not uncommon for witnesses to see things differently or to exaggerate,” he said by telephone Monday.

As for the report of injuries, Peters said things develop after authorities leave, so “that could be true.”

Per federal law, none of the passengers has been identified, but a Coast Guard official said Saturday that the helicopter’s pilot was the yacht’s owner. The BDN identified the Lady Christine’s owner last week as Laidlaw, a member of the British House of Lords.

Peters said investigators still are not sure why the helicopter suddenly was forced to land in the waters of Swains Cove. The FAA will continue to investigate.

Bangor Daily News Reporter Abigail Curtis contributed to this story.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/08/03/news/bangor/witness-tells-different-story-of-downed-helicopter/ printed on July 28, 2014