'Too few life aids on ditched helicopter'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 August, 2010, 12:00am

A passenger on the helicopter that plunged into Victoria Harbour last month says he nearly drowned because there were not enough life jackets on board and some of those that were available could not be opened.

Businessman Nick Barclay, who cannot swim, says he was forced to leap into the choppy harbour without a life jacket and would have died if it hadn't been for the help of his friend and colleague, Matt Ames, who was also on the flight.

Both men have also hit out at the lack of communication or apology from Sky Shuttle - the operator of the stricken helicopter - in the five weeks since the accident. They say the company has refused even to refund the price of their tickets unless they sign a waiver absolving it of any responsibility or liability for what happened.

Sky Shuttle says there were enough life jackets, but won't answer questions about them malfunctioning.

Barclay, 48, a Briton who is a Hong Kong permanent resident, has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his ordeal. He may also need surgery after suffering nerve damage he says left him in excruciating pain and barely able to use his left hand.

The Macau-bound Sky Shuttle AgustaWestland AW139 helicopter flown by company chief pilot Richard Moffatt ditched in the harbour seconds after take-off from the company's helipad at the Shun Tak Centre in Sheung Wan on July 3.

At the time the aircraft was the subject of a worldwide safety alert issued by the European Aviation Safety Agency over problems with its tail boom. Eleven passengers had to swim to rescue boats after abandoning the helicopter, downed when part of its tail broke off. No serious injuries were reported at the time.

Both Hong Kong and Macau civil aviation officials are investigating because Sky Shuttle - formerly known as East Asia Airlines and owned by casino tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun - is based in Macau. The helicopter's Italian manufacturer, AgustaWestland, is also involved in the investigation, which is expected to take months, if not years.

Ames and Barclay, who are senior executives with a United Kingdom-based investment firm, say they did not want to go public with their concerns but felt forced to do so by Sky Shuttle's actions since the accident.

Barclay said from the UK: 'The total lack of any kind of an apology, an acknowledgement or even a 'how are you?' is quite incredible. But even worse for me is the fact that my life jacket failed to open - the sealed plastic container it was in seemed to have fused stuck with heat and moisture. Matt had a go at opening it and couldn't get it open. He even tried ripping it open with his teeth.

'This meant I had to bail out into Victoria Harbour with no life jacket. I just remember hanging on to Matt. There were a couple of occasions when I was pulling him down. I thought I was going to drown. That terrible 11 minutes we were in the harbour was made even more frantic by the fact that I didn't have a life jacket.

'There appeared to be no spares [life jackets) and there was one empty seat, so there should have been. The fact that two grown men had a go at opening a life jacket and it wouldn't open is just not acceptable.

'The company seems to be going through a stonewalling process and pretty much the attitude is, if you want anything, you're going to have to sue us to get it.' Barclay, who lived in Hong Kong for 17 years, was married here and whose daughter was born at Matilda Hospital, said he was being treated by a neurosurgeon at London's Wellington Hospital and couldn't sleep because of post-traumatic stress.

'I am suffering from lack of sleep,' he said. 'Every time I close my eyes I can see myself drowning in the harbour, I keep getting flashbacks. I am on very, very strong painkillers and have pretty much lost the use of my left hand through the excruciating pain.'

Fellow Briton Ames, 35, who managed to get his life jacket open and on, said he was also suffering from sleepless nights. 'You expect the basics,' he said. 'You don't expect to have to struggle to get a life jacket out of its bag. I'm a strong guy but couldn't undo it, even with my teeth. Maybe I could have opened Nick's if I had more time but we'll never know. Without my life jacket I don't know if both of us would have survived. It was horrendous. You expect life jackets and you expect life jackets that are easily accessible. It was inexcusable not to have enough or have ones that were not easily accessible.'

Sky Shuttle insists there were 14 life jackets on the helicopter when it crashed, but declined repeatedly to answer Sunday Morning Post questions about their malfunction.

In response to a series of questions, Sky Shuttle said: 'As the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department is still conducting its investigations, SSHL is unable to provide any further comment at this stage. Nevertheless, SSHL has been proactively dealing with and responding to the passengers' concerns following the incident. SSHL, its insurers and their lawyers are now handling the passenger claims in accordance with the applicable law.

'Their claims are governed by the Carriage By Air Ordinance and the extent of liability which SSHL may have depends in part on the cause of the accident which is still being investigated. But, in any event, the law requires that the passengers prove what losses they have suffered. At this time, there has only be an initial exchange of correspondence between the parties' legal representatives and SSHL has asked that the passengers provide actual proof of the losses suffered.

'Regarding the life jackets, as confirmed by HKCAD, there were 14 on board the subject helicopter.'