BARENTSBURG CRASH UPDATE: Researchers were supposed to take boat instead of fatal flight; body found near wreckage identified


Three researchers killed when a helicopter crashed into the sea near Barentsburg weren’t initially supposed to be aboard the flight that took off from Pyramiden, but joined the five crew members aboard the aircraft when weather prevented a boat from reaching the abandoned Russian settlement, according to an official at the company that owned the helicopter.

The Russian Mi-8 helicopter was scheduled to fly 15 Trust Arktikugol employees from Barentsburg to Pryamiden before the crew members returned, Dmitry Zhelyazkov, deputy general director of Convers Avia Airline, told RIA Novosti. The scientists were supposed to travel by boat to retrieve instruments used for a hydrology study, but that changed when the weather deteriorated.

“Therefore, it was decided to take them on flight to Pyramiden along with the employees of Trust Arktikugol because there were vacant seats,” he said.

The legality of carrying the researchers was questioned last week by Svalbardposten, which reported Convers’ flight permit  is “explicit that they only have permission for local flights for passengers and goods in connection with Trust Arktikugol’s coal mining operations in Svalbard.” Zhelyazkov told RIA Novosti the flight was not commercial, so no permission was required.

The helicopter crashed during the return flight about two kilometers northeast of the Barentsburg helicopter, with a “piloting error” being cited as the preliminary cause.

Only one body has been recovered so far, who was identified Tuesday as Kaulio Maxim Valeryevich, 25, of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, according to RIA Novosti. He was discovered about 130 meters from the helicopter wreckage on the seabed.

All but one of the 25 lifejackets were found in the helicopter and none of them had been prepared for use. A lifejacket – not necessarily from the aircraft – shoe, bag and jacket are the only other items recovered near the crash site. In addition to the search at sea by ships, divers and remote-controlled submarines, hundreds of kilometers of coastline have been searched by helicopters and on foot.

Dozens of Norwegian and Russian recovery workers with multiple agencies are continuing to search for the remaining passengers, although the few hours of useable daylight for coastal searches is diminishing daily and winter storms are forecast for the area starting Wednesday night.

The G.O. Sars, a research vessel which identified the helicopter, was released from recovery efforts Monday, Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said in a prepared statement. She said no decision has been made on  how long the search efforts will continue.