HOUSTON — Four bodies were pulled from the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday evening and six other people were feared dead after the twin-engine helicopter that was ferrying them to a drilling ship crashed in blustery weather.
The bodies were discovered floating in a debris field about 60 miles south of Galveston, Texas, the U.S. Coast Guard said. An extensive search and rescue operation that had blanketed a 2,800-square-mile rectangle of the gulf Wednesday was being concentrated on the area where the remains were found.
"The bodies recovered are from the helicopter, so we know we are close to the wreck site," said Jim Shugart, manager of the Gulf Coast division of Era Aviation Inc., the civil aviation company that operated the helicopter. "We've got to get through this. It's going to be a tough night and a tough day tomorrow."
The helicopter was last heard from after 7 p.m. Tuesday, when the pilot radioed his headquarters on the Texas coast to report that he was headed to a ship about 135 miles south of Galveston.
Era Aviation had been hired by El Segundo-based Unocal Corp. to take a Unocal employee and seven contractors to the 835-foot Discoverer Spirit. The Spirit had just completed a drilling operation south of Louisiana and was en route to another drilling site south of Galveston and east of Brownsville, Texas, Unocal representatives said.
At least 600 helicopters are stationed along the Gulf Coast specifically to ferry engineers and other workers to offshore drilling stations. Scores of trips are made each day.
The passengers, who were not identified, included a Unocal petroleum engineer, four employees of Halliburton, one employee of Dril-Quip Inc. and two from Offshore Energy Services Inc., Unocal said.
The pilot was identified as 50-year-old Tim O'Neal of El Lago, Texas, a town on the west shore of Galveston Bay. O'Neal's copilot was not identified.
Era Aviation, based in Anchorage, is one of the nation's largest civil aviation companies and often services the energy companies that pepper the Gulf Coast. It is a subsidiary of Houston-based Rowan Co., an oil services company.
O'Neal was a veteran pilot who had extensive experience flying military aircraft before joining the private sector, said Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Adam Wine.
The helicopter, a Sikorsky S76 capable of carrying 12 passengers, was equipped with life jackets and two life rafts, Wine said. One life jacket was discovered in the debris field. The words "Property of Era" were printed on one panel.