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Copter Carrying 14 Crashes Into Baltic Sea

August 10, 2005

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) _ A helicopter carrying two pilots and 12 passengers crashed and sank in the Baltic Sea off the Estonian coast Wednesday. Officials said rescuers were unlikely to find any survivors.

The U.S.-made Sikorsky S-76 helicopter was on a commercial flight from the Estonian capital, Tallinn, to Helsinki, Finland, when it went down in strong winds shortly after takeoff about three miles off the coast, officials said.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but a storm in the area caused operators to cancel the fast ferries between Tallinn and Helsinki, and wind speeds of more than 45 mph were reported on the Baltic Sea.

Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said there was no hope of finding anyone alive, and Finnish Interior Minister Kari Rajamaki sent condolences to the families of the victims.

Estonian maritime rescue service spokesman Aivar Murikse said an unmanned underwater robot had found the wreckage on the seabed, 157 feet below the surface, but that there was no sign of survivors.

``We couldn’t find anybody, only debris,″ he said. ``Apparently, the impact of the crash was quite hard.″

Kairi Leivo, a spokeswoman at the Estonian Embassy in Helsinki, said the pilots were Finns and the passengers included six Finns, four Estonians and two U.S. citizens. Their names were not released.

Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation sent forensic experts to help Estonian officials identify the victims, the bureau said. They were expected in Tallinn by Wednesday evening.

The helicopter was operated by Finnish company Copterline. It took off from Tallinn harbor at 12:40 p.m., said Tonis Lepp, a senior Copterline pilot in the company’s Tallinn office.

``A few minutes after takeoff there was a call from air traffic control (in Tallinn) saying that the helicopter was no longer visible on the radar and does not answer by radio,″ Lepp said in an interview on Finnish YLE TV. ``They asked us if we could reach them on our own frequencies. ... We tried our frequency, but could not reach the chopper.″

When rescuers arrived, the tail section of the chopper was sticking out of the water while the rest of the aircraft was submerged, said Mati Raidma, head of the Estonian rescue service.

The helicopter then sank, leaving only scattered debris floating on the water’s surface, rescuers said.

Earlier Wednesday, fierce winds snapped the mast of a Polish sailboat in the Baltic Sea off the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Nine sailors were rescued and taken to hospital in Poland, while the search for a 10th sailor believed to be in the water was interrupted because of bad weather.

In Lithuania, the storm knocked down power lines, cutting electricity to about 47,000 homes. About half of them had power restored by Wednesday afternoon, according to the RST utility company.

Copterline has operated commercial helicopter flights across the 50-mile Gulf of Finland since 2000 without any previous accidents. The crossing takes about 18 minutes.

Last year, Finnish aviation authorities temporarily banned the company from flying helicopters in bad weather due to inexperienced pilots. The restriction was lifted after the company made necessary changes to flying policy.

Copterline managing director Kari Ljungberg maintained that the pilots on the crashed helicopter were experienced and well-trained.

Ljungberg said the company had no information about the cause of the accident, but said that the weather was not to blame and that the helicopter flew at a ``normal height.″

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