Helicopter with 14 aboard crashes in Baltic Sea, no survivors found

A helicopter with 2 pilots and 12 passengers crashed and sank in the Baltic Sea, rescuers cannot find any survivors.

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

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.

"On behalf of the Interior Ministry, I would like to express my condolences to the families of those killed in the accident," Rajamaki said in a short statement.

Estonian maritime rescue service spokesman Aivar Murikse said rescuers had made sonar contact with the wreckage on the seabed 48 meters (157 feet) below, and divers were going down to inspect it.

"I'm afraid we haven't found any survivors," Murikse said. "It's not possible to survive at this depth, in my opinion."

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.

"It looks bad, indeed, for the people on board the helicopter. We have no news of survivors," said Timo Auranen, duty officer at the Finnish Maritime Rescue Center in Helsinki, adding that a Finnish rescue helicopter with divers was on standby if needed.

Bill Davnie, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, confirmed that two of the passengers were American citizens.

"They were not embassy personnel, neither were they members of the American team at the Helsinki world athletics championships," Davnies said, but he could not provide more details.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known. A storm in the area caused operators to cancel the fast ferries between Tallinn and Helsinki. Winds speeds of more than 70 kph (45 mph) were reported on the Baltic Sea.

The helicopter was operated by Finnish company Copterline. It took off from Tallinn harbor at 12:40 p.m. (0940GMT), 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.

"We couldn't find anybody, only debris," Murikse said. "Apparently, the impact of the crash was quite hard."

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 80-kilometer (50-mile) Gulf of Finland since 2000 without any previous accidents. The crossing takes about 18 minutes.

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet had been on a Copterline flight from Tallinn to Helsinki earlier Wednesday, but not on the aircraft that crashed, ministry spokeswoman Ehtel Halliste said.

"He took an earlier flight," Halliste said. "He's absolutely safe and in fine health." Paet was in Helsinki to meet Finnish officials and visit the world athletics championships.

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