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Copter with 10 aboard missing off Texas coast

HOUSTON -- The Coast Guard yesterday focused on a mile-long oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico as it searched for a helicopter that disappeared with 10 people aboard on its way to an oil exploratory ship. The helicopter last made radio contact Tuesday night, when it was about 90 miles south of Galveston.

"We are hoping that something went wrong and they maybe landed on a different platform," Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Adam Wine said. "We are hoping for the best."

No signs of the helicopter were found overnight. There were no reports of bad weather, and everyone on board was believed to be wearing life jackets, the Coast Guard said.

Officials did not know what caused the oil slick, about 120 miles south of Galveston.

"We have concentrated our search in that area to see if that might be any indication of where the aircraft might have went down if it went down," Wine said.

Water temperatures in the area average in the upper 60s at this time of year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The total search area encompassed 2,800 square miles. An 87-foot patrol boat, four offshore supply vessels, and two commercial aircraft were among those helping in the search.

The Coast Guard identified the pilot as Tim O'Neal of El Lago, but did not name the others. The helicopter is owned by Alaska-based Era Aviation Inc. and was chartered by El Segundo, Calif.-based oil company Unocal.

Christi Petitjean, who said her husband, Jason, was a passenger on the helicopter, was waiting by the phone at her home in Rayne, La.

"If there is anybody that is going to make it and is going to save everybody else, it is Jason," she said. The couple have a 2-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.

The helicopter was heading to the oil exploratory ship Discoverer Spirit, roughly 110 miles south of the oil slick.

The twin-engine helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76A, can hold up to 12 passengers and is described on Era Aviation's website as a reliable helicopter that can fly at night and in bad weather.

Era Aviation's employees are trained on sophisticated flight simulators and are taught water survival skills, according to the website.

Hundreds of offshore helicopter flights to oil rigs, platforms, and ships occur daily, Era Aviation employee Frank Draves said.

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