Bodies recovered after chopper crash tragedy

Smoke rises from the wreck of the helicopter crash near Wanaka Airport yesterday. Photo ODT
Smoke rises from the wreck of the helicopter crash near Wanaka Airport yesterday. Photo ODT
Police have recovered the bodies of the three victims of yesterday's helicopter crash in Wanaka.

In a statement this evening, Inspector Olaf Jensen, Otago Lakes Area Commander, said the bodies had been taken to Christchurch for post mortems to be completed.

Nick Wallis, Scott Theobald and Paul Hondelink were killed when their Hughes 500 came down about 1500m from Wanaka Airport yesterday morning. 

Following the recovery of the victims today, a blessing was held at the scene with family, friends, colleagues, community leaders and emergency services present, Insp Jensen said.

"Police are continuing to make inquiries on behalf of the Coroner and we are supporting the investigation of the Transport Accident Investigation Commission.

"Following this tragic accident Police are continuing to support the families of the victims and this will carry on over the coming weeks and months."

Meanwhile, firefighters first on the scene yesterday were horrified they could only watch helplessly as the crashed machine burned after it became clear live ammunition was “cooking off” in the blaze.

The trio took off from Wanaka Airport in blue sky, light winds, perfect conditions, at 10.51am yesterday, northbound for the Landsborough Valley, in the headwaters of the Haast Valley, for the first day of tahr cull operations.

But just moments after take-off, the aircraft inexplicably crashed 1.5km away in a paddock near the banks of the Clutha River. There were no survivors.

A major probe is under way to find out what happened, although police say there are no suggestions of foul play at this stage.

A member of the public called emergency services shortly before 11am reporting smoke coming from the aircraft.

Wanaka Airport firefighters are understood to have rushed to the scene, closely followed by members of the Luggate and Wanaka volunteer fire brigades.

They came across a terrifying scene, with the helicopter ablaze, with a full tank of fuel, and live ammunition for the hunters’ operations that day, “cooking off” in the fireball.

They had to keep a safe distance, knowing there were likely fatalities, and that they may have known the individuals personally.

Crews who attended yesterday’s fatal crash have been offered counselling and support, the New Zealand Herald has been told.

“We will continue to monitor their welfare over the next few weeks,” said Fire and Emergency New Zealand Central-North Otago area manager Keith McIntosh.

“We provide a range of support for our people ranging from peer group support to independent counselling and psychological support if required.”

This morning, specialist crash investigators could be seen at the site, along with several police cars, tents, and officers in a base several hundred metres from the wreckage.

Nick Wallis, survived by a wife and twin 7-year-old daughters, was the director and general manager of Alpine Helicopters, and the youngest son of Sir Tim Wallis, who founded the popular Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow and who himself has survived a reported 15 air crashes.

Southern Police District Commander Superintendent Paul Basham today confirmed there was ammunition on board at the time of the crash.

Police are working to go through the disaster victim identification processes and hoped to be able to remove the bodies later today, Basham said.

Basham attended a briefing at the airport earlier today led by Johnathan Wallis and attended by other police and Doc staff.

It gave him a real sense of the “huge” impact that tragedy is having on the families involved, Doc, the aviation and alpine communities, as well as the wider Wanaka community.

“Everybody involved in this event are really motivated and determined to get through this as quickly and as efficiently as we can,” Basham said.

 

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