22 Nov 2015

Bad weather hampers crash recovery

9:46 pm on 22 November 2015

Forecast bad weather may delay recovery of the remaining four victims of the Fox Glacier helicopter crash which killed seven people.

The first recovery chopper leaves for the Fox Glacier.

The first recovery chopper leaves for the Fox Glacier. Photo: RNZ / Peter Newport

A break in the weather on Sunday allowed police teams to recover three of the bodies, which have been taken to a temporary mortuary in Fox Glacier township.

Inspector John Canning, who is leading the police recovery operation, told RNZ he would not compromise safety in the recovery of the four remaining bodies.

Strong winds and heavy rain are forecast to set in over the next 24 - 48 hours. The weather is likely to ground the helicopters being used by the recovery team to access the helicopter wreckage which sits high up on the glacier.

The wreck of the AS350 helicopter remains wedged in a crevasse towards the top of the glacier.

Police, military and civilian teams were in the township of Fox Glacier on Sunday waiting for a break in the weather and it came just before midday, allowing multiple helicopter flights.

Inspector Canning said that the temporary weather window was enough to get work started.

"We have winched staff down to the crash scene and recovered some bodies, then the weather closed in, we have not started the disaster victim identification scene examination yet."

The body recovery operation meant that the air crash investigators had to do their initial survey of the wreckage using stills and video cameras from the air.

It was not safe to have the two teams on the glacier at the same time.

The wreckage of the helicopter on Fox Glacier.

The wreckage of the helicopter on Fox Glacier. Photo: NZ Police

Peter Northcote is onsite manager for the crash investigation.

"Now we're in the process of working out, obviously identifying the wreckage as best we can from photographs and started to think about what the best process of approaching and recovering that wreckage might be."

Victims named

Police have named the seven people they believe were on board the helicopter.

Mitch Gameren

Pilot Mitch Gameren Photo: Supplied / Facebook

All six passengers and pilot Mitch Gameren were killed when the aircraft crashed into rugged and heavily crevassed terrain on the glacier yesterday morning.

Four passengers from Britain were named as Andrew Virco, 50, and Katharine Walker, 51, both from Cambridge, and Nigel Edwin Charlton, 66, and Cynthia Charlton, 70, of Hampshire.

The Australian tourists believed to be on on board were Sovannmony Leang, 27, and Josephine Gibson, 29 both of New South Wales.

Formal identification likely to take some time - police

Police in charge of recovering bodies from the Fox Glacier helicopter wreckage say the job may take longer than expected.

Inspector Canning has told RNZ that although three bodies were recovered today, the remaining four may take some time due to extremely dangerous conditions on the glacier.

Bad weather today delayed the start of the recovery operation and police needed assistance from an Alpine Cliff Rescue team in order to work on the glacier during a brief period of reasonable weather.

The three bodies that have been recovered will be held in a temporary mortuary in Fox Glacier township while they undergo an identification process.

A recovery team prepares to leave for the crash site.

A recovery team prepares to leave for the crash site. Photo: RNZ / Peter Newport

Mitch Gameren's stepfather Kelly Bray said the 28-year-old pilot had been flying rescue helicopters in Malaysia over the winter season there, and had returned to New Zealand only last month.

Mr Bray said his stepson was a very safety-conscious pilot who had been flying for more than five years and had almost completed 3000 flying hours.

Mr Gameren had been employed by helicopter sightseeing company Alpine Adventures.

The company began helicopter tourist flights as Fox Glacier Helicopter Services in the early 1980s, its website said. It employed nine pilots and up to 17 ground crew, office staff and management. The company also owns Tekapo Helicopters and Kaikoura Helicopters.

Read more

Police, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) will be investigating the crash.

"The first priority will be to get an aerial reconnaissance of the accident scene and from then to plan a safe way to approach and do the different jobs which the agencies are responsible for," TAIC spokesperson Peter Northcote said earlier.

"We will be looking at three broad areas: the environment, that's not only the weather, but also the regulatory environment and the helicopter company's operations; the machine in terms of its design and maintenance and any issues there; then the people involved, the pilot and those concerned with the safe operation of the aircraft."

Fox Glacier operations centre

Fox Glacier operations centre Photo: RNZ / Peter Newport

Prime Minister John Key said he had expressed his condolences to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the deaths of two Australians in the crash.

Mr Key said he saw Mr Turnbull last night and passed on his condolences. The two leaders are attending the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur.

no caption

Graphic: Supplied