Weather hampers NZ alpine crash recovery as bodies identified
November 22 2015 04:54 PM
Photograph released by New Zealand police
Photograph released by New Zealand police


AFP/ Wellington

Specialist alpine rescuers Sunday recovered the bodies of three people killed when their sightseeing helicopter crashed into a New Zealand glacier, but bad weather delayed efforts to retrieve the corpses of the other four victims.

Police described conditions on the Fox Glacier, a popular tourist site on the west coast of the South Island, as "dangerous" and said it could take two or three days to retrieve all the victims.

Four British and two Australian tourists, as well as their New Zealand pilot, died when the helicopter plunged into the heavily-crevassed glacier during bad weather on Saturday.

The dead were identified as Britons Andrew Virco, 50, and Katharine Walker, 51, of Cambridge; Nigel Edwin Charlton, 66, and Cynthia Charlton of Hampshire; along with Australians Sovannmony Leang, 27, and Josephine Gibson, 29, from New South Wales state.

Police had initially said Leang and Gibson were from South Australia.

The pilot, Mitch Gameren, 28, had only recently returned to New Zealand after flying medical evacuation missions in Malaysia.

In a statement, the Charlton family said the couple had two children and three grandchildren.

"They were very adventurous when it came to travel and this holiday was to be their last big adventure together," the family said.

"We are grateful that they remain travelling together but heartbroken that their new itinerary started the way that it did.

"We would wish to send our gratitude to the brave teams making the recovery efforts and understand the need to consider their own safety above all else."

Continuing rain and low cloud hindered recovery efforts until a break in the weather late Sunday morning allowed helicopters to take the specialist recovery team to the site of the disaster near the top of the glacier.

Three bodies were recovered before the weather closed in again and the operation was halted for the day.

Police Inspector John Canning said the recovery would resume when conditions improved, but the immediate forecast was not good.

"The weather has turned bad at the top of the glacier," he said. "The conditions up there are dangerous.

"Our plan is to go forward and recover the remaining bodies up there in the next day or so. It could take two or three days."

Mike Nolan, a spokesman for Alpine Adventures which operated the Squirrel helicopter, said the ongoing dismal weather meant it would take time to complete the recovery.

"Hopefully there are some breaks in between where they can make progress -- but at this stage it's really slow," he told the New Zealand Herald.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known and aviation authorities were investigating.

Police were only alerted when the helicopter's emergency locator beacon was activated late Saturday morning.

Debris was later found scattered over several hundred metres with the main part of the helicopter wedged between house-sized blocks of ice.

All sightseeing tours over the glacier were grounded on Sunday to give airspace priority to the recovery operation.

The 13-kilometre-long (eight-mile) Fox Glacier is listed as one of the world's most accessible glaciers and attracts thousands of tourists each year.


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