Chopper crash a 'mystery'

CHE BAKER AND FAIRFAX
Last updated 18:53 18/08/2014
Jerome Box
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CHOPPER CRASH VICTIM: Jerome Box was killed in a helicopter crash on a heli-skiing trip near Wanaka.

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The director of the helicopter company involved in the fatal crash near Wanaka on Saturday is calling the "gut-wrenching" incident a "mystery".

Jerome Box, 52, a construction company director from Auckland was killed when the Squirrel AS350 B2 belonging to Harris Mountains Heliski crashed on Mount Alta at noon.

Box had been on a heli-skiing trip with four friends, members of Auckland's St Paul's Church parish, and a pilot and ski-guide were also on board the helicopter.

Harris Mountain Heliski director Mark Quickfall said reports the helicopter had clipped the slide of the mountain were unconfirmed.

"Those reports are simply speculation at the moment," Quickfall said.

The company, which has been in operation for more than 30 years and was New Zealand's largest heliski company, had completed over 250,000 heli-skiing flights with more than 50,000 customers, Quickfall said.

"It's a bit of a mystery to us at the moment . . . It's certainly gut-wrenching for us," he said. "Our sympathies are with the family," he said.

The crash, which was spread over a "significant area", was discovered when the pilot failed to check in at an agreed time.

Another HMH helicopter in the area scouted its location and discovered the crash.

It appeared the helicopter had rolled several times down the mountain before ending in a ravine.

Several other Harris Mountains Heliski helicopters nearby, in use on other heli-skiing trips, along with Queenstown and Dunedin rescue helicopters, flew to the scene with medical staff to assist the injured

The pilot, Dave Matthews, suffered minor injuries in the crash and was discharged from Dunedin Hospital yesterday while the company's chief ski guide Mark Sedon, 44, remained in hospital overnight for observation, Quickfall said.

Matthews has worked at The Helicopter Line, part of HMH, for almost four years.

Sedon had been a fulltime internationally qualified climbing and ski guide for more than 15 years and was the director of the New Zealand Mountain Film Festival Charitable Trust.

Two others in the group were airlifted to Dunedin Hospital before being treated for their injuries and discharged.

Another two were treated and discharged from the Wanaka Medical Centre on Saturday.

HMH took two Transport Accident Investigation Commission investigators from Wellington to the site yesterday where a preliminary investigation was conducted.

That included an aerial survey and photography of the wreckage and debris field.

Today three Transport Accident Investigation Commission investigators, supported by helicopter pilots, alpine guides and Wanaka search and rescue personnel, completed inspecting the wreckage.

TAIC said the wreckage was taken from the mountain by helicopter before dark to a drop point on the shores of Lake Wanaka.  

From there it would be moved to secure storage in Wanaka and would eventually be taken to the TAIC’s Wellington technical facility for further examination, investigator-in-charge Ian McClelland said.

The investigation team was also retrieving maintenance records and preparing to interview the pilot and other company personnel tomorrow, he said.

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McClelland said "the debris is scattered some distance over steep snow-covered terrain, and we wish to be sure that all evidence is examined and recovered appropriately.

"The nature of the terrain and mountain conditions mean we will need field support to ensure the job is completed properly as quickly as possible and safely," McClelland said.

Interviews with the pilot and surviving passengers would also be taking place.

"The purpose of the commission's inquiry is to find out what happened and the causes of this with a view to helping prevent future similar accidents."

While the inquiry could take 18 months to complete, the commission had the ability to issue urgent safety recommendations should that be necessary, he said.

Yesterday, St Paul's priest Mathew Newton said Box's family was in shock and doing the best they could. "He was an amazing guy who loved his family incredibly dearly. He lived life at the top throttle," Newton said.

Box was an experienced skier who had been a lead instigator of the heli-skiing trip, he said.

His injured friends were dealing with a mixture of emotions including survivors guilt, Newton said.

"The major thing for them is not the physical injuries but the mental trauma.

"Although we're a large church we're a tight group of people. It was a real shock for a number of us but in saying that there's an amazing sense of people coming together and there's huge support for the family of the deceased and the men who were injured," he said.

- The Southland Times

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