Anzac Day chopper crash bodies recovered
Investigators have been sifting through wreckage trying to discover why an air force Iroquois helicopter on its way to Anzac Day activities crashed early today, killing three airmen and seriously injuring another.
The Defence Force has named the three men as Flying Officer Daniel Stephen Gregory, pilot, 28; Corporal Benjamin Andrew Carson, helicopter crewman, 25, and Flight Lieutenant Hayden Peter Madsen, pilot, 33.
The Iroquois was on its way from Ohakea Air Base in Manawatu to Anzac Day commemorations in Wellington when it crashed shortly before 6am in rugged terrain near Pukerua Bay, about 40km northeast of Wellington.
The three men died at the scene. The bodies of the three men were recovered from the crash site shortly before 5pm.
Prime Minister John Key is cutting short his trip to Turkey and the Gulf states to attend the funeral of the three air men.
A fourth unnamed man was winched from the scene and transported to Wellington Hospital, where he is in a serious but stable condition. One News reported that it understood the man had suffered chest and leg injuries and had undergone surgery.
Speaking at a press conference at Ohakea Air Base, Air Vice Marshall Graham Lintott was visibly upset as he spoke of the crash "with deep and heart felt regret".
"We had to inform family today of the worst news anyone can hear of their loved ones."
"Today we remember those who lost their lives at Gallipoli… now we must add three more.
"They were all too young… and now we mourn their loss.
Air Vice Marshall Lintott, who paused as he was overcome with emotion, said he was "immensely proud of our young fliers and all those in our Air Force family".
He said today’s incident was "one of the worst" crashes the Air Force has dealt with.
"We haven’t had three fatalities in one accident in decades."
He said the last was in a crash into the Kaipara Harbour in 1972.
Air Vice Marshall Lintott said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash but something obviously went "very, very wrong".
"The flight regime would have been standard, the weather was poor, but we fly in poor weather all the time," he said.
"We do fly in inclement weather."
Air Vice Marshall Lintott said night vision glasses were on board at the time, but the investigation would reveal whether or not they were being used by the pilots.
"Any death is wasteful and I guess when you lose three people, it's just that much harder to take at the time."
He said the two other helicopters did not see what happened to the third.
"We believe the formation split up and went their individual way. One landed at Wellington, one landed at Paraparaumu, and the other one… we know what happened."
He said Air Force staff has been with the next-of-kin all morning.
"We are flying their next-of-kin from around New Zealand… providing ever possible support to the family," he said.
"Our rules is that our families provide such staunch support… we consider them Air Force family. … We will give them every support and services we can over the next few weeks… and months."
PM TO ATTEND FUNERAL
Defence Minister Wayne Mapp told Stuff that Mr Key is planning to return to New Zealand and the prime minister's office has just confirmed that he plans to be back by Tuesday morning.
Mr Key has been in Turkey for the Anzac Day commemorations at Gallipoli and was planning to join a trade delegation to Bahrain and Kuwait.
Mr Key expressed shock and sorrow at the deaths of the three Royal New Zealand Air Force personnel.
Mr Key is in Gallipoli for Anzac Day to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the landings by Australian and New Zealand forces there.
"I was informed early this morning of the crash," said Mr Key.
"I am shocked and saddened by this tragic event. My thoughts are with the families of the victims, the family of the injured man, and the entire New Zealand Defence Force.
"To have this happen when the helicopter was heading to Wellington for an Anzac Day flypast is an absolute tragedy.
"I am sure that all New Zealanders will join with me in offering the families of the victims, and the Defence Force, our deepest condolences."
INCORRECT REPORT GIVEN TO DEFENCE MINISTER
Meanwhile, Wellington Hospital spokeswoman Raylene Bateman said reports that the fourth air force member had died were "absolutely incorrect" and the inaccuracies were "upsetting" to the Defence Force and the man's family.
He is described as being in a serious but stable condition.
"I cannot say what the nature of his injures are but it is my understanding that his injuries are not life threatening," Ms Bateman said.
Dr Mapp reportedly told Anzac commemorations in Auckland that the fourth crew member died in hospital – however a spokesman for the minister since confirmed that the information was incorrect.
Dr Mapp's press secretary said he received information from a senior official that Dr Mapp "should have been able to trust."
"He is very sorry for any confusion or misinformation."
Westpac Rescue Helicopter crew chief Dave Greenberg said today's rescue operation was technically challenging because of low cloud and steep terrain, but was made all the more difficult because it involved a military helicopter and was on Anzac Day.
"It's definitely sad; whenever it's a helicopter you always think 'there but the grace of God go I'.
"It's a bad thing to happen any day, but to happen on Anzac Day is terribly ironic.
"I'm gutted at the moment to be honest; all in all it's a pretty solemn day."
Mr Greenberg said the rescue chopper had been collecting a Wellington Hospital doctor and nurse for an unrelated case when they got this morning's call.
The Rescue Coordination Centre told them an emergency locator beacon had activated at Pukerua Bay and there was possibly an Iroquois down.
The rescue helicopter diverted to the scene and made contact with a second Iroquois crew, which was searching in the area.
Mr Greenberg said the second Air Force crew had determined the likely crash site and dropped off a crewman on a ridge to walk down into the steep gully. At the same time, the rescue helicopter was following the beacon signal and moving slowly into the same gully.
The rescue pilot spotted the wreckage and was able to make phone contact and direct the Air Force searcher, who confirmed there was one victim still alive.
A Wellington Free Ambulance paramedic was winched down to help and the patient was transferred to a waiting ambulance.
"The injured guy did really well. He'd managed to jam himself against a bush to stop him rolling down the hill. He was probably 20 to 25 metres from the wreckage," Mr Greenberg said.
TRAGIC DAY FOR DEFENCE FORCE
Speaking at a press conference this morning, Kapiti Mana police area commander Inspector John Spence, said initially the crash site was "very difficult to find.”
"It is a very, very sad day.
"This is an extremely poignant time for us, especially those in the Defence Force…
"This has happened on a special day for New Zealand."
He praised the efforts of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter who through some "pretty impressive flying" were able to winch a paramedic to the scene to confirm that three had died and one man was still alive.
"Initially we were only able to winch people in and out. The first priority was to see if anyone was alive."
Mr Spence said the scene was made harder to access because of low cloud and police, along with rescue services, were "still in a phase of trying to get in to the scene."
It was hoped a farm track would be accessible by four-wheeled drive vehicles; however the actual crash scene was in a steep ravine.
Mr Spence said he believed planned Anzac Day services would run as normal throughout the country.
A HeliPro pilot, Ned Lee, who had flown over the crash scene said he was surprised anyone had survived.
He said the helicopter was upside down on the hillside and severely damaged.
Military and rescue helicopters were circling the area and had been using the beach adjacent to the hills and State Highway 1 to transport the injured to an ambulance.
Labour Leader Phil Goff said it was a very sad day for New Zealand and the Defence Force.
"Anzac Day is a day of sadness and poignancy for New Zealand and for this crash to occur today adds to this feeling."
Labour Defence spokesman Pete Hodgson said it was an "extremely shocking crash" that will "impact deeply on our Defence Force personnel who will have day today been remembering fallen comrades of both the past and the present."
Palmerston North MP Iain Lees-Galloway said the crash will have an enormous impact on the tight-knit Ohakea community.
"I know the community will rally to support those who have lost loved ones in this tragedy," he said.
A Dominion Post reporter, standing around 200m from the crash scene, said an Iroquois helicopter came and hovered over the scene for about five minutes at 10.45am.
"It's really windy, really cold, really misty. There's no movement at the site," she said.
She said there didn't appear to be a rescue teams attempting to get to the site.
"There is so much dense fog."
Kirsty Sullivan, who lives at Raumati Beach, said she was awoken when the Iroquois passed over her beachfront home.
"They were all flying quite low, but were flying west of my house, over the beach, away from any trees or tall buildings, except for one.”
"We are one of the taller buildings in my area (3 storeys) and the iroquois was probably about 30 metres east and 10 metres above my house."
She said the mist was worst at around 6am when a previous Iroquois passed her home.
Pukerua Bay resident Kathy McLauchlan said she could see the crash site from her window.
Weather conditions at the time of the crash were "extremely misty", she said.
"Since the mist has lifted we can see it."
Military and rescue helicopters were circling the area.
The crash happened quite high on the hills overlooking Pukerua Bay, Ms McLauchlan said.
The crash further mars a tragic year for the Air Force.
In January, Squadron Leader Nicholas Haydn Cree, 32, a flight commander at the central training school, died when his CT4 Airtrainer crashed near Ohakea.
Sqn Ldr Cree was one of five members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force's Red Checkers aerobatic team practising a stunt, when he crashed.
- With NZPA and Dominion Post