Bodies found in chopper in Far North

06:42, Dec 01 2011
Northland Fire
The fire in Northland's Karikari Peninsula.
Northland Fire
The fire in Northland's Karikari Peninsula.
Northland Fire
Firefighters continue to battle the blaze.
Northland Fire
Burnt scrub.
Northland Fire
Firefighters continue to battle the blaze.
Karikari helicopter
The wreckage of the Squirrel helicopter ZK-IMB that crashed into the sea on Wednesday night has been recovered off Karikari Peninsula.

A group of five students say they are lucky to be alive after facing massive flames and flying debris during a scrub fire on the Karikari Peninsula last night.

Robert Brown said the group raced for the ocean when he saw smoke arising from the trees.

"I was waist-deep in water and there was debris flying at me. It was unbelievable."

Prickles de Ridder
VETERAN PILOT: Prickles de Ridder.

A fishing boat later picked up the five survivors.

Whanau and friends gathered at the beach this morning to complete a Maori blessing for the two men who perished in the helicopter crash just off the shore.

Were you there? Do you have photos or video? Email us at newstip@stuff.co.nz.

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The Department of Conservation this afternoon revealed the name of the ranger killed in the helicopter crash in Northland.

The bodies of two men were found this morning in the helicopter which crashed into the sea off the Far North's Karikari Peninsula overnight.

The men were surveying a massive fire when the chopper crashed about 9.30pm. The pilot was Far North identity John "Prickles" de Ridder and the second man was ranger William Macrae, 54, of Kaitaia, DOC boss Alistair Morrison told reporters.

The helicopter wreckage was found by fishermen. Commercial divers confirmed the bodies were inside about midday.

DOC staff are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of their colleague, Morrison said.

Macrae was helping to fight a large scrub fire at the time of the accident.

He was a long serving and highly respected ranger who has worked in the Far North for DOC for 16 years," Morrison said.

"William was highly experienced in dealing with the full range of emergencies that DOC staff have to deal with - from fighting fires to dealing with whale strandings.

"He died while trying to protect others and our deepest condolences go to his partner and family."

"William's partner and his brother both work for the local DOC office - his death is a huge blow for both his family and local DOC staff and we ask media to respect their privacy at this time."

Morrison said the focus was now on supporting Macrae's family and close colleagues.

The department also extended its condolences to the family of pilot John de Ridder, who had worked closely with the department for many years.

His loss would also be widely felt within DOC, he said.

OUTBREAK

Firefighters were first called to the secluded Matai Bay - on the Karikari Peninsula, 40km northeast of Kaitaia - about 7.15pm yesterday. Since then the fire has burnt across almost 130 hectares, destroyed three homes and forced residents to evacuate.

De Ridder was initially helping to fight the fire but was apparently diverted in order to help residents who had fled to the beach, some even into the sea, to avoid smoke and rapidly advancing flames.

He was a pilot for Paihia-based business Salt Air and lived in the area for many years. De Ridder was described by one local as "a real Kerikeri identity".

De Ridder was the father of two grown children and was also a grandfather. He was well known in farming circles and was an accomplished bridge player.

Although de Ridder's name has not been officially released, Salt Air chief executive Grant Harnish released a statement late this morning paying tribute to a pilot he described as respected and experienced.

"The aircraft was helping to fight a fire and we understand at this point that the pilot had been requested by authorities to divert in order to extract people from the beach, away from approaching flames and out of harm's way.

"He removed the monsoon bucket and set off on this new tasking.

"Out of respect for the wishes of the pilot's family we cannot provide any information about the pilot, other than to say he is one of the Far North's most experienced and respected helicopter pilots."

Harnish did not speculate on the cause of the crash but said, "conditions were extremely difficult, it was dark and there was considerable smoke and flame".

"We only ever operate under those conditions if we believe human life is at risk," Harnish said.

The helicopter was a Squirrel AS350 BA.

FISHING CREW HELPS

The crew of the fishing boat Medea were initially called to help residents who had run into the sea to escape the fire. Stood down, they were later recalled to search for the chopper and its crew. The aircraft was found 200m from the coast in about 7m of water.

"We can work all night - we've got big floodlights out the front and all that sort of stuff - they told us what sort of search pattern they wanted done so we went and did it," skipper Adam Davey said.

"Once I'd done the search pattern they wanted I came back at daylight to the spot where they said they thought the last position and I saw the oil slick on the surface.

"We just threw one of the crew over the side and he saw the helicopter down there ... He was just snorkelling - all he had to do was look down from the surface.

"It's clear, it's very clear so you could see it was down there but you couldn't identify that was what it was."

INVESTIGATIONS UNDERWAY

Rescue Co-ordination Centre spokesman Conrad Reynecke said early this afternoon that the search had ended after the bodies were found. Police have taken responsibility for body recovery, formal identification and informing next of kin.

"While the search has come to an end, we are saddened that it has ended in this way. Our deepest sympathies are now with the families of the two men," Reynecke said.

Civil Aviation Authority is investigating the crash.

The helicopter crash is the second incident involving Salt Air in recent years. In December 2004, one of the company's fixed-wing aircraft crashed in bad weather off the coast of Cable Bay, near the base of the Karikari Peninsula, killing a Swiss tourist who was a passenger.

TRAGEDY A MATTER OF TIME

Authorities believe the fire on the Karikari Peninsula was deliberately started.

Local resident, veteran firefighter and Kaitaia fire chief Colin Kitchen said this morning: "Fires don't start out here for no reason at all. This sort of thing has been going on year after year."

The latest fire is close to an area that was burned two weeks ago, and Kitchen warned at the time of that blaze that somebody would be killed sooner or later.

Firefighters have now contained the fire.

By late this morning, 128ha of scrub, manuka and regenerating bush had been destroyed, along with the homes and several outbuildings.

Fifty firefighters, including staff from the Conservation Department, the Far North District Council and local forestry companies, battled the blaze.

Two helicopters were today used to douse the flames with monsoon buckets, assisted by diggers and bulldozers.

'DEVASTATING' BLAZE FOR LOCALS

Auckland academic Margaret Mutu owns a home in the settlement and some of her whanau live there.

"Last night the flames were so huge we thought we'd lost the lot [of homes]," Margaret said.

"We're pretty sure it's deliberate - it's the second in two weeks."

Her cousin, Karikari resident Lani Mutu, said the scene this morning was "devastating".

"It's still smoking and smouldering and the odd flame is still burning. It's scary. It's pretty breezy here at the moment and these guys are risking their lives to do what they're doing."

Mutu, who lives at the tiny settlement where the three baches were burnt down last night, said he and his whanau were about to evacuate when the helicopters with monsoon buckets arrived.

"We had our kits in the car and were just about to leave ... we are so grateful to those guys."

"I've just been looking out over the moana [sea] here and shed a few tears. We can see where the boat is there where they've found the helicopter... knowing there's people out there."

"Anyone who comes to Karikari and gives their lives for Whanau Moana, we feel that very deeply."

The residents had been praying this morning after surveying the damage.

Mutu said he had called firefighters last night when he saw the blaze coming towards the settlement.

His nephews were two of those who had to be rescued.

"They were eating their dinner when they looked up and saw the fire coming down the hill."

"It was coming down pretty quickly so they ran into the water. The boat came and picked them up - one of my nephews used to be a skipper so he knew what to do."

RESIDENT SAVES HORSES, LOSES HOME

A Karikari Beach resident who lost his house and everything in it in last night's blaze has described how he saw a huge fire coming over the hill towards his house.

"I've never seen a fire like that," Nathan Egan, 32, said at the Karikari fire station this morning.

Egan said that as the fire came over a hill towards his house near the beach, his first thoughts were for his animals. "All I was worried about were my horses and dogs."

He managed to shepherd his two horses down onto the beach away from the fire and left them there near the water while he walked with his dogs around the base of a cliff, climbing over rocks to safety via an access road to the remote settlement.

Egan said he also left his farm bike on the beach but his house and everything in it was burnt. "The house is gone, it is completely burnt, it just exploded."

Neither the house nor its contents were insured but he said he was just thankful he and his animals were still alive.

'VERY SCARY FIRE'

Bertha Yerkovich, who manages a community hall at Karikari, said the fire was frightening.

"It is blowing like mad, it is still blowing," she said.

"It is a very scary fire.

"Anybody could be in its path, especially if the wind turns."

She said the area had bachs as well as homes lived in all year round.

"We were racing around getting blankets and food and material for the people who had spent the night in boats.

"The people had to run into their boats to escape the fire."

Yerkovich said the peninsula was not large, but was forested with a mix of indigenous trees and plantation trees.

A major community effort, including the council and the local marae, was under way.

"When big trouble happens, the people get together and we work to help," she said.

Karikari Peninsula is a mix of Maori land, an American-owned resort, featuring a top class golf course and a popular Conservation Department camping ground at Matai Bay.

In 2004, Ngati Kahu stopped cars using the road to get to the campground and built a gate, saying they were exercising their rights as private citizens and were growing frustrated by trespassers. Iwi said the 100-site campground was on a reserve illegally confiscated in the 1960s.

- Fairfax NZ