Team's courageous Ice crash search honoured

17:00, May 13 2014
twin otter
LOOKING FOR CASUALTIES: Search and rescue workers at the site where a Twin Otter crashed into Mt Elizabeth in Antarctica on January 23 last year.

The courageous attempt by a group of Kiwis and Americans to find the bodies of three men killed after their plane crashed into an Antarctic mountain has been honoured with a bravery award.

Three employees of Canadian company Kenn Borek Air - Bob Heath, 55, Perry Anderson, 36, and Mike Denton, 25 - were killed when their Twin Otter aircraft hit the side of Mt Elizabeth in January last year.

A search and rescue team made up of New Zealanders and American personnel - JASART - was recognised at last night's annual New Zealand Search and Rescue (NZSAR) awards.

NZSAR said the rescue team "worked tirelessly" in sub-zero temperatures in an attempt to find those killed after the crash on January 23.

The operation, at about 4000 metres above sea level, also demonstrated the "strong relationship" between Antarctica New Zealand and the United States Antarctic Programme.

The JASART team did not find the bodies because of the treacherous conditions. However, Anthea Fisher, Alasdair Turner, Jen Erxlenben, Mike Rowe, Drew Coleman and Larry Holmgren found personal items including a briefcase, a wallet, bank cards, a passport and clothing of those killed.

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New Zealand man Mike Rowe told a coroner's inquest into the crash about the body retrieval effort.

Rowe said on January 27, the JASART team established a "staging area" on Mt Elizabeth at about 3400m before being shuttled to the ridge top.

He and three others roped together to head down the slope on the other side of the ridge and made it to the crash site.

The roof of the aircraft had collapsed into the cabin and the cabin was filled with, and surrounded by, packed snow.

American Alasdair Turner cut into the plane's tail with an ice axe and recovered the flight data boxes and Rowe dug out a 1.5m bank of snow to gain access to a rear side door.

"There was a lot of snow inside. The diesel smell was strong and there was sharp metal all around," said Rowe.

He was unable to locate any of the crew.

Judge Neil MacLean, the Chief Coroner of New Zealand, conducted an inquest into the crash. He said the search and rescue personnel showed "extreme courage" in trying to recover the men's bodies.

"[It was] an exemplary operation of the sort of co-operation that often happens, particularly in Antarctica, in the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty," he said.

Richard Hayes, of Southern Lakes Helicopters, which is contracted to Antarctica New Zealand, supported the JASART team by ferrying its members to the ridge above the crash site.

The experienced pilot said the isolated location, halfway to the South Pole from Scott Base, and the "pressure altitude of 15,200 feet" made the operation extremely difficult.

The ridge of Mt Elizabeth, at about 4200m above sea level, was the highest landing of his career.

"Normally you don't operate at those altitudes. Antarctica is a low pressure area. I was on oxygen," he said.

Hayes said the JASART team put in a "big effort" climbing down to the crash site from the ridge.

The Press