A fiery plane crash that killed nine people in Fox Glacier today happened just metres from the town’s chief fire officer’s house.
Police have confirmed that a pilot, four locals and four overseas tourists died in a skydiving plane crash – New Zealand’s worst in 17 years.
John Sullivan, Fox Glacier’s volunteer fire brigade’s chief officer, watched the Fletcher FU24 crash from his home, about 50 metres from the crash site.
“It burst into flames on impact, I didn’t see any sign of smoke or fire before then,” Mr Sullivan told NZPA tonight.
“I ran straight out there and did a quick 360 around the whole thing, by that time it was in flames. I thought that maybe if someone had been thrown clear on impact or if they’d tried to jump out in the air then there might have been something I could have done, but looking around the whole area there was no sign of life.”
Mr Sullivan said the entire town would be affected by the tragedy.
“It’s a very small, close-knit community here, and everybody knew the guys involved apart from the tourists who were taking part in the skydiving,” he said.
“People were coming from all directions. It happened about 150 metres off the nearest road, and there were cars coming down the airstrip, people running across the paddock to help.
“It’s the first time I’ve witnessed anything like that. It brings a whole new meaning to too close to home – only 50 metres away.”
The four tourists were an 18-year-old Australian man, a 26-year-old man from Ireland, a 24-year-old man from England and a 23-year-old woman from Germany, Senior Sergeant Tim Crawford of Greymouth told AAP.
The pilot and four males who died were from Fox Glacier.
The names of the deceased will be released tomorrow morning as next of kin are still being notified.
The accident happened at 1.15pm today when the plane, carrying a party of skydivers and tourists, crashed at the end of the runway at Fox Glacier Airport.
Police say the embassies of each overseas victim have been informed and relatives are in the process of being advised.
The bodies will remain at the site of the crash until tomorrow and a police disaster victim identification team is currently en-route to Fox Glacier.
Greymouth mayor Tony Kokshoorn says the tight-knit community is anxious to find out who the local victims were.
He told Radio New Zealand the district was no stranger to tragedy.
“It’s a risky area and Mother Nature quite often has her way.”
He compared the crash to the Cave Creek disaster of 1995, in which 14 people died.
Transport Minister Steven Joyce has extended his condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of dead.
Local residents reported hearing a loud bang shortly before the light aircraft, believed to be a skydiving plane, burst into flames this afternoon.
Emergency services and police are still at the scene of the crash, which happened shortly before 1.30pm near the Fox Glacier airstrip.
The plane is believed to have been on a skydiving flight. A woman who answered the phone at Skydive New Zealand, the only skydiving company based at Fox Glacier, would not confirm or deny the plane was the company’s.
St John Ambulance initially reported that there was a survivor of the crash who had been taken to hospital with moderate injuries, but this was later retracted.
Local resident Dave Bentley said the plane was almost totally destroyed and there was no sign of life.
“There were a few local people on board, it is going to hit the town pretty hard,” he said, adding that eye witnesses had told him the plane went straight into the ground.
Another local said they had been watching coverage of the Canterbury earthquake on television when they heard a bang and ran outside.
“It was like a fireball and then there was big puffs of smoke going up… [the plane] was engulfed in flames immediately.”
A local cafe worker said the whole plane was burning: “I didn’t see it go down but apparently it took up and just came spiralling down.”
A spokesman at the Fox Glacier Inn said everyone in town had been over at the airstrip trying to help where they could.
“It’s a small town and everyone knows everyone,” he said.
A three-member Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) team was due to arrive in Fox Glacier early tomorrow afternoon to begin a scene investigation.
TAIC’s investigator-in-charge had been liaising with police regarding initial scene recording and evidence gathering, any essential wreckage handling, site security, and witness identification.
Today’s air tragedy will be remembered as among New Zealand’s worst, with more fatalities than a 1994 helicopter crash on Fox Glacier that killed seven. A year prior, nine were killed in a plane crash on neighbouring Franz Josef Glacier.
In 2003, a Piper Chieftain crashed near Christchurch Airport, killing eight researchers from CRI Crop & Food.
Police said the aircraft was a Fletcher fixed-wing plane of a type designed and built in New Zealand. The planes are popularly used for scenic flights and skydiving in the area around New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
Fox Glacier is on the western coast of the South Island, about 90 miles (150 kilometers) from the main city, Christchurch, which was hit early Saturday by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake that damaged buildings and injured at least two people.