Weather hampers New Zealand helicopter crash recovery as bodies identified

A photograph released by New Zealand police on Nov 21, 2015, shows the remains of the helicopter embedded in the crevasse at Fox Glacier following a crash killing all seven on board.
A photograph released by New Zealand police on Nov 21, 2015, shows the remains of the helicopter embedded in the crevasse at Fox Glacier following a crash killing all seven on board. PHOTO: REUTERS

WELLINGTON (AFP) - Specialist alpine rescuers battled through atrocious weather on Sunday (Nov 22) to reach a helicopter crash site where seven people, including four English and two Australian tourists, were killed in New Zealand.

There were no survivors when the sightseeing helicopter plunged into the heavily crevassed Fox Glacier on the west coast of the South Island, on Saturday.

The victims were identified as Britons Andrew Virco, 50, and Katharine Walker, 51, of Cambridge, Mr Nigel Edwin Charlton, 66, and Ms Cynthia Charlton of Hampshire, along with South Australians Leang Sovannmony, 27 and Josephine Gibson 29.

Pilot Mitch Gameren, 28, had only recently returned to New Zealand after flying medevac missions in Malaysia.

The helicopter crashed at the popular tourist site during bad weather.

Continuing rain and low cloud hindered recovery efforts until a break in the weather late Sunday morning allowed helicopters to take the specialist recovery team to the site of the disaster near the top of the glacier.

Mr Mike Nolan, a spokesman for Alpine Adventures, which operated the Squirrel helicopter, said the ongoing dismal weather meant it could take days to complete the recovery operation.

"The weather is certainly hampering efforts. It looks like inclement weather for a further two or three days unfortunately," he told the New Zealand Herald.

"Hopefully there are some breaks in between where they can make progress - but at this stage it's really slow."

The cause of the crash was not immediately known and aviation authorities were investigating.

Police were only alerted to the accident when the helicopter's emergency locator beacon was activated late Saturday morning.

Debris was later found spread over several hundred metres with the main part of the aircraft wedged between house-sized blocks of ice.

Transport Accident Investigation Commission spokesman Peter Northcote said the wreckage was in crevassed and snow-covered terrain, presenting safety and access challenges.

All sightseeing tours over the glacier were grounded on Sunday to give airspace priority to the recovery operation.

The 13km long Fox Glacier is listed as one of the most accessible glaciers in the world, attracting thousands of tourists each year.