By Angela Beswick
Police divers have confirmed there are two bodies inside the wreckage of a helicopter off the Far North coast .
The Salt Air ZK-IMB helicopter crashed while surveying a massive scrub fire burning at Matai Bay on the Karikari Peninsula overnight.
On board was experienced Northland pilot John ‘Prickles’ de Ridder and his passenger, a Department of Conservation worker.
Divers arrived at the scene this morning after a rescue boat spotted the chopper’s debris in about seven metres of water in Karikari Moana Bay.
“The fishing vessel spotted a slick close to the last known position [of the helicopter] and sent a snorkeler down,” says search and rescue officer Conrad Reyneck.
“They had a quick look and could identify the helicopter.”
At the time, the diver was unable to get into the helicopter or close enough to identify if there were any casualties involved.
A police dive squad arrived this afternoon from Wellington, though conditions were “not ideal”.
Following the discovery of the two bodies this afternoon, Mr Reynecke said the search would now be stood down, with police taking over 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.”
In a statement released to media this morning, Salt Air chief executive Grant Harnish confirmed the helicopter was one of theirs.
“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 said.
"He removed the monsoon bucket and set off on this new tasking. "
Mr Harnish said Salt Air staff were hoping desperately that the pilot and his passenger survived the crash.
He said Mr de Ridder was “one of the Far North’s most experienced and respected helicopter pilots”.
Kevin Banaghan from the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre says the wreckage is in about seven metres of water.
Kaitaia DOC area manager Jonathan Maxwell says staff have been up all night.
"It's not a good situation at all, it's one we all fear because we do a lot of emergency work and are involved in these things quite often. This is the worst scenario.”
Mr Maxwell says counsellors are assisting staff and DOC's focus is on supporting the family.
The operation is now one of police recovery.
The helicopter disappeared while on a reconnaissance mission over the scrub fire, which broke out about 7:30pm, but did not return.
“The tracking system stopped working on the helicopter and it hasn’t been heard from since,” he told Radio New Zealand.
The blaze was being fanned by strong easterly winds of up to 40km/h and the Fire Service says it covered 40 hectares and had destroyed three houses.
Five people were forced into the sea to escape the flames and were pulled aboard by nearby boats.
At least 50 firefighters have been fighting the blaze which authorities believe was started deliberately. It is the second fire in the area in a month.
Far North teams say they now have the fire under control.
The Civil Aviation Authority will be investigating the cause of the chopper crash.
A CAA spokeswoman said the wreckage will be videoed before anything is removed from the water.
Karikari fire ‘suspicious’, says local fisherman
Meanwhile, a local firefighter says the scrub fire that lead to the crash was deliberately.
Peninsula resident Colin Kitchen, who is also the deputy chief fire officer for Kaitaia Volunteer Fire Brigade but is on leave, told NZ Newswire the fire was about the 14th in the area in the last two years.
"They just don't start by themselves. The locals are getting pretty frustrated, pretty pissed off. If we have two fatalities out of this it's gone beyond a joke," he said, before it was confirmed the bodies had been found.
Mr Kitchen said no one had been found responsible for the earlier fires.
The fire is believed to be under control, after forcing some residents to flee their homes. It has destroyed three houses and burned about 130ha of vegetation.
However, police say it is too early to say if the fire is suspicious.
"We have someone looking into it but they haven't come up with any cause," a spokeswoman said.
3 News / NZN
source: newshub archive