British couples die in New Zealand helicopter crash


Two British couples were among seven people killed when a helicopter crashed into a glacier in New Zealand.

Andrew Virco, 50, and his partner Katharine Walker, 51, both from Cambridge, and Nigel Charlton, 66, and his wife Cynthia, 70, from Hampshire, were aboard the sightseeing helicopter which crashed into a crevasse on the Fox Glacier, on the country's South Island, on Saturday morning.

Sovannmony Leang, 27, and Josephine Gibson, 29, both from New South Wales, Australia, also perished along with helicopter pilot Mitchell Gameren, 28, from Queenstown, New Zealand.

The bodies of three of the victims have now been recovered from the crash site and taken to a temporary mortuary facility nearby for formal identification, which New Zealand Police said may take a number of days.

The recovery operation has been halted for the day after weather conditions at Fox Glacier deteriorated.

A Tasman police spokeman said: "The operation is extremely challenging and the safety of those working at the scene is of paramount importance."

He added: "Our thoughts are with the victims' families at this difficult time."

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "It is with regret we can confirm the deaths, in a helicopter crash in New Zealand on November 21, of Andrew Virco and his partner Katharine Walker, from Cambridge, and Nigel Charlton and his wife Cynthia from Hampshire."

"We are providing consular assistance to their families at this difficult time."

The helicopter crashed at around 11am local time yesterday (midnight GMT), with a picture released by police showing the crumpled remains stuck at the bottom of a wall of ice close to the top of the eight-mile (13km) glacier.

Reports in New Zealand said Mr Gameren was believed to be an experienced flier.

Fox Glacier Heliservices, which also trades as Alpine Adventures, organised the flight.

In a statement the firm said: "Fox Heliservices' thoughts are with the families of the passengers and pilot.

"The pilot was a very valued member of our team.

"The New Zealand Police and Civil Aviation Authority have taken over the investigation."

The Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand sent four rescue helicopters to the scene, on the west coast of the island - two from Christchurch, one from Greymouth and one based locally, the latter with a cliff rescue team on board.

Police said the crash site's location meant rescuers had initially not been able to reach it. It is understood a paramedic was later winched down but found no survivors.

Inspector John Canning, the police west coast area commander, told New Zealand's One News: "It's at the top of the glacier and it is heavily crevassed, so very rough country and it is going to take a lot of care to get the people out of there."

Alpine Adventures' website says it has been in business for around 30 years and runs "an impressive fleet of modern turbine helicopters".

Fox Glacier is the longest on the west coast of the South Island, travelling from the edge of the Mount Cook National Park in the Southern Alps towards the west coast on the Tasman Sea.

Grey district's mayor Tony Kokshoorn said weather was marginal at the time of the crash, with intermittent rain showers and low cloud. "It was not ideal for helicopter flying," he said.

In September 2010 British web designer Bradley Coker, 24, died in a plane crash near the Fox Glacier, along with eight other people trying skydiving.

Mr Coker, from Farnborough, Hampshire, was on board a Walter Fletcher FU24 light aircraft operated by Skydive NZ. The aircraft took off and reached 400ft before the pilot appeared to lose control and the aircraft nosedived to the ground and burst into flames. All nine occupants were killed.

An accident report found the 30-year-old badly converted crop sprayer was overloaded and none of the passengers were wearing a seat belt, which was allowed under New Zealand regulations.