Skydiving plane crashes near New Zealand glacier, killing 4 European tourists, 5 NZealanders

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Skydiving plane crashes near NZ glacier, killing 9

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A plane carrying skydivers crashed in flames near a popular glacier in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, killing five New Zealanders and four European tourists, police said.

The plane caught fire after takeoff Saturday from an airstrip near Fox Glacier township on South Island, said Ian Henderson, a spokesman for local ambulance services. But other locals said the fire started when the plane crashed into a fence at the end of the runway after it failed to lift off safely.

Eyewitness Kirsty Sullivan, whose house is nearby, said she saw “the plane take off at a funny angle” before it went down.

“It just went ‘boom’ like a big orange fireball into the sky,” when it crashed, she told New Zealand’s National Radio.

Fox Glacier township is a few miles from the glacier of the same name. The 8 mile- (13 kilometer-) long glacier is a picturesque tourist attraction in a national park on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

The pilot and eight passengers were killed, Greymouth Police Senior Sgt. Allyson Ealam said.

Police later named the dead tourists as Patrick Byrne, 26, from County Wexford, Ireland; Glen Bourke, 18, from Coburg, Victoria, Australia; Annita Kirsten, 23, from Germany; and Brad Coker, 24, from Farnborough, England.

The five New Zealanders included the pilot, Chaminda Senadhira, 33, of Queenstown and four dive-masters, Adam Bennett of Motueka, Michael Suter from New Plymouth, Christopher McDonald from Mapua and Rodney Miller from Greymouth.

New Zealand’s website said there is only one skydiving company operating out of the Fox Glacier airstrip, Skydive New Zealand, but a company spokeswoman reached by telephone refused to comment. An answering machine message at the company said skydiving had ceased for the day.

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 about 90 miles (150 kilometers) from the main South Island city, Christchurch, which was hit early Saturday by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake.

The fatal crash was the third in the region in the past 17 years.

In October 1993, nine people died in a plane crash when a twin-engine Nomad 22 crashed at nearby Franz Josef Glacier. In October 1994, seven people were killed when a Helicopter Line Squirrel helicopter on a sightseeing flight crashed in a mountainous area near Fox Glacier.

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