Church member group dies in NZ helicopter crash

Five helicopters ferried five patients to the Wanaka Medical Centre between 2pm and 3pm yesterday.
Five helicopters ferried five patients to the Wanaka Medical Centre between 2pm and 3pm yesterday. Otago Daily Times

DEBRIS was strewn for almost 1km as an Auckland church group smashed into the side of a mountain aboard a helicopter yesterday, killing one and injuring six.

Five parishioners from St Pauls Church, Symonds St, were on an $875 per person heli-ski flight when it clipped the north face of Mt Alta, near Wanaka, just after noon.

Seven men - five heli-skiers, veteran guide Mark Sedon and the pilot Dave Matthews - were on board the Helicopter Line-operated Squirrel AS350 B2.

A major search and rescue effort involving up to a dozen helicopters retrieved the dead man and the injured off the 2339m peak.

Matthews sustained minor injuries.

Harris Mountains Heliski director Mark Quickfall said the five men were on a skiing holiday and staying in Queenstown. They were part of a larger group, some of whom went to Treble Cone yesterday instead.

"We're thinking of the poor fellow's wife tonight and his family. It's terribly devastating."

Quickfall understood the families of the skiers were supporting one another.

Senior Sergeant Gavin Briggs, of Dunedin, said all six survivors were injured - four seriously - and were flown off the mountain.

Transport Accident Investigation Commission spokesman Peter Northcote said investigators would travel to the crash site today.

Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Mike Richards said the authority may be asked to help because of the scale and location of the site.

"I understand they clipped the mountain and the wreckage is spread 1000m down the side of the mountain. [The TAIC] may need more manpower ... it will be a very complex jigsaw puzzle for the investigators."

Otago Regional Rescue Helicopter chief pilot Graeme Gale said conditions were "calm and clear".

The crash is the latest black mark for tourism, in the midst of a shake-up prompted by the parents of young tourists killed in adventure activities.

Tough new safety standards are being introduced over a three-year period until November this year, after which it will be an offence for an adventure activity operator not to be registered and have passed a safety audit.

Prime Minister John Key, in his role as Tourism Minister, launched the review after British father Chris Jordan wrote to him, pleading for changes. Jordan's daughter Emily drowned riverboarding in Queenstown in 2008. Mad Dog River Boarding admitted two charges over the death.

British man Chris Coker, whose son Bradley was one of nine killed when a skydiving plane crashed at Fox Glacier in 2010, also wrote to Key asking for aviation regulations to be reviewed. Coker also launched a high-profile internet campaign claiming New Zealand is unsafe.

Key declined to comment on the tragedy last night as it was under investigation. "The Prime Minister expresses sympathy to those affected by today's helicopter accident," a spokeswoman said.

CAA's Mike Richards said the crash was "not a good look for our reputation".

Topics:  editors picks helicopter crash

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