Nine people were killed in a fiery explosion at Fox Glacier yesterday when their plane crashed just 50m from the back door of the chief fire officer's home.
A pall of black smoke hung over the small township at the bottom of the glacier yesterday afternoon. The deaths of five local men and four overseas tourists makes it one of New Zealand's deadliest plane crashes.
The group was on its way to go tandem skydiving when the Fletcher fixed wing aircraft veered off its trajectory, mere seconds after take-off. It crashed and exploded in a paddock next to the runway.
Skydive New Zealand owned the plane, and was taking up the tourists for the adventure of a lifetime over the glacier, regarded as one of New Zealand's most beautiful natural attractions.
Company director Rod Miller is understood to be among the dead, along with pilot Chami Senadhira.
Also killed in the crash was Skydivenz tandem master Michael Suter.
Late last night his American girlfriend Lauren Hospenthal posted a message to her Facebook friends that read: "Thank you everybody for the warm thoughts, my heart is broken."
The four tourists who died were 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
John Sullivan, Fox's chief fire officer, was at home when he heard a yell and looked out the window.
He saw the plane heading towards him.
"It had banked and was heading straight towards our house," he told the Herald on Sunday.
The plane then dipped and smashed nose-first into the ground between the house and the runway. The tail somersaulted over the top.
"It burst into flames on impact," said Sullivan. "It brings a whole new meaning to too close to home."
He ran out and searched around the plane to see if anyone had been flung out - "It was pretty clear no one could have survived if they were inside" - before rushing back to the station to fetch his fire crew.
Residents said some of the group had been at a local cafe, just hours before the trip, and were talking excitedly about the skydive.
Sullivan knew Miller from years living in the same small community, and had met Senadhira a few times. He said the loss of five locals in one tragic crash would be a major blow for the community.
Sullivan said Miller "was a real get-up-and-go guy - he was a good man". And Senadhira, too, was "one hell of a nice guy".
Another local, Dave Bentley, said the plane was "almost totally destroyed" and there had been no sign of life. Others reported that the crash looked like a "fireball", followed by plumes of smoke. "It was engulfed in flames immediately," said one witness.
The fatal plane crash has hit New Zealand's skydiving community hard. New Zealand Skydiving Association chief executive Gareth Jacobs said he knew Miller and Senadhira. "The skydiving community is very small - everyone knows everyone else."
Senadhira had been a student pilot at Auckland's Mercer Skydiving Centre before he moved to Fox Glacier about two years ago.
"He was a fairly quiet sort of a guy," Jacobs said.
Skydive student Ida Donley had her first lessons with Miller and was devastated as news of his death filtered out to the wider skydive community. "He died doing what he loved," she said.
"He believed anyone can do anything they want if they just try. Do it having fun and live their life to the full."
She was full of praise for the other company members on board the plane, particularly the pilot whom she described as one of New Zealand's most highly respected jump pilots.
Stuart Bean, chairman of the Parachute Industry Association, was a close friend of the dead group's instructor, and spoke to him only the night before the fatal crash.
"He was my very best mate. I'm gutted," said Bean, who rushed from his base in Nelson to help support his friend's wife and two sons.
"He was a great guy, a very good dad and a very good friend. A very giving sort of a guy."
He said they each had more than 30 years' skydiving experience and their last conversation had been to plan their next overseas trip together.
"We were going to go to Florida to go skydiving there in November. We travelled together once or twice a year to overseas skydiving events."
They often took part in "big way" formation skydiving with up to 120 other skydivers.
A tearful Courtney Morgan, booking agent with the New Zealand Skydiving School in Methven, said the skydiving community was a "tight-knit group" and the dead instructor was highly regarded. "He was one of the best Southern Men I knew," she said.
As an instructor he would go out of his way to help students feel comfortable.
Civil Aviation Authority communications manager Bill Sommer said the Transport Accident Investigation Commission would investigate the crash. It was too earlier to say what may have happened.
NZ air disasters
The plane crash that killed nine people near the Fox Glacier airstrip yesterday is New Zealand's worst air disaster in nearly 17 years, since nine people were killed near the West Coast's other iconic glacier.
The biggest disaster involving a New Zealand-owned aircraft occurred on November 28, 1979, when an Air New Zealand DC10 crashed on Mt Erebus in Antarctica, killing all 257 passengers and crew.
The biggest air disasters in this country have been:
* 1942 - Liberator bomber crashes near Whenuapai, 14 dead.
* Oct 23, 1948 - NAC Electra crashes on Mt Ruapehu, 13 dead.
* Mar 18, 1949 - NAC Lodestar crashes on approach to Paraparaumu, 15 dead.
* July 3, 1963 - NAC DC3 crashes in the Kaimai Ranges, 25 dead.
* Aug 8, 1989 - Britten-Normander Islander crashes between Milford Sound and Wanaka, 10 dead.
- ADDITIONAL REPORTING: NZPA