Russell Blackstock

Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

Heli-ski flight horror

Auckland church group loses one as helicopter smashes into mountain

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

A loved family man and popular Church-goer was killed in an alpine helicopter crash yesterday on a rare outing with his mates.

This morning police confirmed the name of the deceased man as Jerome Box, 52, from Grey Lynn. The TAIC had launched an inquiry, Senior Sergeant Gavin Briggs said, and investigators would visit the crash site on Mt Alta later today or tomorrow.

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.

Wreckage of the helicopter. Photo / One News
Wreckage of the helicopter. Photo / One News

Five parishioners from St Paul's 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.

Up to a dozen helicopters were needed to retrieve the dead man, confirmed by the church as Jerome Box, 52, and the injured off the 2339m peak.

Priest in charge at St Paul's Mathew Newton, said Box and nine friends were having a "boys' weekend" in Otago.

"It was a good old get together, which they didn't get to do that often."

Box owned a construction company in Auckland and was a busy man, he said.

Yesterday, five of the group had gone to a skifield in Queenstown as Box and the others went on the helicopter.

Ski guide Mark Sedon.
Ski guide Mark Sedon.

"It's a terrible, terrible tragedy," Newton said.

Box had a young family and Newton had been with his grieving wife for much of yesterday.

"She's doing very well, but is still obviously, very much in shock.

"He was a wonderful man who absolutely loved life and the thrill of adrenaline," Newton said.

"He had very strong faith and loved his family incredibly dearly."

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

Matthews sustained minor injuries.

Director of Skyline Enterprises, which owns The Helicopter Line, 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.

Briggs said four were later flown to Dunedin Hospital in serious but stable conditions.

Two were treated in Wanaka for minor injuries.

Helicopter pilot Dave Matthews.
Helicopter pilot Dave Matthews.

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

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) 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: "all aviation accidents are tragic and each one can affect our good safety reputation".

- Herald on Sunday

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