A helicopter crash that killed two tourists visiting from Hawaii is the second incident in four months for the company that operates the service.
The 79-year-old man and 65-year-old woman from Hawaii had been staying on Hamilton Island died after the helicopter crashed near Hardy Reef Pontoon around 3:30pm local time on Wednesday.
Three other people, the 35-year-old male pilot and two other Americans – a 34-year-old man and a 33-year-old woman, both from Colorado – were taken to hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
Inspector Ian Haughton said the American passengers were all known to each other, but he would not say how.
“I’d rather keep that until we can be assured that the next of kin of those involved have been advised,” he said.
“The pilot I understand managed to pull the elderly female from the plane.”
Inspector Haughton said people were on a nearby dive and snorkel platform when the helicopter crashed.
“Some of those people were spoken to last night, and the other people, they will be part of the investigations that are continuing as we speak.
“It’s been a traumatic experience for anyone involved in the situation there.
“There’s been a number of people involved – the ferry service, the rescue helicopter from Townsville, the emergency services that attended, but for those people that were on board you couldn’t begin to imagine the impact on those people.”
The company Whitsunday Air Services said the helicopter was on final approach for a landing at the pontoon, which is about 65 kilometres north-east of the Whitsunday Islands.
Chief executive Brad Graves said at this stage the company didn’t know how the accident happened.
“The entire Whitsunday Air Services team are devastated by this accident and our thoughts and condolences are with the passengers and their families.
“I would like to deeply thank all individuals who provided assistance at the scene including first aid care to those involved immediately after the accident, and the emergency services for their considerable efforts.”
The company has suspended all operations while a review is undertaken.
Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) investigators are expected to reach the crash site on Thursday afternoon to examine the wreckage of the single-engine Eurocopter EC120B.
ATSB chief commissioner Greg Hood said investigators would look at flight data and maintenance records, as well as speaking to witnesses.
“They’ll work very closely with the Queensland Police Service and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority firstly to recover the helicopter from the seabed and then commence piecing together the evidence, which will be so crucial to discovering what happened in this tragic accident,” he said.
Power failure caused November incident
The crash came a day after the ATSB released a report into an incident in November in which a Whitsunday Air Services helicopter ditched off Hamilton Island.
It concluded that for “undetermined reasons” the helicopter’s engine partially lost power.
The pilot deployed floatation devices on the Robinson R44 and the three passengers were able to be rescued uninjured.
The helicopter eventually sank and could not be recovered.
ATSB is also investigating what caused a Cessna to bounce on water and crash into trees as it came into land on Hamilton Island on January 28, 2016.
One passenger had minor injuries.
The plane was registered to Hamilton Island Air which is a registered business of Whitsunday Air Services.
‘It’s gut-wrenching’, Mayor says
Whitsunday Mayor Andrew Willcox said the whole local tourism industry would be affected by the crash.
Mr Willcox said it was a tight-knit industry and community.
“It’s just gut-wrenching. It’s not good. My deepest sympathies goes out to those who lost their lives and those that were injured.”
“I know most of the tourism operators in the Whitsundays personally and I know they all hold their passenger experience and safety as their number one priority, so it will be a sombre day for us in the Whitsundays.
“My thoughts and prayers at this stage are with the families affected by this.”
Hamilton Island Enterprises CEO Glenn Bourke issued a statement saying he was deeply saddened the accident.
“I would like to express Hamilton Island’s deepest condolences to the families who lost their loved ones and to those passengers and the pilot who were injured in the accident,” he said.