Recovery efforts for a helicopter that crashed off the Whitsundays in north Queensland, killing two people, will be difficult, according to the Australian Safety Transport Bureau (ATSB).
The chopper is sitting 58 metres underwater in the Great Barrier Reef marine park area amid worsening weather conditions.
A married couple from Hawaii – Peter, 79, and Sue Hensel, 65 – died after the Whitsunday Air Services helicopter crashed near Hardy Reef Pontoon around 3.30pm on Wednesday.
The woman’s daughter, 33, and her 34-year-old partner were also in the crash but avoided serious injury, as did the 35-year-old male pilot.
ATSB officers are working with the Queensland Police Service and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), but an ATSB spokesman said retrieving the helicopter was expected to take weeks and investigators may struggle to visit the pontoon if weather conditions worsened.
Police Inspector Ian Houghton said authorities were keeping a eye on a tropical low in the Arafura Sea, which the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) had predicted could reach category 3 cyclone strength in the Gulf of Carpentaria in coming days.
Inspector Houghton said the system could bring bad weather to the Whitsundays, further hampering investigation efforts.
An ATSB spokesman said four officers from Brisbane and Canberra arrived in the Whitsundays on Thursday to investigate the cause of the crash and try to obtain flight manuals and maintenance records.
“Today officers will try to interview witnesses that saw the crash,” the spokesman said.
“Once the survivors are well enough, we will also speak to them.”
In a statement on Thursday, the US embassy said it was liaising with the family of the two American tourists killed in the crash and were providing appropriate assistance.
Emergency floats were activated
An ATSB spokesman said emergency floats were activated by the pilot after it ditched into the water, allowing some of the passengers to get out.
However, floatation systems were a temporary safety measure and the helicopter sunk at Hardy Reef on Wednesday night.
The ATSB is also calling for anyone who witnessed or has footage of the incident, especially tourists, to come forward as soon as possible before they leave the region.
Tourism Whitsunday chief executive officer Craig Turner said it would be inappropriate to comment on the incident while the investigation was ongoing, but praised the quick thinking actions of those that helped at the scene.
Whitsunday Mayor Andrew Willcox said the tragedy would be deeply felt across the community.
“We have a very high, unblemished safety record in the Whitsundays and all tourism operators hold their passenger experience and safety in high regard,” he said.
“It’s too early to tell what sort of impact this will have on the tourism industry.”
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.
At this stage, the company did not know how the accident happened and has suspended all operations while a review is undertaken.
Air safety investigators said a preliminary report into the crash should be ready by the end of April.