Heartbreaking pictures of the site where a C-130 Hercules aerial water bomber crashed in southern NSW, killing three US firefighters, have been released by NSW police.
The first aerial and ground images show wreckage of tail section of the aircraft partially intact with the fuselage completely destroyed at the end of a “kilometre-long” crash line.
The bodies of the US firefighters have been retrieved from the crash site before their families began arriving in Sydney on Saturday.
Police and Australian Transport Safety bureau investigators have been at the scene since Thursday afternoon when the plane lost contact after dropping 15,000 litres of fire retardant along a ridge at Peak View northeast of Cooma.
The families of captain Ian McBeth, 44, first officer Paul Clyde Hudson, 42 and flight engineer Rick DeMorgan Jr, 43, began arriving in Sydney on Saturday morning along with the owners of the C-130 Hercules operated by Canadian firm Coulson Aviation. They will be allowed to visit the crash site if they wish.
The three men, former members of the US military who survived tours of war zones across the globe, used their flying expertise to fight fires for Oregon-based company.
— Daniel Sutton (@danielsutton10) January 25, 2020
The water tanker carrying 15,000 litres of water crashed on Thursday afternoon, Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) chief commissioner Greg Hood said on Friday.
He said the kilometre-long crash site was “complicated” to access because it was in an active bushfire area.
On Saturday, ATSB investigators were at the crash site, securing aviation fuel, the magnesium wheels and any unexploded oxygen bottles.
They’ll then locate the plane’s voice recorder and take it back to Canberra “to see what the exchanges may have been in the cockpit during those final moments”, Mr Hood told reporters.
Investigators will map the site and speak with witnesses who saw the crash.
“We have upwards of 500 firefighting aircraft active across the country from about 150 companies and several different countries,” Mr Hood said.
“So if there are lessons to be learned from this particular accident it’s really important that Australia and the world learn them.”
The death toll from NSW’s unprecedented bushfire season climbed to 25 on Friday evening after the body of a 59-year-old man was found in a home on the state’s South Coast.
‘Heartbroken’ Americans mourn fallen heroes
Meanwhile, back in the US, friends, family, military members, US congressmen and governors offered “heartbroken” tributes to the three American firefighters.
Lieutenant Colonel Ian McBeth
Lieutenant Colonel McBeth, of Great Falls, Montana, leaves behind his wife Bowdie and three children.
He was a member of the Montana Air National Guard’s 120th Airlift Wing and served tours of Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It is with a heavy heart that I inform you we lost a valued Airmen and friend last night,” 120th Airlift Wing commander Colonel Buel Dickson wrote in a heartfelt tweet.
“In performing his civilian duties as an air tanker pilot, fighting wildfires in Australia, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Mcbeth’s plane went down.”
Colonel Dickson said Lieutenant Colonel McBeth was instrumental in the flying success of the 120th Airlift Wing and will be dearly missed.
US Senator Jon Tester, in Washington DC for US President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, said he was devastated to learn of Lieutenant Colonel McBeth’s death.
Another Montana senator, Steve Daines, said he “passed in service to others, and that’s something that will never be forgotten”.
Flags at the Arizona State Capitol building in Phoenix were lowered to half-staff in honour of Lieutenant Colonel Hudson, 42 of Buckeye, Arizona.
Lieutenant Colonel Hudson is survived by his wife Noreen.
He graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1999 and served in the Marine Corps for 20 years, including as a C-130 pilot.
“Arizona is heartbroken by this news,” Arizona Governor Doug Ducey tweeted.
“First Officer Paul Hudson was a hero who dedicated his life to service, first as a Marine, then as a firefighter.
“And when help was needed to fight wildfires in Australia, he didn’t hesitate.”
Flight engineer DeMorgan Jr, 43, of Navarre, Florida, is survived by his two children Lucas and Logan.
He served 18 years in the US Air Force as a flight engineer on C-130s clocking up more than 4000 hours in the air, including 2000 hours in a combat environment.
Family members will be given the opportunity to visit the crash site when they arrive in Sydney.
The plane crashed just after it had dropped fire retardant along a ridge.