Sat, Jan 25, 2020 - Page 3 News List

Bushfire death toll rises to 33 as crash probe begins

Reuters, MELBOURNE and SYDNEY

The death toll from Australia’s bushfires yesterday rose to 33 after police found a body in a home completely destroyed by fire in New South Wales south coast.

The body has not yet been formally identified but it is believed to be of the 59-year-old male occupant, state police said in a statement.

Australian officials yesterday were working to extricate the bodies of three US firefighters from a plane that crashed in remote bushland on Thursday, as the area’s “active” bushfire status complicated an investigation into the accident.

Officials said it was still too early to speculate on the cause of the crash of the C-130 Hercules tanker plane, killing its entire crew, just after it dumped a large load of retardant on a huge wildfire in a national park.

“We are very much into the evidence gathering phase of the investigation,” Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) Chief Commissioner Greg Hood told reporters. “We will not be speculating.”

However, “we have nothing to suggest there was a systemic fault” when asked whether other aircraft in use were safe,” he added.

Coulson Aviation, the Canadian firm that owned the plane and employed its crew, yesterday said that all three were former US military members with extensive flight experience: captain Ian McBeth, 44; first officer Paul Clyde Hudson, 42; and flight engineer Rick DeMorgan Jr., 43.

Firefighters in Australia held a minute’s silence and flags on official buildings in New South Wales (NSW) state, where the plane crashed, were flown at half-mast as a mark of respect on yesterday.

“We will forever be indebted to the enormous contribution and indeed the ultimate sacrifice that’s been paid as a result of these extraordinary individuals doing a remarkable job,” NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said at a farewell near Sydney airport for 32 US firefighters who were returning home after weeks on duty on Australia.

ATSB investigators yesterday had to be escorted to the 1km-long crash site by firefighters and police were still in the process of securing the area, Hood said.

Little of the plane was intact and potential hazards included aviation fuel and unexploded pressurized canisters, he added.

Hood said the ATSB expected to retrieve the plane’s black box cockpit voice recorder, use a drone to 3D map the site, analyze both air traffic control and the plane’s data and review the weather at the time of the crash.

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