The family of the pilot killed in the Fox Glacier crash know they may never get his body back, but hope authorities can bring him home.
Queenstown’s Mitch Gameren, 28, died alongside six tourists when the Alpine Adventures helicopter he was flying on a scenic trip plunged into a deep crevasse in the glacier on Saturday.
The tourists were Andrew Virco, 50, and his partner Katharine Walker, 51, of Cambridge, England; Nigel Edwin Charlton, 66, and his wife, Cynthia, 70, of Hampshire, England; and Sovannmony Leang, 27, and Josephine Gibson, 29, both of Sydney.
Police yesterday confirmed that the bodies of three of the seven victims had been recovered from the crash site.
The remains were taken to a nearby temporary mortuary facility for formal identification, which could take days.
Gameren’s stepfather Kelly Bray says he had no idea who had been recovered and who was still unaccounted for.
“All we know is they have asked us about who Mitch’s dentist was,” he says.
“We are conscious he may be in the crevasse, he may be deep down. But we are quite resolved in our minds that we are getting him back.
“It is hard not knowing … We know he’s not coming back alive but we still want him back.”
Bray says family and friends gathered in Queenstown, many from overseas, and were waiting for news.
“We’ve got quite a big group here; we’re OK.”
Inspector John Canning says deteriorating weather meant operations on the glacier were likely to be on hold until at least Wednesday.
A search and rescue team in a NZCC rescue helicopter recovered three of the victims yesterday during a brief lull in the bad weather.
The victims were winched aboard the helicopter, which was unable to land.
Canning says the recovery is a technically challenging task which calls for specialist skills.
“The site is near the top of the glacier, it’s all ice, it’s not level and there are blocks of ice as big as buildings with crevasses between them,” he says.
“There will be danger in getting teams into the area and traversing the area. While we’re determined to return these people to their families, this will be a complex and technical task with an emphasis on … safety.”
Canning says alpine cliff rescue teams from Mt Cook and Franz Josef, as well as disaster victim identification teams, are part of the operation.
A sombre mood has descended over the Fox Glacier community, which was noticeably quieter than usual yesterday.
Outside the local tourism centre, a group of pilots sat around a wooden picnic table, reflecting on the loss of their friend and remembering a colleague who was taken too soon.
Locals who knew the pilots walked up and asked if they were all right. But none wanted to speak about their loss – for them, the tragedy was still too raw.
Other locals were worried about what the tragedy would mean for their businesses over the peak summer tourist season.
Shocked tourists, some of whom had been contemplating taking a scenic helicopter flight, commented that it could have been them.
Tourist flights in the area were all cancelled yesterday. A 5km no-fly zone around the crash site is likely to remain in place for at least the next three days, putting a stop to flights over the glacier.
Glacier Country Tourism chairman Rob Jewell says many of the pilots in the close-knit industry know each other and it is a difficult time for them.
“The focus at the moment is on friends, the family of the loved ones who’ve unfortunately lost their lives in this tragedy.”
Alpine Adventures spokesman Mike Nolan says the crash is “absolutely tragic”.
“And our thoughts are just with the families at the moment, of the pilot and the passengers.”
Prime Minister John Key says the crash is “obviously very tragic”, and he passed his condolences for the loss of the Australians’ lives to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when he met him last night.
Asked about any effect on visitor numbers, Mr Key, also tourism minister, says he does not think it will put people off coming here, or undertaking adventure tourism activities.
“Most people are aware there is a degree of risk when you get in a helicopter. But, having said that, there needs to be a full investigation.”
Anna Leask, John Weekes, Emily Murphy, with additional reporting by NZME, NZH and NEWSTALK.