Three people from a flight charter company have died after a light plane crashed while assisting firefighters battling bushfires in outback Queensland.
At about 2.30pm on Saturday, mineworkers from the Eloise Copper Mine reported the incident involving a Turbo Commander Aircraft in McKinlay, about 104km southeast of Cloncurry.
The three-person crew board the plane were assisting the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) in a fire mapping surveillance operation during the crash.
AGAIR’s chief executive Rob Noschen confirmed three who died were members of his staff.
“Authorities have confirmed three of our valued, and dearly loved staff were the only occupants of the aircraft, and there were no survivors,” he said.
“We are utterly devastated, and our heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with the families of our staff.
“AGAIR will provide full assistance and support to all authorities in the course of their investigations.”
The company specialises in providing aerial agricultural, wildlife suppression and firefighting flight charters, and is based in Stawell in regional Victoria.
While formal identification of the victims may take a few days, Superintendent Tom Armitt said the families of the victims have been notified.
Over the next few days, police will remain on site to continue investigations, with members from the Disaster Victim Identification Team set to arrive on Monday.
Police will also work with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) who will examine the technical aspects of the crash, including the airworthiness of the aircraft.
“At this stage, we're in the very, very early stages of our investigation. We can’t provide any technical answers as to why this has occurred,” he said, speaking to reporters on Sunday.
“We will do our best to provide it a thorough investigation, and at the end of the day, our report will be provided to the coroner and hopefully answer some of those questions.”
While the crash caused some additional “small bushfires in the area,” Superintendent Armitt said they were “relatively easily dealt with”.
However, the aircraft itself has been “completely-destroyed by fire”.
He also shared his appreciation for landowners in the area who have assisted police in their investigation.
“We’ve received excellent assistance from the primary producer farm owner on the site has enabled our access and we will have police there 24/7 until the crime scene has been completed,” he said.
Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan also acknowledged the crash as a “terrible tragedy”.
“My condolences go to (the families), and the loved ones of the three people who have been killed,” she said.
‘Hearts are heavy:’ QFES pays tribute to crew
After initial reports of the crash, police deployed a Rescue 400 helicopter to the wreckage, while ground crews navigated “difficult terrain” to reach the site.
The plane disappeared off the flight radar between Mt Isa and Cloncurry after departing Toowoomba earlier on Sunday.
On Saturday night, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services confirmed it had contracted the AGIR to undertake fire mapping, and paid tribute to the three people on board.
“Our hearts are heavy following the fatal plane crash this afternoon in north west Queensland and the tragic loss of three people supporting our bushfire response,” QFES posted on social media.
“During natural disasters in Queensland, we respond as a family.
Our hearts are heavy following the fatal plane crash this afternoon in north west Queensland and the tragic loss of three people supporting our bushfire response. During natural disasters in Queensland, we respond as a family. That family includes those contracted to support our…
— Qld Fire & Emergency (@QldFES) November 4, 2023
“That family includes those contracted to support our aerial operations.
“Side-by-side we have been fighting these bushfires as one and their loss is felt by all. Our thoughts and prayers are with their family, friends and those who worked alongside them, including our Air Operations personnel.”
Investigations into the incident are ongoing. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) will carry out a transport safety investigation, while the Forensic Crash Union will investigate the incident on behalf of the State Coroner.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she was “terribly saddened” to hear about the tragedy.
“The crew on board this aircraft have been doing everything they could to protect Queenslanders,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
“I send my heartfelt condolences to the many people who have been impacted by this shocking incident.”
I’m deeply saddened to hear the news that an aerial firefighting crew have lost their lives after their plane went down north-west of McKinlay.
I send my heartfelt condolences to the many people who have been impacted by this shocking incident.
— Annastacia Palaszczuk (@AnnastaciaMP) November 4, 2023
Queensland’s Fire and Emergency Services minister Mark Ryan said the tragedy would hit the aerial firefighting teams hard.
“For weeks now the teams in the air supporting the firefighting efforts have been working together to keep Queenslanders safe,“ Mr Ryan said.
“So many of them know each other, work together, dedicate themselves to the same goal, to keep everyone safe.
“To lose a team of their own will be especially hard.
“My heartfelt sympathies go to everyone who is hurting right now, the families, the friends, and the colleagues of the crew who have lost their lives.”