An Irish man is among nine people who died when a light aircraft belonging to a skydiving company crashed and burst into flames near a popular tourist spot in New Zealand’s Southern Alps today.
The plane caught fire shortly after take-off from an airstrip at Fox Glacier on the country’s South Island, said Ian Henderson, a spokesman for local ambulance services.
The pilot and eight passengers were killed, Greymouth Police Senior Sgt Allyson Ealam said.
Four tourists from Ireland, England, Germany and Australia, and five New Zealanders, including the pilot, were among the dead, police said.
It is understood that Patrick Byrne from Gorey in Wexford recently arrived in the country on a working visa and was among the skydiving party.
Senior Sergeant Allyson Elam of the Greymouth Police Department said two separate investigations were being carried out, by the Civil Aviation Authority and local police.
The cause of the early-afternoon accident was not immediately known.
Witnesses said the plane had just lifted off from the small airstrip when it appeared to begin spiralling.
“It was like a fireball, and then there was big puffs of smoke going up. (The plane) was engulfed in flames immediately,” one told the New Zealand Herald.
New Zealand’s stuff.co.nz website said there was only one skydiving company operating out of the Fox Glacier airstrip, Skydive New Zealand, but a company spokeswoman reached by telephone refused to comment. An answering machine message at the company said skydiving had ceased for the day.
Police said the aircraft was a Fletcher fixed-wing plane of a type designed and built in New Zealand. The planes are popularly used for scenic flights and skydiving in the area around the Southern Alps.
Fox Glacier is on the western coast of the South Island, about 90 miles from the main city, Christchurch, which was hit yesterday by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake that damaged buildings and injured at least two people.