Australia begins investigation into crash of firefighting plane

Deaths of three crewmen and a body discovered separately on Friday raise bushfire fatalities to 33

In this undated photo released from the Rural Fire Service, a C-130 Hercules plane called "Thor" drops water during a flight in Australia. Officials in Australia on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, searched for a water tanker plane feared to have crashed while fighting wildfires. (RFS via AP)
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Australian officials were working on Friday to extricate the bodies of three US firefighters from a plane that crashed in remote bushland, as dozens more arrived to help battle bushfires that have raged in the country's south-east for months.

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

The death toll from the bushfires rose to 33 on Friday after police found a body in a home completely destroyed by fire on the south coast of New South Wales state. 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.

The toll includes eight firefighters.

The fires have also killed millions of animals, razed thousands of homes and destroyed a land area about one-third the size of Germany since September.

About 250 firefighters from the United States and Canada have undertaken deployments in Australia since the start of the season.

A 41-strong US team arrived in Melbourne from the United States on Friday to help in eastern Victoria, the state's Country Fire Authority said.

While fire conditions eased in south-eastern Australia on Friday, Sydney was choking on a new smoke haze, blown in by a baking hot wind from the fires burning in the south of the state.

In New South Wales, firefighters were tackling 65 blazes with only one in the "watch and act" category, meaning there was no immediate threat. In Victoria state, all 37 fires were rated at the lowest level.

Coulson Aviation, the Canadian firm that owned the plane that crashed and employed its crew, revealed on Friday that all three were former US military members with extensive flight experience: Captain Ian H McBeth, 44; First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson, 42; and Flight Engineer Rick DeMorgan Jr, 43.

This combo shows undated handout photos released to AFP by the Coulson Group on January 24, 2020 of (L to R) first officer Paul Hudson, flight engineer Rick DeMorgan Jnr. and captain Ian McBeth, the three US firefighters who died when an aircraft tanker crashed on January 23 in New South Wales while on a firefighting run in the Snowy Moutains area of southeastern Australia, pictured at unknown locations. The three "remarkable" US firefighters who died when a water-bombing plane crash fighting bushfires in Australia were named on January 24, as police investigators said they would join a probe into what caused the crash. - -----EDITORS NOTE --- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / COULSON GROUP" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS  - NO ARCHIVES
 / AFP / COULSON GROUP / Handout / -----EDITORS NOTE --- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / COULSON GROUP" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS  - NO ARCHIVES

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

"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.

In this photo provided by the Rural Fire Service (RFS), U.S. and Canadian firefighters, who are wrapping up their deployment to Australia, pause for a minute's silence in Sydney, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, for the three American crew members killed Thursday. The three American firefighters were killed when the aerial water tanker they were in crashed while battling wildfires. (RFS via AP)

Greg Hood, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), which is leading the investigation into the crash, declined to speculate on the cause. "We are very much into the evidence gathering phase of the investigation," he told reporters.

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

ATSB investigators had to be escorted to the one-kilometre-long crash site by firefighters on Friday and police were still in the process of securing the area, Mr Hood said. Little of the plane was intact and potential hazards included aviation fuel and unexploded pressurised canisters, he added.

Mr Hood said the ATSB expected to retrieve the plane's black box cockpit voice recorder, use a drone to map the site in 3D, analyse both air traffic control and the plane's data and review the weather at the time of the crash. "We understand there were several witnesses to the accident," he said. "We hope that some of the witness statements will actually be able to shed light on the sequence of events following the dropping of the retardant."

People climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge stop under flags flying at half-mast as mark of mourning and respect in Sydney, Australia, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, for three U.S. crew members of an aerial water tanker that crashed Thursday while battling wildfires in Australia. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

A team from Coulson Aviation was expected to arrive in Australia on Saturday, along with the aircraft history and maintenance records.

Coulson grounded its other large air tankers immediately after the crash but said on Friday they would be returning to work "in the very near future".

There have been two previous crashes involving C-130 Hercules aircraft while fighting wildfires. In a 2002 accident in California the wings of the aircraft folded upward, breaking off the plane before the fuselage rolled and hit the ground upside down, killing all three crew. In 2012, another C-130 crashed in South Dakota, killing four of the six crew, in an accident that was later determined to be weather-related.

"Unfortunately, aircraft are one of the riskiest parts of wildland firefighting," said Eric Kennedy, a disaster and emergency management expert at York University in Toronto, Canada.

Mr Kennedy said there many possible causes for Thursday's crash, but noted that a well-known risk in the C-130 fleet was metal fatigue-induced wing failure.

"Reduced visibility, high turbulence, and low flying can all be contributing risk factors for air tanker crashes," he said.

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