The bodies of four people killed in a tour helicopter crash on the eastern slope of Mt. Wai‘ale‘ale were retrieved by county rescue workers yesterday.
Kaua‘i Fire Department rescue personnel hope to recover the last body today, weather willing at the 4,300-foot high site.
Two couples visiting Kaua‘i and the pilot, identified as Mark Lundgren, 45, were killed when the Bell 206-B Jet Ranger aircraft owned by Jack Harter Helicopters crashed Wednesday morning at about 9 a.m.
Three bodies were brought to a hangar makai of helipads at Lihu‘e Airport by a rescue helicopter at 10:25 a.m. Thursday, where Crash Fire personnel transferred them into a Kauai Mortuary vehicle for transport to Wilcox Memorial Hospital, said Battalion Chief Bob Kaden. A fourth body was brought back about 4:40 p.m. where it was also transported to Wilcox.
From the crash site, the bodies were put in a body bag, put in a Stokes basket and were airlifted by Hanapepe-based Inter-Island Helicopters’ helicopter to an area near the commuter terminal at Lihu‘e Airport.
The recovery of the bodies came in spite of lingering cloud cover that threatened the safety of county rescue and search workers, said Kaden. Two fire department rescue personnel were stranded Thursday morning at the rescue scene for at least an hour due to poor visibility and weather conditions, he said.
“They can’t get to the crash site, because of the clouds. There is no visibility,” Kaden said early Thursday afternoon. “When things are socked in, they can’t do it. The process is dictated by what they call the cloud ceiling.”
Four members of a Kaua‘i Fire Department search and rescue team and a Kaua‘i police officer conducted their recovery operation from a landing zone by the “Blue Hole” in Wailua, a site that served as a backdrop in the film “Jurassic Park.” From about 1n3:20 p.m., they were grounded awaiting a break in the clouds, when the rescue personnel made their way back to the crash site.
Jack Harter Helicopters was described by officials as having a perfect safety record until the crash. The company has temporarily suspended tour operations.
The helicopter crashed at an elevation of about 4,500 feet, about 750 feet below the 5,200-foot-high peak of Mt. Wai‘ale‘ale, the “wettest spot on earth.”
Investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board arrived on Kaua‘i Thursday afternoon and are starting an investigation into the crash. They expect to view the site, at least from the air, on Friday.
Authorities said the aircraft was severely damaged in the crash.
The flight was supposed to have been for an hour, but the aircraft was reported overdue at 9:30 a.m. by representatives of Jack Harter Helicopters.
The last known radio communication from Lundgren was at 9:03 a.m., FAA investigator Gino Rezzonico said Thursday. The communication was not recorded, but Rezzonico said that other pilots confirmed Lundgren was leaving Wai‘ale‘ale Crater at that time and did not report any problems.
NTSB investigator Wayne Pollack, who arrived on Kaua‘i about 3 p.m. Thursday, said the agency will not begin an investigation until all five bodies are recovered. Jack Harter Helicopters, or the company’s insurance company, will take the responsibility of removing the aircraft wreckage and transporting it to Lihu‘e Airport. Once moved from the mountain the investigators will inspect the wreckage as part of their investigation, Pollack said. He said among his responsibilities are to verify that flight rules were followed and whether any flight procedure needs to be changed.
The wreckage was found at about 11:59 a.m. by a helicopter from a company other than Jack Harter Helicopters.
The names of the four dead passengers were not released, pending notification of their deaths to relatives, said County of Kaua‘i public information officer Cyndi Ozaki.
One of the passengers, a woman, survived for about 6 hours after the crash, and a county recovery team was prepared to airlift her to safety. She succumbed to her injuries and died before 3 p.m. Wednesday. The woman spoke with rescue workers before she died, said Ozaki.
The three bodies recovered Thursday were taken out when there was a break in the cloud layers, and were transported by helicopter to the Lihu‘e Airport by 10:25 a.m. Thursday, Kaden said.
The cloud cover made the recovery operations dangerous, Kaden said. “At one point, when things got socked in, two of the rescuers were left on the mountain side for a time, and they came out only when there was a break,” he said.
The recovery of the remaining bodies could happen at any time, Kaden said before the fourth body was brought out. “It can happen day or night, depending on when things open up,” he said.
A review of photographs of the crash site by county officials showed that the victims were found close together around the helicopter, not spread out as in other helicopter crashes.
An autopsy was ordered for Lundgren. It is not known whether autopsies will be conducted on the other crash victims.
Lundgren has been identified as a former Navy pilot, but a friend said Lundgren was a retired Air Force pilot who had flown helicopters for nearly two decades. He is survived by his wife, Diane, and three grown sons.
David VanWormer of Kilauea said Lundgren was an expert pilot and “knew what he was doing…he knew his stuff.”
VanWormer said Lundgren retired from the military shortly before 1995, and was then hired by Jack Harter Helicopters .
“He loved working with tourists, and he always loved flying helicopters,” VanWormer said. “He was infatuated with flying.”
Lundgren had a clean safety record, said Donn Walker, an FAA spokesman in Los Angeles. He said the company had been in operation since the mid 1970s with no accidents. Based on inspections, Walker called the company “a very conscientious operator.”
Although the company had eight documented violations in the last 12 years, none resulted in civil penalties or fines, he said. Only seven brought any enforcement action, including four for violations of drug testing regulations, two for failures in record-keeping and one for a maintenance violation, he said.
The last fatal helicopter crash on Kaua‘i occurred on June 25, 1998, when a craft operated by Ohana Helicopters crashed in Wai‘ale‘ale Crater, killing all six people aboard.
Staff Writer Kendyce Manguchei and the Associated Press contributed to this report.