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Firemen's deaths unnecessary: coroner

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 5/07/2016

The deaths of two experienced firefighters in a helicopter crash in Northland were unnecessary, a coroner has found.

Pilot John de Ridder, 69 - affectionately nicknamed Prickles - and 54-year-old William McRae died after their helicopter fell into the sea off Karikari Beach in 2011 while flying to a group of people trapped on a beach during a blaze.

In a report released on Tuesday, coroner Brandt Shortland found the men had died trying to help others, but that their deaths were needless.

"In hindsight and considering all the circumstances these deaths were unnecessary in my view," he said.

The pair were fighting a fire that had started suspiciously and spread down the Karikari Peninsula threatening baches and homes, when they received a message saying people were trapped on a nearby beach.

Although they were not trained rescuers, the pair flew towards the beach, and became caught in clouds of smoke.

Police Search and Rescue teams found them still strapped into their seats, seven metres under the water and about 680m from the shore the following morning.

In his report, the coroner said the pair were well-respected and experienced, Mr De Ridder a pilot for 40 years in the area and Mr McRae a Department of Conservation senior firefighter with a reputation for "making good decisions under pressure".

There had been no direct command for the men to abandon their firefighting activities to mount a rescue but in the heat of the moment it may have been unclear what was expected, the coroner said.

"I accept there was emotional pressure brought to bear on the New Zealand Fire Service operator from those on the beach using the 111 emergency calls. These calls were stressful resulting in a building up of emotional pressure and anxiety."

Mr Shortland said the actions of fire teams on the day had not been consistent with the then-new Rural Fire Authority plan because of chaos that ensued before command was properly established.

"This resulted in a committed but confused response by the collective responders attending the fire."

He said the Rural Fire Authority had learned many lessons since the deaths and new standards to be brought in this year would further improve the safety of pilots.

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