CANBERRA, Australia — The bodies of three U.S. flying firefighters and the cockpit voice recorder from the water bomber in which they died battling Australia’s unprecedented wildfire crisis were retrieved Saturday as their grieving families arrived in Sydney, officials said.
Ian McBeth of Great Falls, Montana, Paul Clyde Hudson of Buckeye, Arizona, and Rick A. DeMorgan of Navarre, Florida, died when their C-130 Hercules tanker crashed on Thursday after dumping fire retardant on an out-of-control blaze northeast of the town of Cooma in southern New South Wales state.
The plane was contracted from Port Alberni-based Coulson Aviation, which is sending executives to Sydney.
The device that records the last two hours of the cockpit conversation as well as the bodies were retrieved Saturday from a still-active fire zone, police and crash investigators said.
“It will record the pilot, the co-pilot and flight engineer’s discussions in the cockpit. It will record also any of the aural alarms or warnings,” crash investigator Greg Hood told reporters.
The plane was not equipped with a flight data recorder, which is mandatory for airliners.
The Americans’ relatives who began arriving Saturday will be offered an opportunity to visit the hillside crash site, officials said.
Crash investigators have yet to explain why the four-propeller plane crashed in a fire ball shortly after dumping its load of water with additives in turbulent conditions.
Wayne Coulson, CEO of the Coulson Group, said the company is working with the Australian Transportation Safety Board and New South Wales police to determine the cause of the crash.
“Captain Ian McBeth, first officer Paul Hudson and flight engineer Rick DeMorgan Jr. are world-class, experienced pilots flying a reputable, reliable and well-maintained aircraft,” he said. “For that reason, it is vital we understand the circumstances around the crash.”
Coulson said the three were skilled pilots. “They were valued members of our firefighting family and this loss is indescribable.”
Wildfires have claimed at least 33 lives in Australia since September, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and razed more than 10.6 million hectares — an area larger than the U.S. state of Kentucky.