A blessing has been held at the scene of Thursday morning’s fatal helicopter crash with family, friends, colleagues, community leaders and emergency services present.
Pilot Nick Wallis, 38, DOC senior ranger Paul Hondelink, 63, and DOC biodiversity ranger Scott Theobald, 59, were on their way to undertake tahr control in the Haast area when their helicopter crashed near Wanaka Airport.
Director General Lou Sanson said the Department of Conservation is devastated by the loss.
“We’re stunned and shocked. Our hearts go out to Paul and Scott’s loved ones, who are grappling with an unimaginable loss.
“I also want to extend our deepest sympathies to the Wallis family. Nick and the family have been conservation champions and dear friends to the DOC team."
Paul Hondelink worked for DOC since it was established in 1987. He started as a programme manager in the Threats team in Wanaka, and pioneered Judas goat and tahr control work. Hondelink was a critical part of NZ Police search and rescue, FENZ fire response, and a pillar of the Wanaka community.
Scott Theobald was a world pioneer in the use of dogs to detect predators, first using predator dogs at Trounson Kauri Park to detect stoats in 1998. He developed the National Predator Dog programme in 2000, which grew into the Conservation Dogs Programme.
Nick Wallis, the youngest of four brothers, licensed helicopter engineer and an experienced pilot, clocked more than 3000 flying hours. His brother, Jonathan Wallis, today described him as “larger than life...he was effervescent, nothing was a problem for him”.
Lou Sanson said, “We have lost so much. Paul and Scott have some of the most significant conservation experience in the country – if not the world. Thousands of native birds are alive because of them.
“Nick was a friend, who I stayed with just recently. Paul was a colleague of mine and we shared the experience of leaky tents throughout Fiordland and Rakiura, working to control deer numbers. Scott was a world pioneer in the use of predator detection dogs and one of the best pig hunters in the country.”
Pictured: Superintendent Paul Basham
Police have recovered the bodies of the three men and they have been taken to Christchurch for post mortems to be completed.
“We recognise the significance of this tragedy not only for immediate family but also for the wider DOC staff and the alpine and aviation community in Wanaka,” Superintendent Paul Basham, Southern District Commander, said.
He said a significant team from across the District is supporting the investigation.
Police are making enquiries on behalf of the Coroner and supporting the investigation of the Transport Accident Investigation Commission which is leading the investigation to understand the cause of the crash.
A team of four TAIC staff led by investigator in charge Barry Stephenson will be in Wanaka until early next week.
“TAIC’s evidence gathering at this early stage of the enquiry is broad to support the many routes that an investigation of this type may follow. The initial focus has been on protecting and gathering evidence that could disappear or change, so the team is recording the accident scene and recovering wreckage,” Stephenson said.
“In following days, as well as and interviewing witnesses, investigators may seek to secure electronic, maintenance records and documents related to the operating company and key personnel.”
The investigation may take up to two years to complete.