Monday, 7 October 2013

Recovery in doubt for remains of Canadian plane-crash victims in Antarctica

The frozen remains of three Canadians have been in the wreckage of a plane, partly buried in snow and stuck on the side of one of the highest mountains in Antarctica, for nine months.

The summer season is starting at the bottom of the world, and that was supposed to mean a mission to recover the bodies of the men could begin. But now there is confusion about who should co-ordinate the retrieval and it is unclear when, or even if, it will happen.

"It's almost a bit like if it happened in outer space, that there's no clear lines of authority as to who has responsibility for what," says Judge Neil MacLean, the chief coroner of New Zealand.

MacLean headed an inquest into the plane crash in June and, although no one has actually seen the bodies, the judge ruled the three men must have died in the crash. He formally registered the deaths of 55-year-old Bob Heath, of Inuvik, N.W.T., 36-year-old Perry Andersen, of Collingwood, Ont., and 25-year-old Mike Denton of Calgary.

An official with Canada's Transportation Safety Board says it has decided the crash site is too dangerous to send in the investigators who are studying why the plane flew into the mountain. Jon Lee also says New Zealand has jurisdiction over the area and it's up to that country's coroner to decide what will happen with recovery of the men's bodies.

But MacLean says he has no further role in the case.

"I think there may be some crossed lines of communication," he said.

Jurisdiction aside, says MacLean, it's really about who has the skills and resources to take on a recovery mission.

New Zealand's search and rescue centre helped in the initial search for the plane. Crew members were unable to get to the bodies, but were able to dig out some equipment and personal items from the wreckage.

The United States is also part of a search and rescue team in the Antarctic, but a spokesperson was unavailable for comment. The U.S. government has been in shutdown mode for almost a week.

MacLean says he knows it's important for the families of the three Canadians to have closure. Some of the relatives were able to listen to the coroner's inquest over the Internet and the judge warned them that getting the men home might not be possible.

The three men, all employees of Calgary-based Kenn Borek Air, were the only people on board the Twin Otter plane when it slammed into a steep slope on Mount Elizabeth on Jan. 23.

Heath was the pilot, Denton, the plane's first officer, and Andersen, an engineer, was responsible for ongoing maintenance of the plane.

The trio took off from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole research station and were en route to an Italian research base in Terra Nova Bay. A search began when the plane's emergency locator beacon started transmitting a signal.

Bad weather hampered rescue efforts for several days. A six-member team eventually made it to the site.

Monday 7 October 2013

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