An American couple were on their honeymoon when they were killed in a helicopter crash off the Whitsundays in north Queensland.
John ‘Pete’ Hansel, 79, and his 65-year-old wife Sue from Kailua-Kona in Hawaii died after the Whitsunday Air Services helicopter crashed near Hardy Reef Pontoon on Wednesday afternoon.
The woman’s 33-year-old daughter and her 34-year-old partner were also in the crash but avoided serious injury, as did the 35-year-old male pilot.
Friends say John ‘Pete’ Hansel and his wife Sue Hansel were always happy together. (Facebook: Ronald Cole)
Friend Ronald Cole said John and Sue, who were married in December, were members of their local Elks Lodge, a community and charity club.
“[They] always sat at the same place on the east end of the bar,” he said.
“They were constants in the club for years, and finally married at the end of last year. Very well liked couple, popular, she was very bubbly and drew him out of his shell.”
“They seemed to be so happy together”
Two empty chairs have been left out at the Kona Elks Lodge as a memorial to John ‘Pete’ and Sue Hansel. (Supplied: Ronald Cole)
He said there will be two empty chairs at tonight’s meeting at the lodge.
“Basically we’ll call their name three times and then they will say, ‘they are not answering and they have passed over and gone to the other side’,” Mr Cole said.
“Walter Ah Mau bought two drinks, placed a wreath, silent tribute, to our missing members. I see tears here.”
The couple’s favourite drinks at the Kona Elks Lodge surrounded by a wreath. (Supplied: Ronald Cole)
Friend Vern Ungerecht told local newspaper West Hawaii Today they were a happy couple.
“They were so looking forward to this. They were so excited about this big trip,” Mr Ungerecht said.
“It was a new experience for both of them. They were just all bubbly and happy about it.”
In a statement on Thursday, the US embassy said it was liaising with the family and were providing appropriate assistance.
Recovery efforts difficult
Recovery efforts for the helicopter would be difficult, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has said.
The chopper is sitting 58 metres underwater in the Great Barrier Reef marine park area amid worsening weather conditions.
The helicopter pontoon at Hardy Reef, where a chopper crashed on Wednesday afternoon. (cqplanespotting.blogspot.com.au – file image)
ATSB officers were working with the Queensland Police Service and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), but an ATSB spokesman said retrieving the helicopter was expected to take weeks and investigators may struggle to visit the pontoon if weather conditions worsened.
“Given the pilot and passengers survived, and there were a number of witnesses, it may not be required from an evidential perspective for them to refloat the aircraft,” the spokesman said.
“It is almost 60-metres below the surface and the depth alone will make it a very difficult retrieval”
The crash happened at Hardy Reef, north-east of the Whitsunday Islands. (ABC Open: Manuela Keller)
ATSB would decide in coming days whether or not to attempt to recover it.
Police Inspector Ian Haughton said authorities were keeping a eye on Cyclone Nora in the Arafura Sea, which the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has predicted could reach category three cyclone strength in the Gulf of Carpentaria in coming days.
Inspector Haughton said the system could bring bad weather to the Whitsundays, further hampering investigation efforts.
Emergency floats were activated
An ATSB spokesman said emergency floats were activated by the pilot after it ditched into the water, allowing some of the passengers to get out.
However, floatation systems were a temporary safety measure and the helicopter sunk.
The ATSB is also calling for anyone who witnessed or has footage of the incident, especially tourists, to come forward as soon as possible before they leave the region.
Tourism Whitsunday chief executive officer Craig Turner said it would be inappropriate to comment on the incident while the investigation was ongoing, but praised the quick thinking actions of those that helped at the scene.
Whitsunday Mayor Andrew Willcox said the tragedy would be deeply felt across the community.
“We have a very high, unblemished safety record in the Whitsundays and all tourism operators hold their passenger experience and safety in high regard,” he said.
“It’s too early to tell what sort of impact this will have on the tourism industry.”
Whitsunday Air Services said the helicopter was on final approach for a landing at the pontoon, which is about 65 kilometres north-east of the Whitsunday Islands.
At this stage, the company did not know how the accident happened and has suspended all operations while a review is undertaken.
Air safety investigators said a preliminary report into the crash should be ready by the end of April.