Three Britons have died after a helicopter crashed onto jagged rocks of the Grand Canyon, the Foreign Office confirmed.
Three further British passengers and the pilot were being treated at a Nevada hospital Sunday night, while crews tackled difficult terrain in a very remote area to try to recover the bodies of those killed.
The Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters chopper crashed under unknown circumstances on Saturday evening on the Hualapai Nation’s land near Quartermaster Canyon, by the Grand Canyon’s West Rim.
A British Foreign Office spokesperson confirmed: „We are providing support to the families of six British visitors involved in a helicopter accident at the Grand Canyon on 10 February, and we are in close contact with the US emergency services.“
A witness said he saw flames and black smoke spewing from the crash site, heard explosions and saw victims who were badly hurt.
Windy conditions, darkness, the remoteness of the area and the rugged terrain made it difficult to reach the helicopter’s wreckage, Hualapai Nation police Chief Francis Bradley said.
Rescue crews had to be flown in, walk to the crash site and use night vision goggles to find their way around, he said.
The survivors were airlifted to a Las Vegas hospital in the early hours of Sunday morning, Bradley said.
National Transportation Safety Board officials are expected to begin investigation at the crash site.
National Weather Service meteorologists in Flagstaff and Phoenix said wind conditions were an estimated 10 mph (16 kph) with gusts of 20 mph (32 kph) around the time of the crash.
Fujimoto, a Las Vegas photographer who was doing a wedding shoot at the time of the crash, said he suddenly saw people running toward the edge of a gulch. He said he heard gasps and went to check out the commotion coming from about 600 feet (183 meters) below.
„In the gulch, there was a helicopter, flames, smoke,“ he said. „It was horrible.“
He said that’s when two or three small explosions went off in the wreckage and people weren’t sure what to do. He said some pilots of helicopters that were also out there decided to try descending into the gulch.
Fujimoto said he has taken helicopter rides for photo shoots for the past few years and generally felt safe. He said the crash aftermath is the worst thing he’s ever witnessed.
The tour company released a statement Sunday, promising full cooperation with crash investigators and offering sympathy.
„It is with extreme sadness we extend our heartfelt sympathy to the families involved in this accident,“ Papillon Group CEO Brenda Halvorson said. „Our top priority is the care and needs of our passengers and our staff.“
The Nevada-based company’s website says it flies roughly 600,000 passengers a year around the Grand Canyon and on other tours. It notes that it „abides by flight safety rules and regulations that substantially exceed the regulations required by the Federal Aviation Administration.“
In August 2001, a Grand Canyon tour helicopter operated by Papillion crashed and burned near Meaview, Arizona. The pilot and five passengers died. An NTSB report issued in 2004 blamed the pilot’s decision to descend too fast and too close to the scenic Grand Wash Cliffs.