Cops stop vagrants from stealing crashed Durban helicopter propellers as victims are mourned
Durban - THE South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) is expected to release a report in 30 days, on the Robinson 22 helicopter crash into the Umgeni River, near Parlock, on Monday.
Helicopter Instructor at Starlite Aviation Academy Derek Fitzgerald, 23, and trainee pilot Richard Morgan, 31, died in the crash. Eyewitnesses claimed a bird had struck the two-seater helicopter, and caused it to spiral out of control and crash near the N2 Umgeni River bridge.
Eyewitnesses said the helicopter crashed into a sandbank and reeds, in the river below the N2 bridge.
Durban Metro police at the scene said vagrants, who lived under the bridge, stole the propellers and other parts of the wreckage.
They were on their way to the scrapyard, when tow truck drivers and bystanders stopped them.
Rescue teams used a rope system and boats to try and gain access to the patients in the thick swamp.
Emer-G-Med paramedics spokesperson Kyle Van Reenen said the helicopter was partially submerged in the water and reeds.
Both the pilot and co-pilot were found entrapped in the aircraft.
“It is speculated that the cause of the crash is that of a bird strike, however, the aviation authorities will conduct the necessary investigations accordingly,” Van Reenen said.
An eyewitness Priyan Naidu said he heard a screeching noise and, when he looked up, he saw a propeller fall off a low-flying helicopter.
“We saw the propeller and a bird fall into the water. These birds catch fish here daily and are quite huge. My instincts kicked in to help the injured. Together with my work colleague Simon van Joe, we got into a boat and paddled to the crash site. We walked on sand banks in the river and through the reeds. Our hasty arrival saved most of the possessions of the deceased. Drug addicts and scrap collectors, living in the vicinity, converged on the scene and began removing items from the crash site,” said Naidu.
He said that, at the crash, they first came across one person and checked for his pulse.
“We found his personal belongings as well. We were not aware of the second person until paramedics arrived. We are lucky the helicopter did not land on the freeway,” he said.
Another eyewitness Nathanael Moodley said he saw the helicopter spiralling out of control in mid-air, before it nose dived into the river.
Fisherman Sthembiso Gumede said parts of the helicopter landed a few metres from him in the water.
“I heard the noise and then saw the helicopter rolling in the air and falling down. I was shocked. I am lucky it did not land on me,” Gumede said.
SACAA spokesperson Kabelo Ledwaba said a preliminary report would be issued within 30 days of the accident. He added that the completion of the investigation would be marked by the release of a final accident report.
He said, once compiled, the report might also contain safety recommendations, aimed at improving the levels of aviation safety and the prevention of a similar accident.
Starlite Aviation Group spokesperson Klara Fouche confirmed that an instructor and a student died in the crash, and declined to comment further on the matter.
Sydenham police opened an inquest docket for investigation.
In a statement on Facebook, Olive Tree Church, in Florida Road, said Fitzgerald served in a large capacity throughout the years at the church and meant a great deal to them as a friend.
“Let’s pray for all those who knew him, pray and care for the family, and for his girlfriend. We will deeply miss you Derek!” read the statement on Facebook.
Reacting to Fitzgerald’s death, close friend Ross Rodger wrote on social media that he was devastated.
“Derek was one of the best young men I have ever met and I am personally devastated at his loss,” said Rodger.
George Ryan Gourlay said he had flown with Fitzgerald before, and was impressed with both his expertise and character.
Zac Dermick said Fitzgerald walked into his youth group as a teenager.
“I had the privilege of watching him grow into an amazing man, full of integrity and love. He became one of my best friends, despite our age gap. We shared many sessions on the squash court, solid conversations over a beer, and he always made himself available for a surf or casual hang out session,” he said.