The bodies of three US firefighters who died when their air tanker smashed into the ground in southern NSW have been retrieved from the crash site before their families arrive in Sydney on the weekend.
The families of captain Ian McBeth, first officer Paul Clyde Hudson and flight engineer Rick DeMorgan Jr will be able to visit the “complicated” crash site northeast of Cooma if they wish to.
“The bodies have now been recovered from the site,” a NSW Police spokeswoman told AAP on Friday night.
Capt McBeth, 44, is survived by his wife Bowdie and three children in Montana where he was a member of the Air National Guard.
The plane’s owners, Canadian company Coulson Aviation, said he was a highly qualified and respected C-130 pilot with years of firefighting experience in the military and with Coulson.
“Ian’s love for his wife and children was evident for anyone who spent time around him,” Coulson said in a statement.
His fellow crewmen were also highly experienced military airmen.
Mr Hudson, 42, spent 20 years as a US Marine, flying C-130s and receiving many decorations as he reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel and is survived by his wife Noreen.
Father-of-two Mr DeMorgan, 43, spent 18 years in the US Air Force as a flight engineer on C-130s with extensive combat experience.
“Rick’s passion was always flying and his children,” Coulson said.
NSW Police Superintendent Paul Condon said it was obvious the C-130 Hercules water tanker had “impacted heavily” at Peak View on Thursday afternoon and there’s “not much intact at all”.
The plane crashed just after it had dropped fire retardant along a ridge, Australian Transport Safety Bureau chief commissioner Greg Hood said on Friday, adding the kilometre-long crash site was “complicated” because it was in an active bushfire area.
ATSB investigators on Saturday will make the site safe by securing aviation fuel, the magnesium wheels and any unexploded oxygen bottles.
They’ll then locate the plane’s voice recorder and take it back to Canberra “to see what the exchanges may have been in the cockpit during those final moments”, Mr Hood told reporters.
Investigators will map the site and speak with witnesses who saw the crash.
“We have upwards of 500 firefighting aircraft active across the country from about 150 companies and several different countries,” the safety bureau boss said.
“So if there are lessons to be learned from this particular accident it’s really important that Australia and the world learn them.”
Coulson’s owners are expected to arrive in Sydney this weekend carrying the full maintenance history of the aircraft.
“We honour the amazing crews who do incredible things in dangerous circumstances supported by world-class operations,” the company said.
NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons on Friday said the men were dedicated to the “art” of aerial firefighting.
“It’s a body blow for everyone in the firefighting fraternity, in the community of NSW and further afield,” he told reporters in Sydney.
“It’s a confronting and sobering reminder of the enormity of the risk and challenge associated with this fire season.”
The RFS boss labelled the C-130 Hercules a “workhorse of the air” which could carry 15,000 litres of water.
Alaska region fire management officer Chuck Russell – part of the US and Canadian contingent in NSW – said there was a sombre mood among the firefighting fraternity.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a contractor, a Canadian, a New Zealander or an Australian, it hits hard when we lose one of our own,” he told reporters.
US ambassador Arthur Culvahouse said he was “deeply saddened” by the news.
The US firefighters and the three NSW firefighters who have died battling fires this season will be remembered at a state memorial service on February 23.