Three US firefighters who died when their air tanker plane crashed in a “fireball” while battling bushfires in southeastern Australia have been named.
Captain Ian McBeth, 45; first officer Paul Clyde Hudson, 43, and flight engineer Rick A DeMorgan Jr, 44, were killed in New South Wales, their employer said.
The cause of the crash is not known.
The crew – who had all previously worked for the US military – were killed when the C-130 Hercules they were in went down near Peak View, in Australia’s alpine region, close to a bushfire burning out of control in the Wadbilliga National Park.
“We honour the amazing crews who do incredible things in dangerous circumstances supported by world-class operations,” aircraft owner Coulson Aviation said in a statement.
The firm grounded its other large air tankers immediately after the crash on Thursday but said they would be returning to work “in the very near future”.
New South Wales Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash.
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“We simply don’t know the circumstances pertaining to the accident at this stage,” he said. “Appropriate, formal investigations and inquiries are underway.”
He said field reports showed there had been a “pretty significant fireball associated with the plane crash”.
The air tanker dropped fire retardant shortly before the fatal accident, Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) said on Friday.
ATSB chief commissioner Greg Hood also said it was too early to speculate on what caused the aircraft to come down.
Air tankers typically carry 15,000 litres of water or fire retardant to release over blazes in areas that ground crews find hard to reach.
The aircraft went into a valley to drop the retardant and did not come out.
The Rural Fire Service said it lost contact with the aircraft, which took off from Richmond RAAF base at 1pm, and disappeared from the flight radar just after 2pm, and the flight tracker stopped.
Thirty two people have been killed since the fires began, which have ravaged more than 10.4 million hectares (25.7 million acres).
At least 2,600 homes have been destroyed and an estimated one billion animals have also perished.