Three American specialist firefighters involved in firefighting efforts in the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW), have died after their tanker plane crashed Wednesday.
The U.S. firefighters had formed the crew of a Hercules C-130 adapted for firefighting purposes, 9 News reported. Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, confirmed that all three crew aboard the plane had been killed.
The C-130 crew were reportedly on a mission with a load of fire retardant when the crash occurred.
According to a witness who reported the incident, the plane was already on fire before it crashed into the ground. When it did impact, the C-130 reportedly burst into a large fireball and remained difficult to reach for some time as it had crashed into an active fire area.
Fitzsimmons did not release the names of the crew, but did confirm them to be U.S. residents.
“The firefighting fraternity is a tight-knit family, and the crew on board were well known, not just to their colleagues here in Australia,” Fitzsimmons said. “We’re reminded that a number of our US colleagues that are embedded in some of the incident management teams now, including in the high country, actually had personal relationships with them.”
The particular C-130 had reportedly been in NSW to assist in firefighting efforts for the past few years before the crash occurred. The plane was owned by the Oregon-based company, Coulson Aviation, and reportedly worked by contract to fight fires in the region.
The cause of the crash is not yet known and Coulson Aviation has reportedly grounded its fleet worldwide, until whatever technical faults that may exist can be identified.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian expressed her condolences for the U.S. firefighters killed and announced that flags would be flown at half mast in recognition of those lost.
Out of respect for the three US firefighters who lost their lives operating a Large Air Tanker, flags will fly at half mast in NSW tomorrow.
— Gladys Berejiklian (@GladysB) January 23, 2020
“It demonstrates the dangerous work currently being undertaken and it also demonstrates the conditions that our firefighters are working under,” Berejiklian said. “There are in excess of 70 aircraft that have been used today alone and today is a stark and horrible reminder of the dangerous conditions that our volunteers, emergency services personnel across a number of undertake daily.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also tweeted his condolences.
Deeply saddened to learn of the death of 3 people in the crash of a C130 fire fighting aircraft, north east of Cooma in NSW earlier today. My deepest condolences to the loved ones, friends and colleagues of those who have lost their lives. Such a terrible tragedy.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) January 23, 2020
The fires in NSW have been ongoing since September and have burned more than 4.9 million hectares of land and killed some 480 million animals, by early January estimates.