Three “dearly loved” crew members who died when a fire surveillance plane crashed in remote northwest Queensland worked for a Victorian aviation company.
The aircraft was conducting line scans and travelling from Toowoomba to Mt Isa when it crashed near Cloncurry on Saturday afternoon.
Workers at a nearby Eloise Copper Mine at McKinlay raised alarm at about 2.30pm. A rescue helicopter crew spotted the wreckage and officers arrived on the scene at about 5pm, confirming all three on board had died.
The plane was operated by Victorian-based aerial firefighting company AGAIR, which has a fleet of fire bombers.
“Three of our valued, and dearly loved staff were the only occupants of the aircraft, and there were no survivors,” CEO Rob Boschen told AAP.
“We are utterly devastated, and our heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with the families of our staff.”
Their families have been notified but Queensland Police say it could be days before they are formally identified.
Specialists from the Disaster Victim Identification Unit and investigators from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau are due to arrive at the remote site on Monday.
The ATSB’s Colin McNamara said the organisation is still working through the logistics to deploy its full team to the accident site.
“I do not anticipate the ATSB team will take control of the site until mid-next week. We have to allow forensic specialists to do their job first,” he said.
He said the team is expected to be on the site for around five days and will examine the role the plane had in fighting fires in the area.
“It is important to note, given this aircraft has been involved in Australia’s firefighting efforts more broadly, that if the ATSB identifies a critical or a significant safety issue, that may impact broader fire-fighting operations, we will immediately bring that to the attention of the relevant authorities so they can act upon it,” he added.
Queensland Police Superintendent Tom Armitt said the plane had been completely destroyed by fire and was in hard-to-reach terrain.
“We really feel for the families of the victims … we know who was on the plane,” he told reporters on Sunday.
“We can’t provide any technical answers as to why this has occurred, we will do our best to provide a thorough investigation to the coroner and hopefully answer those questions.”
The Queensland Fire & Emergency service said the aircraft was the same type used as the lead plane for a large aerial tanker (LAT), used to fight bushfires.
“Both the LAT and the lead plane will be grounded until advised by authorities.”
A contingent of 211 Victorian emergency management personnel was deployed to Queensland on Wednesday to help with the firefighting effort in the state’s north.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, who is in China where Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is leading a delegation, said the incident was shocking.
“I send my heartfelt condolences to the many people who have been impacted by this shocking incident,” she posted on social media.
“All Australians’ thoughts are with the family, friends, and all who know the brave firefighters who’ve lost their lives,” said Mr Albanese on Saturday.