Thursday 22 February 2018

Heartbreak as Irishman dies in fiery plane crash

Tragic 26-year-old had only been in New Zealand for three weeks

Brendan Furlong and Don Lavery

ONE of the worst plane crashes in New Zealand's history has claimed the life of a young Wexford man who had only been in the country three weeks on a work visa.

Patrick Byrne, 26, died along with eight other people in the fiery crash on the country's South Island.

He came from the the small rural area of Brideswell, Askamore, Co Wexford, and died along with five New Zealanders, an Australian, a German and a Briton, when a plane carrying tourists and skydivers crashed at the end of the runway at Fox Glacier Airport on the west coast.

Mr Byrne was in New Zealand on a one-year working visa when the Fletcher aircraft burst into flames on impact just 50 metres from the home of John Sullivan, Fox Glacier's volunteer fire brigade chief.

"It burst into flames on impact, I didn't see any sign of smoke or fire before then," Mr Sullivan said.

"I ran straight out there and did a quick 360 around the whole thing, by that time it was in flames. I thought that maybe if someone had been thrown clear on impact or if they'd tried to jump out in the air, then there might have been something I could have done, but looking around the whole area there was no sign of life."

Mr Sullivan said the entire town would be affected by the tragedy.

"It's a very small, close- knit community here, and everybody knew the guys involved, apart from the tourists who were taking part in the skydiving."

Local resident Dave Bentley said the plane was almost totally destroyed and there were no signs of life.

"There were a few local people on board, it is going to hit the town pretty hard," he said.

He added that eye witnesses had told him the plane went "straight into the ground".

Another local said he had been watching coverage of the New Zealand earthquake on television when he heard a bang and ran outside.

"It was like a fireball and then there were big puffs of smoke going up . . . [the plane] was engulfed in flames immediately," he said.

Patrick was the son of Hugh and Brid Byrne, and had two older brothers, Mark and Davy, and one older sister, Laura.

Before he set off for New Zealand on a working holiday, Patrick had worked as an electrician and was a member of the local Askamore GAA club, for which he played in a Nicky Rackard Hurling League final back in 1996.

Club member Michael Murphy spoke of Patrick as being an outstanding under-age talent.

"He was a fine under-age hurler who excelled in the 1996 Rackard League team. He later moved away from hurling but was a lovely, likable young person.

"He was well known and loved in the locality and known by everyone, young and old. This has come as a great shock to the area."

On hearing of the tragedy, shocked neighbours and friends visited the family home, where they huddled together as they tried to come to terms with the news of Patrick's death.

One friend sobbed: "I just can't believe it could happen to Patrick. I just can't believe that he's gone like that. He was such a friendly, likable young person.

"He was loved by everyone in the locality, for he was quiet and unassuming and loved by everyone.

"He was always happy. He always had a smile on his face and wanted to have the craic with others as well.

"He looked upon life as precious, while he also loved travelling, which is what took him to New Zealand."

In New Zealand, Greymouth mayor Tony Kokshoorn said the the district was no stranger to tragedy.

"It's a risky area and mother nature quite often has her way," he said.

Local transport minister Steven Joyce extended his condolences to the families and friends of the dead.

Among the dead were an 18-year-old Australian man, a 24-year-old English man and a 23-year-old German woman, Sergeant Tim Crawford of Greymouth police said.

The pilot and four local males who died were from the Fox Glacier area.

The accident happened at lunchtime (local time) yesterday. Police secured the site and said the bodies of the dead would stay there until today.

A police disaster victim identification team was on its way to the crash site and bodies were to be taken to the nearby Dunedin Hospital.

A three-member transport accident investigation commission team was due to arrive in Fox Glacier today to begin an investigation.

The crash will be remembered as among the country's worst, with more fatalities than a 1994 helicopter crash on Fox Glacier that killed seven people.

The repatriation of Mr Byrne's body is being organised by the Irish Embassy in Australia, which is liaising with the Irish Consulate in New Zealand.

Sunday Independent

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