9 killed after skydiving plane bursts into flames, crashes on New Zealand's South Island

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A light aircraft carrying skydivers crashed in flames Saturday near a popular tourist spot in New Zealand's Southern Alps, killing nine people including four foreign tourists, police said.

The plane caught fire after takeoff from an airstrip at Fox Glacier on the country's South Island, said Ian Henderson, a spokesman for local ambulance services. But other locals said the fire erupted when the plane crashed into a fence at the end of the runway after it failed to lift off safely.

Eyewitness Kirsty Sullivan, whose house was close to the crash site, said she saw "the plane take off at a funny angle" before it went down.

"It just went 'boom' like a big orange fireball into the sky," when it crashed, she told New Zealand's National Radio.

The pilot and eight passengers were killed, Greymouth Police Senior Sgt. Allyson Ealam said.

Police later named the dead tourists as Patrick Byrne, 26, from County Wexford, Ireland; Glen Bourke, 18, from Coburg, Victoria, Australia; Annita Kirsten, 23, from Germany; and Brad Coker, 24, from Farnborough, England.

The five New Zealanders included the pilot, Chaminda Senadhira, 33, of Queenstown and four dive-masters, Adam Bennett of Motueka, Michael Suter from New Plymouth, Christopher McDonald from Mapua and Rodney Miller from Greymouth.

New Zealand's stuff.co.nz website said there is only one skydiving company operating out of the Fox Glacier airstrip, Skydive New Zealand, but a company spokeswoman reached by telephone refused to comment. An answering machine message at the company said skydiving had ceased for the day.

Police said the aircraft was a Fletcher fixed-wing plane of a type designed and built in New Zealand. The planes are popularly used for scenic flights and skydiving in the area around New Zealand's Southern Alps.

Fox Glacier is on the western coast of the South Island, about 90 miles (150 kilometers) from the main city, Christchurch, which was hit early Saturday by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake that damaged buildings and injured at least two people.

The fatal crash was the third in the region in the past 17 years.

In October 1993, nine people died in a plane crash when a twin-engine Nomad 22 crashed at nearby Franz Josef Glacier. In October 1994, seven people were killed when a Helicopter Line Squirrel helicopter on a sightseeing flight crashed in a mountainous area near Fox Glacier.