CHOPPER TRAGEDY: Police return to mainland with bodies
LATEST: Whitsunday Water Police have returned to Airlie Beach with the bodies of the man and woman who died in a horrific helicopter crash in the Whitsundays Wednesday afternoon.
Earlier, police confirmed two international tourists, a man and a woman, died after the helicopter they were travelling in crashed off Hardy Reef.
It was a long rescue mission for authorities, with the vessel only returning to Abell Point Marina just after midnight, where a funeral home was waiting to transport the bodies when they arrived back to the mainland.
At 4:10pm emergency services received reports of a helicopter crash that occurred about 65km north-east of the Whitsundays at about 3.35pm.
Police Vessel Damien Leeding and other vessels were dispatched to the site with police and other emergency services.
"A man and a woman who are believed to be international tourists were recovered from the helicopter and pronounced deceased at the scene," police said.
"Three other people, including the male pilot and a male and female passenger, also believed to be from overseas, will be transported by sea for medical attention for non-life threating injuries."
All passengers were recovered from the helicopter.
Police will continue to assist the Australian Transport Safety Bureau with the investigation and recovery of the aircraft.
Five people were aboard the Eurocopter 120 which went down near Hardy Reef pontoon about 4.30pm.
One person is in a serious condition while two others have escaped with minor injuries.
The helicopter is believed to have crashed into the water 250 metres from the Hardy Reef pontoon.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority says five people were aboard the Eurocopter 120 which went down near Hardy Reef pontoon at about 4.30pm on Wednesday. One person is in a serious condition while the two others have escaped with minor injuries.
In a statement, the company that owns the helicopter, Whitsunday Air Services, confirmed the two fatalities.
"Whitsunday Air Services can confirm that a tragic accident involving a Whitsunday Air Services helicopter carrying four passengers and one crew member has occurred at Hardy Reef today," the statement said.
"The accident occurred while the helicopter was on final approach for a landing at it's Hardy Reef Heliport and resulted in two fatalities and two passengers sustaining minor injuries.
"We are extremely saddened by this incident and our deepest condolences are with the families of all of the passengers. Whitsunday Air Services is continuing to work with the Queensland Police, the ATSB and CASA to assist with their investigations.
"Whitsunday Air Services will be suspending all operations while a full review process is undertaken. Further information will be released in due course."
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau will begin investigating the crash of the single-engine EC120B helicopter.
"A team of Transport Safety Investigators will soon travel to the accident location to commence the evidence collection phase of the investigation. There, investigators will interview witnesses, examine any available recorded data, review operational records and technical documentation amongst other activities," the ATSB posted to social media Wednesday night.
"The evidence collection phase will also define the size and scope of the investigation and determine the expected timeframe for the completion of a final report.
"No further information is available at this time."
The ATSB added "should a critical safety issue be identified during the course of the investigation, the ATSB will immediately notify relevant parties".
The Hardy Reef pontoon allows underwater viewing chambers with tourist operators in the area saying Hardy Reef offers an excellent combination of reef, coral and fish life for tourists.
Councillor Ron Petterson at Whitsunday Regional Council took to Facebook expressing his sympathies for those involved.
"I ask that we all keep our thoughts and prayers tonight with those involved in today's tragic accident out at Hardy Reef. A sad heartbreaking day..." he said.
Whitsundays MP Jason Costigan said, "Absolutely shocked to hear this terrible news in our part of the world. Please keep the families and friends of the deceased in your prayers, as well as the injured."
It comes a day after the final investigation report into the partial engine power loss and ditching of a Robinson R44 helicopter near Hamilton Island on November 8.
Then, the pilot landed the helicopter on the water, with the emergency floats deployed, shut down the engine, and applied the rotor brake.
The pilot activated the emergency locator transmitter and instructed passengers to prepare to inflate their life jackets and to prepare to exit the helicopter if necessary. They were rescued about an hour later. The helicopter later sank and was unable to be recovered.
The report highlights that without an emergency floatation system the risk of the helicopter sinking with the occupants on board would have been greater.
INITIAL: POLICE are currently en-route to Hardys Reef after reports of a helicopter crash.
The crash site is about 65km north east of the Whitsundays and it is believed that five people were on board however their condition is not known at this stage.
Police vessel leader Damien Leeding and other vessels are currently travelling to the site with police and other emergency services.
A helicopter has been reportedly dispatched from Townsville and police are on a police vessel with more officers on a ferry - none of which had arrived on scene yet.
There have been other helicopter tragedies in the Whitsundays over the years, including:
17 October 2003: RACQ CQ Rescue Helicopter crash kills three
A three-men RACQ CQ rescue crew took off from their hanger in Mackay at 9.35pm on October 17 and was en route to Hamilton Island for a medical evacuation.
Fifteen minutes into the flight, the Bell 407 went down in the sea between Cape Hillsborough and Little Green Island, off Shoal Point.
Pilot Captain Andy Carpenter, 31, crewman Stewart Eva, 31, and ambulance paramedic Craig Liddington, 31, were killed.
12 December 1985: Tourist killed in helicopter pontoon mishap
Two passengers were ejected, one of them killed, when the rotor blades of the Bell 206 helicopter they were in became tangled with another helicopter on a Blacks Reef pontoon.
Four helicopters had been tasked that day to transport 21 people from Hamilton Island to Blacks Reef for a boat cruise.
The Bell 206 [VH-HIL] was the fourth to park on the pontoon, which was authorised for only three aircraft. An Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigation found insufficient space was available.