A PARAMEDIC is expected to have arrived at the scene of this morning's helicopter crash in Fox Glacier, but there is no word yet on the fate of seven people believed to be on board.
Rescue Coordination Centre spokesman Vince Cholewa said just before 2pm an alpine cliff rescue team was being winched down to the crash site along with the paramedic.
He did not know if the rescuers had reached the helicopter yet, but expected they had.
"It's a heavily crevassed area and they need the expertise of the cliff rescue team to navigate the area and keep the paramedic safe as well."
There was low cloud, but it was not affecting the mission, Cholewa said.
"It's not hampering the flying conditions because they're flying low."
The centre was alerted to the incident at 10.55am and four rescue helicopters were dispatched, one with a cliff rescue team on board.
The West Coast NZCC Rescue Helicopter and the Christchurch-based Canterbury Westpac Rescue Helicopter both arrived in the Fox Glacier region shortly before noon.
Police are also responding but it is understood access to the crash scene is tricky in difficult conditions.
The helicopter is believed to be a six-passenger Eurocopter "Squirrel" operated by local firm Alpine Adventures.
Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Mike Richards said he was unable to confirm whether any of those on board were dead.
"We don't know. There are seven on board including a pilot but we don't know what shape they are in because nobody has actually got to the site to confirm.
"There have been two helicopters sent out, one was a medical one and one was op's one, to find out," Mr Richards said.
"The investigation is now being led by the Transport Accident Investigation commission."
A spokesman from the commission confirmed it had opened an inquiry.
"We are in the process of deploying a team of four people. We've got four people sorting logistics to get to the scene."
Weather analysts said it was a wet day around Fox Glacier and conditions could affect visibility.
WeatherWatch head analyst Philip Duncan confirmed there were low clouds in the area, which "could certainly be an issue".
"But it's not overly windy," he said.
He said there was nothing unusual about the weather today but rain had "set in in some areas".
Mr Duncan said such conditions could affect visibility as there were low clouds.
MetService also said there was heavy rain in the area but that had eased by 9am.
Meteorologist Emma Blades also reported low cloud in the area and said there was more rain expected this afternoon, with possibly heavy falls overnight.
These would ease to showers by the morning.
Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn said weather conditions in the area were "terrible".
It had rained solidly overnight, and for much of this morning, and low cloud made for "poor visibility".
"It wouldn't be a good day to be flying helicopters," Kokshoorn said.
"Everything is against a rescue [mission]. It will be cold up there. And the problem is amplified by the cloud cover".
He was shocked to hear of the downed chopper.
"It is terrible," he said. "We just have to wait and see if there are any survivors."
A man answering calls at Alpine Adventures said the chopper was one of theirs but would not comment further as "details are scarce at this stage".
Alpine Adventures is home of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Heliservices, Tekapo Helicopters and Kaikoura Helicopters.
The company's website says it operates Hughes 500C and Hughes 500D four-passenger helicopters and Eurocopter "Squirrel"six-passenger helicopters.
It has been operating flights for 20 years is believed to operate 11 modern turbine helicopters.
The website says: "Alpine Adventures is proud to have a team of extremely experienced professional pilots and ground crew dedicated to aircraft safety and customer service.
Currently employing 9 pilots and up to 17 ground crew, office staff and management, each of our pilot's has been specifically chosen and trained by the company's Managing Director, James Scott, who has over 30 years of experience operating helicopters.
"Each ground crew member is also fully trained to a high standard of customer service, including an in-depth knowledge of all operational safety procedures.
"We have Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand approval to trade as Alpine Adventures, Fox Glacier Heliservices, Franz Josef Heliservices, Tekapo Helicopters and Kaikoura Helicopters under the provisions of Civil Aviation Rule Part 119 to perform air operations, etc."
Previous crashes at Fox Glacier
In June, a Hughes 369 helicopter owned by the firm rolled over when taking off in West Coast mountain country.
Owner James Scott said at the time he didn't yet know what caused the crash.
The helicopter left from Franz Josef Glacier with two hunters on board. It crashed near the Poerua Glacier, in the Westland National Park, trapping the 24-year-old pilot in the cockpit.
All three on board were taken to hospital.
Mr Scott said at the time the pilot would need surgery, while the passengers were relatively unscathed.
A witness to the aftermath said the helicopter crashed on a bank of tussock and looked like it had "fallen off a hill".
The Civil Aviation Authority was investigating the June crash.
Several helicopter companies run tourist charters to Fox Glacier.
The region is a popular destination, with tens of thousands of tourists converging there every year to visit one of New Zealand's natural wonders.
Five years ago nine people died when a plane full of skydivers crashed not long after take-off at Fox Glacier.
A review into the investigation released last month by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission found the cause of the disaster may never be known.
The original investigators found the crash was probably caused because the plane was out of balance and became airborne too soon, but the subsequent review has cast doubt on that.
The plane crashed during take-off on September 4, 2010, the same day as the first Christchurch earthquake.
Four tourists, four Skydive NZ dive masters and the pilot died.
In 2008, three people survived a plane crash at Fox Glacier.
A Cessna went down trying to land at the airstrip leaving the pilot trapped briefly. Two passengers managed to get out of the wreckage.
All three were taken to hospital.
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