KAILUA-KONA — A local couple honeymooning in Australia was killed in a helicopter crash Wednesday at a Great Barrier Reef coral-viewing site.
Kailua-Kona residents Pete and Sue Hansel and two other American passengers were aboard the five-seat single-engine Eurocopter EC120 Colibri piloted by a man when the helicopter hit water while approaching to land on a pontoon in the waters off Australia, Queensland Police Inspector Ian Haughton told local media.
A 34-year-old man and a 33-year-old woman from Colorado were taken to the Australian mainland for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries, he said. All four tourists knew each other, The Associated Press reported.
Aussie media identified the Hansels as the victims. Friends and members of the Kona Elks Lodge No. 2616, of which John “Pete” Hansel was a longtime member, confirmed the tragic news. Pete Hansel was 79 years old and his wife, Sue, was 65.
“They were just such a happy couple and very happy people,” Vern Ungerecht, a fellow lodge member and friend of Pete for more than 25 years, told West Hawaii Today. “They were just having a great time.”
Ungerecht said the couple got married in December and a reception was held for them at the lodge. The loss of the pair was still setting in Thursday.
“This was their honeymoon,” he said. “They were so looking forward to this. They were so excited about this big trip. It was a new experience for both of them. They were just all bubbly and happy about it.”
The crash occurred around 3:43 p.m. local time Wednesday about 40 miles northeast of the Whitsunday Islands. The Hardy Reef pontoon upon which the helicopter was trying to land has underwater viewing chambers to see coral and is a popular tourist destination.
The New York Times reported spectators already on the pontoon watched as the helicopter plunged into the water and the pilot desperately tried to pull a passenger from the wreckage.
The U.S. Embassy in Australia said in a statement it was aware that two U.S. citizens had died and was “providing all appropriate consular assistance.”
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau said on its website that it is investigating the crash and is in the process of collecting evidence. It said Thursday that preliminary information about the crash is expected to be released in late April.
The company suspended operations as it works with authorities to determine the cause of the crash, local media reported.
“We are extremely saddened by this incident and our deepest condolences are with the families of all of the passengers,” the company said in a statement.
The Associated Press and The New York Times contributed to this report.