Tuesday, June 22, 2021

in-focus

Snow, rugged terrain hinder recovery of Alaska helicopter crash that killed five, including one of Europe's richest people


A helicopter crash in the Alaskan wilderness killed five people, including one of Europe's richest residents, after the chopper went down on Saturday during a backcountry heli-skiing trip.

634

View

Among the victims was Petr Kellner, 56, who was the Czech Republic's richest person and one of the 70 richest people in the world last year, according to Forbes.

The Alaska Department of Public Safety said rescuers over the weekend recovered the bodies of Kellner and four others: Benjamin Larochaix, 50, a resident of the Czech Republic; heli-skiing guides Greg Harms, 52, and Sean McManamy, 38; and Zachary Russell, 33, who was piloting the helicopter.

A sixth person, who has not been named as of late Sunday night local time, was in serious but stable condition and being treated at a hospital in the Anchorage area. A rescue team found no other survivors.

It is not immediately clear what caused the Airbus AS350 B3 helicopter to crash. It was due back at around 6:30 p.m., local time, and was reported overdue by 8:30 p.m., National Transportation Board member Tom Chapman said in a virtual news conference Monday afternoon. A search-effort operator found wreckage about an hour after that, near Palmer, Alaska, which lies 45 miles north of Anchorage, Chapman said.

The commercial aircraft rolled downhill 800 to 900 feet from an elevation of about 5,500 feet, Chapman said.

Victim recovery was expedited as a snowstorm threatened to obscure the area that Chapman described as having rugged terrain and weather conditions, but he said a full recovery of the site, including wreckage, was a priority. Chapman said the exact weather conditions at the time of the crash were still unknown, and details from the flight recorder had not yet been recovered.

The chopper had been chartered for a backcountry heli-skiing trip by the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, a representative for the lodge, Mary Ann Pruitt told The Washington Post. With packages starting at $15,000 per person, the lodge bills itself as a multisport luxury facility in the remote Tordrillo mountain range.

Kellner and Larochaix, the two Czech victims, were "loyal and frequent guests" at the Tordrillo lodge, Pruitt said. Kellner, whose net worth was estimated at $17.5 billion, made his fortune selling office supplies and then buying a stake in the Czech Republic's largest insurance company, Forbes reported.

The billionaire was the founder and majority shareholder of the Netherlands-based PPF Group, an investment fund with business spanning telecoms, finance, biotechnology, mining and real estate. The company has assets exceeding $50 billion, according to its website.

"His professional life was known for his incredible work ethic and creativity, but his private life belonged to his family," the company said in a statement, adding the funeral would be for close family members only.

Born in North Bohemia in what was then Czechoslovakia, Kellner started his career selling photocopiers after the fall of communism in 1989, Czech media reported. He built his business empire by acquiring stakes in formerly state-owned enterprises as the country made its transition to capitalism. Most notable was a holding in what had been the state-run insurer.

Last year, PPF acquired CME, a media and entertainment company that broadcasts more than 30 television channels in Europe, from AT&T. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was among those who raised concerns about the sale, alleging that Kellner and his company worked as a "proxies" for China.

The company has dismissed such allegations against it as "unfounded" and said that it is committed to freedom, democracy, entrepreneurship, professionalism, and a plurality of opinions. Kellner was also a former co-owner of the Czech soccer team Slavia Prague, which said it had received the news with "great sadness."

"Slavia would like to offer its deepest and most sincere condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Kellner," the club tweeted.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis also wrote his condolences on Twitter, calling Kellner's death "an incredible tragedy."

Kellner's hobbies included snowboarding and kitesurfing. Larochaix, who also died in the crash, was a freestyle snowboarding coach, according to media reports.

Heli-skiing, in which a helicopter shuttles athletes to untouched patches of powdery snow, has developed a reputation as a pricey, sought-after goal for many skiers. It is banned for environmental reasons in some European countries, according to the BBC.

McManamy had worked as a heli-ski guide for over a decade, including the past five years at Tordrillo, Pruitt said. He was also an avalanche instructor and an experienced mountain guide at Denali, the tallest peak in North America.

Relatives said McManamy developed an early love for skiing and the outdoors while growing up in New England, a passion that eventually took him to wilderness training school in Colorado. He split his time between Girdwood, Alaska, and California, where he and his wife, Caitlin, had recently purchased an apartment.

"He was a great person. He was adventurous and dedicated but devoted to family as well," his uncle, Rob McManamy, told The Washington Post. "We all admired him because he was doing things most of us can only dream about."

Harms, who had worked at Tordrillo for 15 years, was "one of the most experienced guides in the business" and a pioneer in Alaskan heli-skiing, Pruitt said. Through his own company, Third Edge Heli, he led excursions to mountain ranges in Chile.

In Alaska, meanwhile, the Coloradan had recently set a world record for making 101 runs over a 24-hour period, according to the lodge's website.

Russell, of Anchorage, was employed by Soloy Helicopters, the company confirmed to The Post. The Wasilla-based outfit owns and operates a fleet of 17 helicopters for a range of industries, including firefighting and diamond and seismic drill exploration, its website said.

Rescuers found wreckage from the helicopter about 21 miles from the town of Palmer, the National Transportation Safety Board's local office told the Anchorage Daily News. Crews were working to recover the debris before a forecast snowstorm moved in.

"It's in an area of very steep terrain, snow-covered terrain, right around 5,000 to 6,000 feet . . . on the north side of Knik River," Clint Johnson, Alaska chief of the NTSB, told the Daily News.

In a statement, the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge said it was the first time it has faced "an event of this measure" in its 17 years in business.

Published : March 30, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Teo Armus, Loveday Morris, Lateshia Beachum