LEESBURG — A firefighting helicopter carrying four people on a training exercise crashed near an airport in central Florida, killing all aboard.
The helicopter crashed into a marsh near Leesburg International Airport around 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a news release.
One body was recovered Tuesday night, and police officials on Wednesday confirmed that they also had found the bodies of the three others. The bodies were taken to a medical examiner’s office where they will be positively identified.
A search and rescue effort began immediately after the crash, but the crash site couldn’t be cleared because of hazards in the area, the Leesburg Police Department said in a news release Wednesday.
“We are deeply saddened by this tragedy within our wildland firefighting family,” said Florida Forest Service director Erin Albury. “These firefighters put themselves on the line to serve and protect the lives of others.”
The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board issued separate news releases saying they will investigate.
The aircraft belonged to Brainerd Helicopters Inc./Firehawk Helicopters, located at Leesburg International Airport, the police department release said.
The company’s aircraft support efforts to fight wildfires and participate in other commercial activities, according to its website. An unidentified woman who answered the phone at the company on Wednesday said the company had no immediate comment.
NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss was quoted by the Orlando Sentinel as saying that Firehawk was conducting testing on a new bucket release system when the crash happened. He said investigators were at the scene taking measurements and photos and interviewing witnesses.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said flags will be lowered to half-staff at all Florida Forest Service facilities in memory of the crash victims.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the loved ones and colleagues affected by this immeasurable loss,” Fried said. “These brave souls training to protect our communities will not be forgotten.”