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2 survivors of deadly B.C. helicopter crash remain in critical condition, 2 others now serious

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Two people injured in a deadly helicopter crash Monday in northwestern British Columbia remain in critical condition, while two others have been upgraded to serious condition, according to health officials.

The downed aircraft was one of three helicopters carrying heli-skiiers into the remote and mountainous backcountry when it went down around 4:15 p.m., approximately 30 kilometres north of Terrace, killing three.

Mounties say the helicopter lost communication with the others before it was found crashed into a snowfield. The two remaining helicopters landed and were able to rescue the four survivors from the wreckage and shuttle them to paramedics who transferred them to hospital.

"All the scheduled communications were happening according to our protocols" John Forrest, the president of Terrace-based heli-ski operator Northern Escape Heli-Skiing, said in a statement.

"During the time between scheduled calls, we received radio communications from a guest involved in the helicopter accident that the incident had occurred. We activated our rescue protocols, including immediately ceasing all skiing activities and activating search and rescue."

Cause of crash still 'unclear'

B.C. Emergency Health Services says three air ambulances and five ground ambulances were dispatched to treat the victims, who were all in critical condition in a Terrace hospital Monday night.

Terrace's Mills Memorial Hospital declared a Code Orange to deal with the mass-casualty situation, according to health officials.

A spokesperson for B.C.'s Northern Health region tells CTV News that all four crash survivors have been transferred to other hospitals in B.C. to receive "higher levels of care."

"At this time, two of those patients are considered to be in critical condition, two in serious condition," spokesperson Eryn Collins said Tuesday.

"Northern Health will not be providing further or ongoing updates on the patients' conditions or other potentially identifying information, in order to protect their privacy as they receive care and recover from a traumatic experience," she added.

Terrace Mayor Sean Bujtas said the incident has been "absolutely devastating" to his city, located in the Skeena region on B.C.'s central coast.

"The community's grieving. It's a tough loss," Bujtas said. "Our hearts bleed for those folks."

The mayor thanked all the first responders who were "all hands on deck" after the crash until all the survivors were being cared for in hospital.

"Our firefighters were there, our search and rescue were there," Bujtas said. "I'm just really grateful for the work those folks do, and did." 

Mounties said police and coroners were en route to the crash scene, which is only accessible by helicopter, on Tuesday morning.

"It is impossible to put into words the profound grief that we feel and the sorrow that our guests and our staff share," Forrest said, noting the company would work closely with police and other agencies investigating the cause of the crash, which he described as still "unclear" Tuesday. 

'Profound grief'

Skyline Helicopters, the Kelowna, B.C.-based operator of the downed aircraft, issued its own statement Tuesday, expressing "heartfelt condolences to the families and friends" affected by the incident.

"Words cannot convey the profound grief we feel," said Skyline president Teri Northcott. "We appreciate the swift response from external agencies, first responders, Northern Escape Heli-Skiing and our team following the accident yesterday."

Italian news agency ANSA quoted sources saying Italian nationals were among the dead, including Andreas Widmann and Heiner Junior Oberrauch, whose brother Jakob Oberrauch was also injured in the crash. Jakob Oberrauch is the CEO of outdoor clothing company Sportler Group.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada says it is deploying a team of investigators to gather information from the crash site.

WorkSafeBC is also engaged in the investigation, according to the RCMP.

"At this time, names and hometowns of the deceased will not be released as we work to notify next of kin," North District RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Madonna Saunderson said. "No further details are available at this time."

Industry group HeliCat Canada says each of its member operators, including Northern Escape Heli-Skiing, undergo a safety audit every five years.

"Although these fatalities are rare, it breaks our heart to have them occur," the industry association said in a statement.

"Like many outdoor activities, it's impossible to eliminate 100 per cent of the risk, but our industry does its best to mitigate it with our world-class knowledge and expertise to ensure guests can enjoy the beauty and unique experience of helicopter and snowcat skiing."

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Kaija Jussinoja

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