By KRISTY GRANT The Border Mail
THE Tweed and Gold Coast business community were yesterday coming to terms with the tragic loss of Brian and Kathy Ray after their bodies were found in plane wreckage near Mt Hotham in Victoria.
The wreckage of the chartered plane, which had lost radio contact with air traffic controllers about 11km south east of the Mt Hotham airfield on Friday, was found at 10.30am yesterday. Just over an hour after the search for them resumed in improved weather conditions, operations co-ordinator Supt Trevor Carter of Wangaratta police confirmed the worst fears of the Ray family and also the family of pilot Russell Lee after the tail of the plane was spotted from a helicopter about 4km south-east of the airport.
He said a rescue paramedic had been winched down to the scene and had confirmed all three occupants of the plane were dead.
Supt Carter said there was no sign that anyone had survived the initial impact and the three had been found sitting in their seats.
There was also no sign that there had been a fire following the crash, he said.
"At this stage it appears the plane has crashed into fairly inhospitable terrain and it has been partly covered by snow," Supt Carter said.
"We understand that the impact of the crash has been severe."
The Victorian coroner and representatives of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) arrived at Mt Hotham yesterday afternoon.
Supt Carter said it was as yet unclear when the bodies would be removed from the plane but it could be several days.
The wreckage had been found shortly after search helicopters had taken to the air yesterday morning after two days of searches on foot and horseback, which had taken place in appalling weather conditions, failed to yield a result.
Australian Search and Rescue spokeswoman Tracey Jiggins said the rescue paramedic had been forced to dig down into the snow to open the door of the aircraft and access the cabin.
Ms Jiggins said it was difficult to tell what sort of condition the plane was in as only the tail was visible above the snow.
Acting Sgt Greg Barras from Victoria Police search and rescue said the area in which the plane was found was about 200 metres south of Sharp's Peak.
Sgt Barras said police had been greatly helped in their search by an eyewitness who had seen the plane flying in the area before its attempted landing on Friday night.
"At this stage there is no indication that anything has happened in relation to pilot error or in relation to mechanical difficulties with the aircraft. We are unsure and that is why that will now become the responsibility of the ATSB," he said.
The Ray family's company lawyer and close friend, Tony Hickey, along with the couple's children Tom, 31, Savannah, 25, and Jack, 20, arrived at the airport just half an hour before the wreckage was found.
Mr Hickey was close to tears as he spoke to the media on behalf of the family.
"I think Tom, Jack and Savannah, we all stayed optimistic, but we knew realistically the odds were stacked against us," Mr Hickey said.
"They are devastated. They want to express their deep sympathies to the family of the pilot.
"They want to express their enormous thanks to search and rescue, the Victorian police and the SES who have done absolutely incredible things in the past couple of days in incredible conditions.
"We are just so grateful that it appears Brian and Cathy and the pilot didn't suffer."