The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the cause of the crash, which happened near Quartermaster Canyon, by the Grand Canyon’s West Rim, on the lands of the Hualapai nation.
Windy, dark conditions and the rugged terrain made it difficult to reach the wreckage, the Hualapai police chief, Francis Bradley, said. Rescue crews had to fly in and walk to the crash site using night-vision goggles.
“We were hampered by severe weather conditions, we had gusts up to 50mph (80km/h),” he said. “The terrain where the crash occurred … is extremely rugged.” The survivors were airlifted to Las Vegas by about 2am on Sunday, Bradley said.
All six passengers were from the UK, the Foreign Office confirmed. “We are providing support to the families of six British visitors involved in a helicopter accident at the Grand Canyon on 10 February and we are in close contact with the US emergency services,” a spokeswoman said.
National Weather Service meteorologists in Flagstaff and Phoenix said winds were blowing an estimated 10mph, with gusts of 20mph around the time of the crash.
NTSB officials were expected at the crash scene by Sunday afternoon to begin their investigation. The FAA will also be investigating the crash of the Eurocopter EC130, a spokesman, Allen Kenitzer, said.
Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, the tour company that operated the flight, promised full cooperation with crash investigators and offered its sympathy.
A witness said he saw flames and black smoke spewing from the crash site, heard explosions and saw victims who were bleeding and badly burned.
Teddy Fujimoto, a Las Vegas photographer who was doing a wedding shoot near the crash site, said he suddenly saw people running toward the edge of a gulch. He said he heard gasps and went to see what was happening about 600ft (183 metres) below.
“In the gulch, there was a helicopter, flames, smoke,” he said. “It was horrible.”
He said that was when two or three small explosions went off in the wreckage and people were not sure what to do. He said some other pilots flying helicopters in the area at the time of the crash descended into the gulch and delivered water and first-aid supplies.
Fujimoto said he saw two badly injured women and one of them was yelling out a man’s name. He said one of them “was pretty much burned all over”. “Her hands were bloody and body was just more burned,” Fujimoto said.
The other woman, he said, was “covered in blood” and was bleeding from her head or neck.
Papillon Group’s website says it flies roughly 600,000 passengers a year around the Grand Canyon and on other tours. It notes that it “abides by flight safety rules and regulations that substantially exceed the regulations required by the Federal Aviation Administration”.
In August 2001, a Grand Canyon tour helicopter operated by Papillon crashed near Meadview, Arizona. The pilot and five passengers died. An NTSB report issued in 2004 blamed the pilot’s decision to descend too fast and too close to the scenic Grand Wash Cliffs.