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Sundance Plane Wreckage Recovery Resumes in Congo

Talbot Group Holdings owner Ken Talbot
A portrait of Talbot Group Holdings owner Ken Talbot. Source: Talbot Group Holdings via Bloomberg

A French military team will help recover the bodies of the entire board of Sundance Resources Ltd., including millionaire Ken Talbot, who were killed in an aircraft crash in dense jungle in the Republic of Congo.

“The recovery operation has started again today” after the wreckage was found yesterday, Karen Oswald, a spokeswoman for Sundance, a Perth-based iron ore company, said today by telephone. Australian mining contractors are clearing access to the remote location, she said.

Six Australian, two British, one American and two French citizens were on the twin turboprop Casa C212 plane chartered by Sundance that went missing June 19 on a flight from Cameroon’s capital Yaounde to Yangadou in Congo. Congo has set up a commission to investigate the cause of the crash, Transport Minister Isidore Mvouba said today.

“It will take longer than the families would wish to repatriate the bodies,” Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “We have to brace ourselves for a painstaking period.”

Sundance is among companies exploring and building mines in Africa, attracted by its mineral riches, including the world’s biggest deposits of platinum, chrome and diamonds. The company aims to complete an initial study for its $3.4 billion Mbalam iron-ore project in Cameroon by the end of 2010.

Exhaustive Probe

“There’ll be an exhaustive investigation,” Smith said. “But it needs to be coordinated between two jurisdictions and that will have its own difficulties.”

The Sundance personnel, including Chairman Geoff Wedlock, Chief Executive Officer Don Lewis, company secretary John Carr-Gregg and non-executive directors John Jones and Craig Oliver, were in Africa visiting members of the governments of Cameroon and Congo and the Mbalam project.

Sundance’s Chief Financial Officer Peter Canterbury is acting as CEO. George Jones, the chairman of the company until Wedlock was appointed in July last year, was yesterday named as a strategic adviser.

“I feel a responsibility to step back in and help and I’ll rebuild that board,” Jones said in an interview on Sky television. “There’s been a vast loss of talent.”

The search team hasn’t recovered the flight-data recorder known as the black box, which will help determine the cause of the accident, Cameroon’s Minister of Communications Issa Tchiroma Bakary said in Yaounde.

Aero Service

The aircraft was chartered from Aero Service, a “widely used” Congo company that Sundance hired as recently as March or February, Sundance spokesman David Brook said in an interview. Aero Service is banned from flying within the European Union, according to a notice on the European Commission website.

“They had been planning to use two planes, Ken’s plane and a smaller one than the one they went on so they didn’t all go on the one plane, which was against company policy,” Brian Thornton, a spokesman for Talbot’s closely held company Talbot Group, said by phone today. “It wasn’t adhered to because they couldn’t land Ken’s plane on one of the landing strips.”

The Casa C212 plane is popular for military use because it needs less than 600 meters (1,970 feet) of unprepared runway and has a range of more than 1,000 kilometers, according to the website of Casa owner European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co., the parent of Airbus SAS.

Robust Aircraft

“It has a reputation as a robust, mid-range utility plane, often used in rougher areas,” said Paul Tyrell, CEO of the Regional Aviation Association of Australia. “It certainly was on a mission for which it was designed.”

Aero Service, with a fleet of seven passenger and cargo planes, has had three crashes in the past five years, according to the Aviation Safety Network website. A call to Aero Service’s offices at Pointe Noire in Congo wasn’t answered today.

Other mining companies said it would be against their policy to allow all top executives to fly in the same aircraft.

AngloGold Ashanti Ltd., whose African operations include projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Ghana, doesn’t allow directors to travel together, spokesman Alan Fine today by phone from Johannesburg. Charter companies are vetted for “adherence to national and international regulatory standards,” he said, adding that AngloGold doesn’t typically use charter flights on an ad hoc basis.

Gold Fields Ltd., which has mines in Ghana and explores for gold in countries including Mali, has a “formal policy” to fly executives separately, spokesman Sven Lunsche said by mobile phone. In “very unusual circumstances, when we require a charter, this is not always possible,” he said.

French Team

The aircraft wreckage was located at about 3 p.m. local time yesterday by a helicopter, Sundance said in a statement.

A team of 10 French military personnel, including a medical detail, was immediately deployed to the remote crash site, which is on the western ridge of the Avima Range near the Gabonese border, the company said.

Talbot’s assistant, Natasha Flason, was on the flight, Talbot Group said in a statement. Jeff Duff, a consultant to Sundance, was also on board, Sundance said.

“Charter flights are an occupational hazard in the mining industry,” said Peter Strachan, a Perth-based analyst for independent advisory company StockAnalysis.

Sundance shares are suspended from trading in Sydney. They’ve declined 16 percent this year on the Australian stock exchange, compared with a 6.4 percent drop in the benchmark index.

Talbot Investments

Talbot, 59, was a director of Sundance and its largest shareholder. He was Australia’s 33rd richest person with a fortune of A$965 million ($846 million), according to Business Review Weekly’s annual Rich 200 list, published in May. Talbot Group has investments in iron ore, uranium, liquefied natural gas, copper, zinc, lead, molybdenum and nickel.

“It’s too early to say what’s going to happen with the group’s investments,” CEO Shane Edwards said today by phone. Talbot is survived by his second wife Amanda and four children.

Talbot was one of the most successful investors in Australia in the past year, according to the BRW article, making a 113 percent return on his shares. He was listed among the top 20 shareholders in more than a dozen companies, it said.

The mining magnate founded Macarthur Coal Ltd. and built the company into the world’s largest producer of pulverized coal used in steelmaking, with a market value of A$3.2 billion.

“His generosity of spirit and flamboyancy were indelibly etched on everybody that came across Ken,” Talbot Group’s Thornton said today. “He was enthusiastic and ebullient about life and what you can get out of life. He had outstanding acumen in business and that defined the man.”

Mbalam Project

Work at Sundance’s operations in Cameroon has been suspended, the company said June 20. Its Mbalam iron-ore project includes a planned rail and port operation. Construction is scheduled to start next year, the company said in a presentation this month. It has exploration permits in Cameroon as well as Congo, where it has been drilling.

Talbot was charged in 2007 with corruptly making payments to former state minister Gordon Nuttall between October 2002 and September 2005, and was due to appear in Queensland’s District Court for a pre-trial hearing on Aug. 9, according to Queensland Courts. He was scheduled to face trial in the District Court of Brisbane at the end of August, according to his spokesman. He had pleaded not guilty, according to BRW magazine.

‘Dedicated Contribution’

Wedlock, also chairman of Gindalbie Metals Ltd., worked at BHP Billiton Ltd. for 32 years, according to Sundance’s website. He also chaired Jupiter Mines Ltd. and Gladiator Resources Ltd., according to data compiled by Bloomberg. All three companies extended their condolences to his wife and sons today in statements to the Australian stock exchange.

“He was a friend and colleague who made an exceptional and dedicated contribution to the company,” Perth-based Gladiator said.

Wedlock was CEO of BHP’s iron-ore division from 1996 to 1997, and that year became an executive director at Portman Mining Ltd., since acquired by Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. His other roles included development of the Cannington silver, lead and zinc mine in Queensland and the Syama gold mine in West Africa, according to Portman.

Lewis, a civil engineer, was formerly managing director of Multiplex Engineering and had more than 20 years experience in the mining industry, according to Sundance’s website. Oliver, an accountant, was also a director of De Grey Mining Ltd. and was chief financial officer at Western Areas NL.

Carr-Gregg, a lawyer, was general manager of the company secretariat, and commercial and company secretary at Aristocrat Leisure Ltd. before joining Sundance. He had worked as an attorney in New York, Sundance said.

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