James Cameron, NGS salute filmmakers killed in chopper crash

Mike deGruy (left) and Andrew Wight (center), both working on a documentary with Cameron (right) for National Geographic, perished in a helicopter crash on Australia's south coast.
February 6, 2012

(Pictured: Mike deGruy, Andrew Wight and James Cameron. Photo: Brook Rushton, © 2012 National Geographic)

A helicopter accident on Australia’s south coast has claimed the lives of filmmakers Andrew Wight and Mike deGruy.

DeGruy, an award-winning underwater cinematographer from the U.S.; and Wight, the Australian writer-producer behind last year’s 3D film Sanctum, died when a helicopter carrying the two men crashed shortly after takeoff. Wight was the owner and pilot of the helicopter.

Both men were working on a documentary project with director James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic) for National Geographic at the time of the crash. According to a statement from New South Wales police, the crash occurred near an airstrip in Jasper’s Brush, near Nowra, 80 miles south of Sydney.

Wight was a longtime colleague of Cameron’s, having worked on several documentary projects with him, including Ghosts of the Abyss, Aliens of the Deep, Expedition: Bismarck and Last Mysteries of the Titanic. Recently, he’d been named general manager of the Melbourne office of the Cameron Pace Group, a production office established by Cameron that provides 3D cameras and technology to filmmakers and producers.

DeGruy, a director of undersea photography for Last Mysteries of the Titanic, had 30 years of experience producing and directing ocean-related documentary projects, such as Life in the Freezer, Trials of Life and Blue Planet. He had won multiple Emmy and BAFTA awards for his work.

“Mike and Andrew were like family to me,” said Cameron in a statement. “They were my deep-sea brothers, and both were true explorers who did extraordinary things and went places no human being has been.

“They died doing exactly what they loved most, heading out to sea on a new and personally challenging expedition, having fun in the way they defined it for themselves, which was hardship and toil to achieve something never done before. They were passionate storytellers who lived by the explorer’s code of humor, empathy, optimism and courage. Their deaths are a tremendous loss for the world of underwater exploration, conservation and filmmaking.”

Speaking specifically about each man, Cameron said Wight was “kind and loyal, full of life and a sense of fun, and above all, a careful planner who stressed safety to everyone on his team every single day. It is cruelly ironic that he died flying a helicopter, which was second nature to him – like driving a car would be to most people.”

The director called deGruy “one of the ocean’s warriors,” adding that he “spoke for the wonders of the sea as a biologist, filmmaker and submersible pilot, and spoke against those who would destroy the sea’s web of life. He was a warm, funny, extremely capable man and one of the world’s top underwater cinematographers. His passion for exploration and for the wonders beneath the sea was boundless.”

Tim Kelly, president of the National Geographic Society, also paid tribute to the filmmakers via a statement.

“We are grieving over the loss of these two extraordinary friends,” he said. “Andrew and Mike were part of our extended family at National Geographic, and our hearts, prayers, and thoughts go out to their loved ones. They accomplished so much, but were taken too early, and our world is greatly diminished by their leaving it.”

DeGruy is survived by his wife, Mimi; his son, Max; and his daughter, Frances. Wight is survived by his wife, Monica; and his son, Ted.

National Geographic Channel recently announced it was working on a project with Cameron to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, entitled Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron. The project is due to air in April.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.