The helicopter carrying Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat seemed to be flying unusually low and before it got enveloped in fog and crashed, killing him and 12 others on board, eyewitnesses have said.
Construction worker Jayaseelan was in his Coonoor home when he heard the chopper. After hearing a crash, he rushed outside. “I saw smoke billowing out of the woods and an odd cracking sound. The helicopter had crashed near my brother’s house,” the 57-year-old was quoted as saying by news agency Reuters.
Jayaseelan and the other locals said they struggled to reach the burning wreckage because of the heat. The emergency services, which arrived soon, had trouble reaching the site with firefighting equipment because of the terrain.
“Of the first four people brought out from the crash site, one was alive… He was crying in pain,” 45-year-old Kumar, another local, was quoted as saying.
The police, who came soon after, asked “if we saw anyone suspicious or armed in the woods,” Jayaseelan said. “We told them we hadn’t seen anyone like that.”
The Air Force Mi-17V-5 helicopter took off from Sulur Air Base at 11:48 am and crashed 20 minutes later, just seven minutes before it was expected to land. The last radio contact with the chopper took place at 12.08 pm, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had told parliament earlier today.
The chopper was headed for Wellington, where General Rawat was expected to interact with the students of Defence Service Academy.
The bodies have been brought to Delhi’s Palam airport, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh paid their tributes this evening.
Only four of the bodies – General Rawat, his wife Madhulika Rawat, Brigadier LS Lidder and Lance Naik Vivek Kumar have been identified. Their last rites will take place tomorrow. The other bodies will be handed to the families after identification.
The only survivor of the crash, Group Captain Varun Singh, is receiving treatment at the Air Force’s Command Hospital in Bengaluru. Officials said he is in a critical condition, but remains stable.