Black box recovered, DM announces probe
COONOOR/NEW DELHI, Dec 9: Investigators today recovered the black box of the military helicopter that crashed in a hilly terrain near Coonoor in Tamil Nadu killing Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat and 12 others, hoping to get vital clues on the possible cause of the disaster that will be probed by a high level tri-services inquiry.
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As Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced in Parliament that the inquiry into the Wednesday crash would be headed by Air Marshal Manavendra Singh, official sources said the lone survivor Group Captain Varun Singh was airlifted to Bengaluru for “better treatment” at the IAF Command hospital. Varun Singh, who is on life support, was undergoing treatment at a hospital in Wellington, about six km near the crash site in the Nilgiris district.
Besides Gen. Rawat, his wife Madhulika and Brig. L S Lidder, 10 armed forces personnel were killed in the crash of the Mi-17V5 helicopter. There were 14 people onboard the ill-fated chopper.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the country’s top military brass paid homage to the victims after their bodies were brought to Delhi in a military aircraft.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, NSA Ajit Doval, Army Chief General MM Naravane, Navy Chief Admiral R Hari Kumar, Air Chief Marshal AVR Chaudhari, and Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar were among those who paid homage at a sombre ceremony.
Heart-wrenching scenes were seen at the Palam airport as 13 caskets wrapped in the tricolour were lined up inside a hangar in the presence of their family members.
An Indian Air Force(IAF) C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft carrying the bodies from the Sulur airbase in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu touched down at the Palam technical airport around 7.35 pm.
Only three of the 13 bodies have been identified so far — Gen Rawat and his wife, and Brig. Lidder. Their funeral will be held on Friday.
Army officials said the bodies of those identified will be released to the families for last rites while the other bodies will be kept at the mortuary at the Army Base Hospital till they are identified.
Stunned by the tragedy that had struck them, families of the victims from different states prepared for funerals as they waited for the bodies to reach their homes.
Two boxes, including the flight data recorder, or the black box, were found after a team of IAF personnel expanded the search from 300 metres to one kilometre in the hilly, wooded area. They are likely to be taken to Delhi or Bengaluru to ascertain the cause of the crash, officials said.
The black box is expected to provide crucial data on the chain of events leading to the crash of the Russian-made helicopter that went up in flames in foggy conditions shortly after noon. Gen. Rawat was on his way to the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) in Wellington to address the faculty and student officers.
Group Captain Varun Singh, who is an instructor at the DSSC, had received Gen. Rawat at the Sulur airbase from where the entourage was heading towards Wellington.
The senior officer, who suffered severe burn injuries, was moved from a hospital in Wellington in a vehicle ambulance to Sulur and from there airlifted to the IAF Command hospital in Bengaluru for “better treatment”, officials said.
All efforts are being made to save Group Captain Singh, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said in his statement.
“A tri-services inquiry headed by Air Marshal Manavendra Singh has been ordered by the Indian Air Force. A team of investigators had reached Wellington yesterday (Wednesday) itself and started their work,” Singh said in his statement read out in both houses of Parliament.
Air Marshal Manavendra Singh on Thursday inspected the site of the chopper crash.
The Nilgiris Police, which is using drones as part of its investigation, has also registered a case in connection with the crash and its probe is also underway. The FIR was registered under Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), official sources said. The inquiry under this section by police and revenue authorities in the Nilgiris district is in compliance of legalities for preparation of a summary report on the accident, casualties and damage if any.
Both houses of Parliament observed a moment’s silence to pay tribute and mourn the deaths. Opposition parties also suspended their ‘dharna’ against the suspension of 12 Rajya Sabha MPs and slammed the government for not allowing them to pay tributes after Singh’s statement.
Laying down the timeline of the incident, the minister said, “The Indian Air Force Mi17V5 helicopter took off from Sulur air base at 11.48 a.M. On Wednesday which had to land at Wellington at 12.15 pm.”
The Air Traffic Control at Sulur airbase lost contact with the helicopter at approximately 12.08 pm. Later, a few locals reported a fire in the forest near Coonoor and rushed to the spot where they saw the remains of a helicopter engulfed in flames.
Rescue teams from local administration also reached the crash site and tried to recover survivors, he said.
Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari had been sent to the spot after receiving information about the accident on Wednesday itself, Singh said.
He said the last rites of Gen. Rawat will be performed with full military honours.
The last rites of the other military personnel who died in the crash will also be conducted with appropriate military honours, he added.
Besides Gen. Rawat — India’s first CDS and its most senior military officer – his wife and Defence Adviser Brig. Lidder, Staff Officer Lt Col Harjinder Singh and nine other Armed Forces personnel, including the IAF helicopter crew perished in the crash.
The nine are Wing Commander Prithvi Singh Chauhan, Squadron Leader Kuldeep Singh, Junior Warrant Officer Rana Pratap Das, Junior Warrant Officer Arakkal Pradeep, Havildar Satpal Rai, Naik Gursewak Singh, Naik Jitendra Kumar, Lance Naik Vivek Kumar and Lance Naik B Sai Teja.
Rajnath Singh also called on President Ram Nath Kovind and briefed him about the chopper crash. The President is the Supreme Commander of the armed forces.
It was not just the families of victims that grieved.
In Rajasthan’s Ghardana Khurd village, for instance, thousands were expected to gather for the funeral of Squadron Leader Kuldeep Singh, the co-pilot.
The last rites will be conducted at the Mahatma Gandhi Government School ground in the village in Jhunjhunu district and his statue will be installed too.
“The entire village is engaged in making arrangements for the funeral procession and the cremation… Thousands of people would be gathering in the village to pay tributes to him,” said sarpanch Ummed Singh Rao.
“This is very sad news for everyone in the village.”
The grief echoed in Punjab’s Dode Sodhian village, home of 35-year-old Naik Gursewak Singh, who had had rejoined work only two weeks ago after being on leave. He is survived by his father, his wife and three children, the youngest only three.
And in Odisha’s Krushnachandrapur village, Junior Warrant Officer (JWO) Rana Pratap Das was mourned by those who knew him. He leaves behind his parents, both heart patients, his wife and a son. He had been serving in the IAF for 12 years, his family said.
Elsewhere as well, people gathered to pay their respects to Gen. Rawat and the others. In a gurdwara in the Uttar Pradesh capital Lucknow, for instance, members of the Sikh community got together. As did students in Mirzapur and people in Ahmedabad where they held aloft tricolours and wrote “shradhanjali’ in flowers. (PTI)