In a tragic accident that underlines the risks pilots are taking to evacuate those stranded after the Uttarakhand flash floods,a Mi 17 V5 helicopter ferrying rescue personnel from the temple town of Kedarnath to a base camp crashed on Tuesday afternoon. All 20 people who were reportedly on board are feared dead.
The Mi 17 V5 chopper,the very latest in the inventory of the Indian Air Force,went down while it was heading towards the temporary air base at Gaucher,and crashed in difficult terrain north of Gaurikund,the base camp for the 14 km trek up to Kedarnath. However,the IAF continued flying operations in the region after the chopper was first reported missing just after midday.
While there are conflicting reports of casualties,sources said the toll could be as high as 20,as the helicopter was transporting back a delegation of ITBP and NDRF personnel who had been camping in Kedarnath,coordinating rescue operations for the past week. All five crew members on board the chopper,which belonged to the Barrackpore-based 157 Helicopter Unit,are believed to have died.
The IAF has stated that the confirmed casualties are at least eight,but sources coordinating the rescue operations on the ground have put the number at 20. This includes nine ITBP,six NDRF personnel and the five crew members. An elite Garud special force unit of the IAF has reached the crash spot to assess the damage.
It is still not clear what caused the crash but sources said there was no distress call from the chopper before it went down,diminishing the possibility of mechanical failure. The chopper is believed to have crashed into a mountainside in the narrow Kedar valley after encountering bad weather and low visibility.
The difficulty in putting a number to those on board the chopper is due to the frantic pace with which the IAF has been carrying out sorties,with little or no time to note down the number or names of personnel being ferried.
Tragically,the personnel who were returning from Kedarnath had been hard at work for the past week,evacuating survivors from the shrine town. They had not only rescued survivors but had also set up a temporary camp above the temple town to provide food and water to those stranded. Despite being poorly equipped with no tents or high altitude equipment,the ITBP and NDRF personnel had shared personal rations with the survivors. The crash happened after all the survivors had been evacuated from the temple town.
Pilots of the IAF and Army have been taking extraordinary risks to evacuate the thousands who were stranded. Sources said the crew that died in the crash had been conducting regular sorties for the past week in the dangerous Kedar valley,with pilots taking the machines to their limits in the effort to save lives.
A private chopper had also crashed in the same general area earlier this week while landing to evacuate pilgrims but there were no passengers on board and the pilot escaped without any serious injuries.
The IAF has committed 43 aircraft for relief operations,including 23 of the Mi 17 class that is the workhorse of its transport fleet.