The nation’s most senior military officer, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, his wife Madhulika Rawat and 11 other people on board an Indian Air Force helicopter were killed in a crash near Coonoor in Tamil Nadu shortly after noon Wednesday.
Group Captain Varun Singh, decorated with the Shaurya Chakra on Independence Day this year, was the lone survivor and was being treated for injuries at the Military Hospital in Wellington.
With deep regret, it has now been ascertained that Gen Bipin Rawat, Mrs Madhulika Rawat and 11 other persons on board have died in the unfortunate accident.
— Indian Air Force (@IAF_MCC) December 8, 2021
General Rawat, 63, was on his way to the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington where he was to deliver a lecture. His wife, president of the Defence Wives Welfare Association, was accompanying him along with members of the CDS staff.
In the morning, they had flown in an Embraer aircraft from Delhi to the Sulur Air Force Station near Coimbatore. At Sulur, they boarded an Mi-17V5 helicopter which crashed at Katteri, near Coonoor, in the Nilgiris shortly after noon.
I am shocked and anguished over the untimely demise of Gen. Bipin Rawat and his wife, Madhulika ji. The nation has lost one of its bravest sons. His four decades of selfless service to the motherland was marked by exceptional gallantry and heroism. My condolences to his family.
— President of India (@rashtrapatibhvn) December 8, 2021
Announcing General Rawat’s death, the IAF, in a Twitter post, said: “With deep regret, it has now been ascertained that Gen Bipin Rawat, Mrs Madhulika Rawat and 11 other persons on board have died in the unfortunate accident.”
It said an Mi-17V5 helicopter “with a crew of 4 members carrying the CDS and 9 other passengers met with a tragic accident near Coonoor”. A Court of Inquiry has been ordered.
Rawat, the country’s first CDS, also headed the Department of Military Affairs. He was appointed to the two posts on January 1, 2020 for a three-year term after completing his term as the Chief of the Indian Army.
Gen Bipin Rawat was an outstanding soldier. A true patriot, he greatly contributed to modernising our armed forces and security apparatus. His insights and perspectives on strategic matters were exceptional. His passing away has saddened me deeply. Om Shanti. pic.twitter.com/YOuQvFT7Et
President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the nation in paying tributes.
The President, who is the Supreme Commander of the armed forces, said: “I am shocked and anguished over the untimely demise of Gen. Bipin Rawat and his wife, Madhulika ji. The nation has lost one of its bravest sons. His four decades of selfless service to the motherland was marked by exceptional gallantry and heroism. My condolences to his family. It’s deeply painful for me to learn of the loss of lives in the chopper crash. I join the fellow citizens in paying tributes to each of those who died while performing their duty. My heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families.”
Prime Minister Modi described General Rawat as “an outstanding soldier” and a “true patriot” who “greatly contributed to modernising our armed forces and security apparatus”.
In Twitter posts, Modi said: “His insights and perspectives on strategic matters were exceptional. His passing away has saddened me deeply. Om Shanti… India will never forget his exceptional service.”
Earlier, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had briefed the Prime Minister about the crash. The Cabinet Committee on Security also met later. Describing CDS Rawat’s death as an “irreparable loss” to the armed forces, Singh said: “General Rawat had served the country with exceptional courage and diligence. As the first Chief of Defence Staff, he had prepared plans for jointness of our Armed Forces.”
Officials said local residents saw the helicopter flying at a low altitude in foggy conditions before the crash. Fire engulfed the helicopter by the time residents rushed to the site.
According to sources, the helicopter had taken off from Sulur at 11.48 am, and lost contact with the ATC at 12.22 pm.
Chitira Swamy, a resident of the area who witnessed the crash, said: “The chopper came down with a huge sound. We saw it hitting a large tree… There was smoke after it hit the ground and caught fire. I called my neighbour and we rushed to the spot. He called the police and the fire station immediately. When we reached the spot, we saw a man running out. He was in flames and fell on the ground. At least three-four others came out… All had severe burn injuries.”
Vennila, a local anganwadi worker, said: “It was around 12 and I was serving meals to the children. The sound of the chopper, when it flew above the anganwadi centre, enthused the children. But in no time, there was a loud noise… some children who were playing on the ground saw the helicopter crash…. we dialled the ambulance services for help.”
As word of the crash reached Coonoor town, about 7 km from Katteri, people rushed to the spot. Army personnel from Wellington, about 10 km away, too headed to the hill slopes of Katteri, dotted with tea plantations and dwellings of workers.
An employee of Katteri Park, a tourist destination, said: “It had been foggy since morning. When I reached the spot, I saw three people jump out of the helicopter. They were severely injured. The condition of the rest cannot be described… The tree that the helicopter hit had broken into pieces. They might have survived the crash had the helicopter not burst into flames. Everything was charred in no time.”