Coonoor | New Delhi: The black box of the military helicopter that crashed near Coonoor in Tamil Nadu killing Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat and 12 others was retrieved on Thursday, a critical piece of evidence in the investigation by a tri-services inquiry announced by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in Parliament.
As the minister said in a statement that the inquiry would be headed by Air Marshal Manavendra Singh and the lone survivor was on life support, in Wellington, about six kilometres from the crash site, bugles sounded the last post in honour of those who had been killed.
The mortal remains of the victims in caskets wrapped in the Indian tricolour were taken to the Madras Regimental Centre at Wellington in decorated army trucks. Senior Army officials, Tamil Nadu ministers and Army veterans laid wreaths and paid floral tributes.
The remains were later taken to Coimbatore by road, about 70 km away, from where they would be flown to New Delhi in a special IAF aircraft. Stunned by the tragedy that had struck them, families of the victims 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 authorities 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 Mi-17VH helicopter that went up in flames in apparently foggy conditions on Wednesday afternoon, killing 63-year-old Rawat who was on his way to the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) in Wellington to address faculty and student officers, his wife Madhulika and 11 others.
There was only one survivor, IAF’s Group Captain Varun Singh, who is an instructor at the prestigious DSSC and received Gen Rawat at the Sulur airbase from where the entourage was heading towards Wellington in the Russian-made chopper.
The officer, who suffered severe burn injuries, was moved from a hospital in Wellington in a vehicle ambulance to Sulur and from there to the command hospital Bengaluru for better treatment, officials said.
All efforts are being made to save Group Captain Singh, the Defence minister 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.
He will call on President Ram Nath Kovind — the president is the supreme commander of the armed forces on Thursday to brief him about the incident.
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 condemned 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.
All those recovered from the wreckage were immediately rushed to the military hospital at Wellington.”
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 Rawat — India’s first CDS and its most senior military officer and his wife, those who died were Defence Adviser Brig Lakhbinder Singh Lidder, Staff Officer Lt Col Harjinder Singh and nine other Armed Forces personnel, including the Air Force helicopter crew, the minister said.
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, Lance Naik B Sai Teja, he said.
It was not just their families 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.
Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla expressed grief at Gen Rawat’s untimely demise and said the country had lost a skilled warrior, an outstanding strategist and an experienced leader.
In the Rajya Sabha, Deputy Chairman Harivansh said the CDS had an illustrious military career spanning over four decades during which he held several important staff positions and went on to become the Chief of Army Staff on December 31, 2016.
The Tamil Nadu Police, which is using drones as part of its investigation, has registered a case in connection with the crash.