The crew in the helicopter that carried India’s top military commander had not sent a distress signal before it crashed and killed him along with 12 others.
General Bipin Rawat, his wife Madhulika Rawat and 12 army and air force personnel were travelling in the Indian Air Force’s Mi-17 V 5 helicopter which crashed in a forest on Wednesday, minutes before its scheduled landing in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Only one person survived the crash and is being treated at a military hospital.
Federal defence minister Rajnath Singh, in a statement to India’s parliament on Thursday, said there was no indication of bad weather in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where the chopper crashed, or an SOS signal from the crew.
Mr Singh added that a military inquiry committee had begun work hours after the crash. Several media reports from the country said the helicopter’s black box and voice and data recorders have been recovered from the crash site.
Chief of Defence Staff General Rawat will be cremated in national capital New Delhi with full military honours on Friday, the minister said.
Indian officials confirmed the death of 13 out of 14 occupants of the helicopter on Wednesday evening.
“The Chief of Defence Staff would be cremated with full military honours. I, on behalf of the august House, pay homage to the deceased persons and express condolences to the bereaved families,” Mr Singh said.
In his statement delivered in Hindi, the defence minister told the parliamentarians: “I stand to convey the unfortunate news of the crash of the military helicopter in the noon of 8th December 2021, with India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, Gen Bipin Rawat onboard.”
The minister said the Russian-origin chopper took off from Tamil Nadu’s Sulur Air Base at 11.48am and was expected to land at Wellington in the next 27 minutes.
However, just 20 minutes after taking off, the Sulur Air Base lost contact with the helicopter carrying the military chief, his wife and other officials.
“Subsequently, few locals spotted a fire in the forest near Coonoor and rushed to the spot where they observed the wreckage of a military helicopter engulfed in flames,” the minister told the parliament.
Latest reports have confirmed that out of the total 14 persons onboard the ill-fated helicopter, 13 succumbed to their injuries, Mr Singh told Parliament on Thursday.
Preliminary visuals from the southern Indian forest where the chopper crashed showed burnt wreckage of the Air Force helicopter. Villagers in the area rushed with water to douse the smoke and fire emanating from the crashed helicopter and locate the human remains.
In one video, villagers are seen pointing to a chopper disappearing into a cloud minutes before it crashed.
Only one member on board — group captain Varun Singh — was found alive in the crash and was rushed to nearby Wellington military hospital.
He is on life support at the military hospital and all efforts are being made to save his life, the defence minister said.
Officials said the bodies of Gen Rawat and his wife will be taken to their residence in New Delhi on Friday morning at 11am. The bodies will be then escorted by military bands of all three armed force services at 2pm and taken to Brar crematorium in Delhi’s Dhaula Kuan area.
The state funeral will be held at 4pm.
Authorities have confirmed that the black box of the crashed helicopter has been recovered after the search in the area was expanded from 300m to 1km.
Tributes poured in from across the globe for Gen Rawat on Wednesday as many remembered the military chief.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed deep condolences on the deaths in the crash: “We’ll remember Gen Rawat as an exceptional leader who served his country and contributed to the US-India defence relationship.”
The US embassy recalled Gen Rawat for spearheading a major expansion of India’s defence cooperation with the US military.
“He was a strong friend and partner of the United States, overseeing a major expansion of India’s defence cooperation with the US military,” the statement by the US embassy read, adding that “his legacy will continue on.”
Russian ambassador Nikolay Kudashev condoled the military chief’s death as well: “India has lost its great patriot and dedicated hero”.
“Russia has lost a very close friend, who played a big role in promotion of our bilateral special and privileged strategic partnership. Grieving together with India. Goodbye, friend! Farewell, commander!” Mr Kudashev tweeted.
Gen Rawat was Israel’s “true partner” and he contributed greatly to the strengthening of security relations between the two countries, said the country’s defence minister Benny Gantz.
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