Twenty-nine people - including some of the most senior intelligence and security figures in the war against terrorism in Northern Ireland - died last night when an RAF Chinook helicopter crashed in thick fog on the Mull of Kintyre, off western Scotland.
At least seven high-ranking special branch officers were among the 10 Royal Ulster Constabulary personnel on board the helicopter which had a crew of four. The other 15 passengers included six senior Northern Ireland Office officials and top army personnel, some thought to be senior military intelligence officers on their way from Belfast to a top-secret security conference at Fort George military base outside Inverness.
The dead included an RUC Assistant Chief Constable, Brian Fitzsimons, who heads the force's special branch, a chief superintendent and two superintendents. Security sources last night said others on board were likely to have been senior members of intelligence agencies and possibly members of the SAS.
Last night the authorities displayed great sensitivity in giving details about the crash because of the secret nature of the conference. The incident has dealt a severe body-blow to intelligence structures within Northern Ireland.
The importance to the security operation of those who died in the crash was summed up by a senior military source who said the 'high command in the war against the IRA' had been largely wiped out, although it was known the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland was not aboard.
Scottish police last night said early indications gave them no reason to suspect terrorist involvment and that the crash appear nothing other than a tragic accident. It happened just after 6pm. A woman out walking heard the noise of the helicopter's twin rotors shortly before a loud explosion was followed by a fireball near a steep path leading to the Mull of Kintyre lighthouse at the bottom of 1,000ft cliffs. Wreckage from the aircraft, en route from Aldergrove military base, was said to be spread over a wide area of the hillside.
Rescuers arriving at the site were met by a scene of devastation, with mutilated bodies and flaming wreckage, but found one man alive, according to a lifeboatman from Campbeltown. Paramedics battled without success to save his life.
Last night, Strathclyde's Chief Constable, Leslie Sharp, said all 29 bodies had been taken to a temporary mortuary at Machrihanish.
A search and rescue operation calling on civilian, Royal Navy and RAF resources from all over Scotland had been launched within minutes of the 6.14pm emergency call from the lighthouse keeper.
The Ministry of Defence said a board of inquiry would be set up to try to establish the crash's cause. Its investigators, along with those from the Department of Transport's air investigation branch, were due at the scene at first light today.
Colleagues of the RUC men said they were stunned by the tragedy. One said: 'The force is devastated. It seems the upper echelon of the special branch is missing.'
The Helicopters Division of Boeing Defence & Space Group, Philadelphia, makers of the Chinook, said the RAF had taken a 'doctrinal decision' not to install weather radar because it had not expected the aircraft to be flown in conditions where it was needed.
Chinook helicopters, 51ft long and capable of carrying 44 passengers, have been involved in some of Britain's most serious air disasters. The worst was in November 1986 when a helicopter operated by British International Helicopters plunged 500ft into the North Sea with 44 Shell oil workers on board. Only two people survived.
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