Coonoor (TN)- Gen. Bipin Rawat, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff and who had a vast experience across a wide spectrum of conflict and terrain profiles, was among the 13 people killed on Wednesday when the military helicopter they were travelling in crashed in a hilly area in apparently foggy conditions near Coonoor in Tamil Nadu, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and state officials said.
The Mi-17V5 helicopter carrying Gen. Rawat, the 63-year-old tri-services chief who would have completed two years at the end of this month in the new post after serving as the Army chief, crashed killing 13 of the 14 people on board including his wife and 11 other armed forces personnel, the officials said. The lone survivor, Group Captain Varun Singh, Directing Staff at DSSC, is currently under treatment at a military hospital in nearby Wellington, the IAF said.
Gen. Rawat, an outspoken General with his remarks sometimes kicking up a controversy, was on a visit to the Defence Services Staff College(DSSC), Wellington (Nilgiri Hills) to address the faculty and student officers of the Staff Course
The IAF said a Court of Inquiry has been ordered into the accident.
Mi1-7V5 is an advanced military transport chopper that has been with the IAF since 2012. Manufactured by Russian Helicopters’ subsidiary Kazan, it has an onboard weather radar and is equipped with the latest generation of night vision devices.
“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,” the IAF said in a tweet at around 6 pm. Earlier, the Nilgiris Collector SP Amrith confirmed to PTI that 13 persons were killed in the crash while there was one survivor.
The helicopter carrying Rawat and others had left Sulur IAF station in nearby Coimbatore around 11.48 am and was supposed to land at DSSC in Wellington at Udhagamandalam about 45 minutes later, official sources said, adding the mishap occurred at 12.22 pm. The CDS had earlier reached the IAF station from Delhi by an Embraer aircraft at 11.34 am.
The other victims, all from the armed forces, were identified as Brigadier LS Lidder, Lieutenant Colonel Harjinder Singh, Wing Commander PS Chauhan, Squadron Leader K Singh, Naik Gursewak Singh, Naik Jitender Kumar, Lance Naik Vivek, Lance Naik B S Teja, Havaldar Satpal, JWO Das and JWO Pradeep, according to official sources.
The accident site presented a gory picture as rescue personnel were seen picking up charred, severed limbs strewn around.
The mangled and burnt remains of the ill-fated IAF copter at the accident site in Nilgiris bore a grim testimony to the tragedy that shocked the nation. The site remained out of bounds for civilians.
The mortal remains of the victims will be taken to New Delhi from Coimbatore on Thursday by air, after a wreath-laying ceremony scheduled tomorrow morning at Wellington, police and Defence sources said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and several chief ministers were among leaders across the political spectrum who condoled the death of Gen. Rawat and hailed him as an outstanding soldier.
“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,” Modi tweeted in his condolence message.
The prime minister-led Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) was also briefed about the helicopter crash.
Besides Modi, the meeting was attended by Rajnath Singh, Home Minister Amit Shah, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, official sources said.
Singh, who earlier briefed the prime minister about the crash, also visited the residence of Rawat in the national capital and spoke to his younger daughter. Gen. Rawat is survived by two daughters. Singh said he was “deeply anguished” by the sudden demise of Gen. Rawat and others in the “extremely unfortunate helicopter” accident.
According to accounts of official sources and a local eyewitnesses in Coonoor, the helicopter was flying at a low altitude in the foggy conditions when it crashed into a valley near Coonoor, before falling through trees.
Fire engulfed the helicopter by the time it crashed on the ground. The helicopter crashed in the Katteri-Nanchappanchathram area in the hilly Nilgiris district.
Although the chopper brushed a house during its fall, there was no human casualty or injury since the residents were not at home. The building, however, suffered damage. Two persons, who were ablaze, fell down from the helicopter, Perumal, an eyewitness said.
The copter crashed in the forest area, reducing trees to pieces of logs and ashes due to resultant fire, even as the local people turned first responders to try and save the injured. However, they could not help the victims due to the raging flames and informed authorities.
Apparently, a major tragedy was averted as the crashing helicopter fell at some distance away from the human habitation, averting possible mass casualties.
Flames from the helicopter engulfed the wooden logs and smoke billowed while the locals and rescue personnel scurried to douse the fire by using buckets and a water hose.
Gen. Rawat, who hailed from Pauri in Uttarakhand, had last visited his native village in 2018 and had plans to build a house there after his retirement, his uncle recalled after news broke out about the death of the quintessential military commander.
His uncle Bharat Singh Rawat (70) had gone to Kotdwar for some work but returned home as soon as he heard about the accident. It is only the General’s family that lives at Saina village of Dwarikhal block.
The General’s uncle said teary-eyed people from nearby villages offered condolences to the family.
He said Bipin Rawat had offered prayers to their “kuldevata” during his last visit to the village in 2018.
The General left on the same day and had said he would build a house in the village after his retirement, Bharat Singh Rawat recalled.
As CDS, Gen. Rawat was overseeing the implementation of an ambitious tri-services modernisation plan to bring synergy among the armed forces and enhance their overall combat capabilities. He had also prepared plans for jointness of the Armed Forces.
Gen. Rawat had served as the Chief of the Indian Army from December 17, 2016, to December 31, 2019. He was appointed as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff on December 31, 2019.
Army Chief Gen MM Naravane and all ranks of the force also expressed their condolences.
“The dynamic and inspiring leadership of General Bipin Rawat shall remain eternally etched in our memories. The #IndianArmedForces will forever remain indebted to his invaluable contributions,” the army tweeted.
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