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HOPES CRASH, YSR DEAD
Chopper flies into hillock, explodes
YSR Reddy

Hyderabad, Sept. 3: Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy was today found dead amid the wreckage of a helicopter that went missing yesterday before crashing into a hillock and exploding, bringing to a tragic end the life of yet another charismatic Congress leader.

The charred bodies of 60-year-old Reddy, known as YSR, and four others were traced around 8.20 this morning on the Rudrakonda hillock in the Nallamala forests of Kurnool district. The find capped a nearly 20-hour aerial and ground search operation that had raised hopes of survival.

The Bell 430 helicopter lost radio contact a little after 9am yesterday, about half an hour after lifting off from Hyderabad’s Begumpet airport for Chittoor, 600km away, where YSR was to launch a people-contact programme.

The others who died were principal secretary P. Subramanyam, chief security officer A.S.C. Wesley, pilot Group Captain S.K. Bhatia and co-pilot M.S. Reddy.

YSR is the second serving chief minister to die in an air crash. In the 1965 war, then Gujarat chief minister Balwantrai Mehta was killed when his civilian plane was brought down by Pakistani jets in the Kutch region.

Reddy’s funeral would be held at the family church at his hometown of Pulivendula in Kadapa district tomorrow afternoon. Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will visit Hyderabad in the morning.

K. Rosaiah, the 77-year-old finance minister, was sworn in chief minister as an “interim arrangement” amid demands that YSR’s son Jaganmohan Reddy, 36, succeed his father.

The civil aviation ministry and the directorate-general of civil aviation have ordered separate investigations into the crash.

Andhra chief secretary P. Ramakanth Reddy said the pilot had deviated around 18km east while approaching Kurnool, maybe because of poor weather. “Investigation has to reveal whether they were blown out of the flight path due to heavy rain in the Nallamala forests or they lost direction after losing contact with Chennai ATC,” he said.

Civil aviation minister Praful Patel appeared to agree, saying the copter may have run into “bad weather” since there was little to suggest “any snag or shortcoming before or during the flight”.

Witnesses at Velugodu village adjoining Rudrakonda said the chopper, flying in poor visibility, had crashed after it hit the side of the hillock. The village is located in a remote corner of the forest and difficult to access.

The copter parts, including the black box, strewn around a 1km radius, have been gathered for investigation. Police officials said they could not locate any GPS system or satellite phone. The heavy slush on the ground may have rendered inactive the Emergency Locator Transmitter, which is activated in case of a crash landing.

Three hours after the Bell went missing, the government had mounted a search operation similar to a military offensive. But in the end, simple cellphone signal analysis proved handier than hi-tech imagery.

Three of the four mobile phones carried by the passengers were destroyed on impact, but one — that of Wesley — survived. “That phone received an SMS at 12.06pm yesterday, more than two hours after the crash,” said a source.

The message, sent by the VIP security wing of the state government, was routed by a BSNL tower near Atmakur, 8km from the crash site.

Based on the signal, a 2km by 2km cone was drawn by engineers, which narrowed down the area of search from 400sq km earlier.

Air force group commander Sagar Bharati, who had camped at Kurnool — 70km from Rudrakonda — and launched the search operations, said rescuers spotted the missing helicopter during the first sorties this morning. “We located the mangled chopper within 40 minutes of flying and it took us another 30 minutes to zero in,” he said.

The Centre sought to duck queries whether the massive search operation, which included two Sukhoi-30s, a Dornier, an Isro low-flying image-mapping aircraft and 11 helicopters, had come a cropper. “Let us leave that to the experts,” said a government official.

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