General Bipin Rawat, former army chief and India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, and his wife died with 11 others on board a military helicopter when it crashed in the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu amid dense fog on Wednesday.
The tragedy, which occurred sometime around 12.15pm, killed 13 of the 14 people on board — nine passengers and a crew of five — the Indian Air Force said. Group Captain Varun Singh, lone survivor and crew member, was being treated for severe burns at a military hospital in Wellington, Ooty.
Defence officials on Thursday retrieved the Flight Recorder, more popularly known as 'Black Box', of the ill-fated Indian Air Force helicopter that crashed near here on Wednesday. Official sources said the black box was retrieved in the wake of authorities expanding the search area from 300 metres to one km from the accident spot. The black box would provide crucial data on the chain of events leading to the tragedy on the hills on Wednesday.
“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 incident,” the air force tweeted at 6.03pm, confirming the news of the death.
Late in the night, PTI identified the 11 others who had died in the crash as Brigadier L.S. Lidder, the military adviser to the Chief of Defence Staff, staff officer Lt Col Harjinder Singh, Wing Commander P.S. Chauhan, Squadron Leader K. Singh, JWO Das, JWO Pradeep A, Havildar Satpal, Naik Gursewak Singh, Naik Jitender Kumar, Lance Naik Vivek Kumar and Lance Naik Sai Teja.
A video, taken possibly by a rescuer at the crash site — an inferno of burning trees and fuselage — showed General Rawat in visible pain as he was being carried away on a stretcher made out of a blanket. Sources said the 63-year-old died at the Army Hospital in Wellington.
Several veterans expressed shock that General Rawat’s death was announced on Twitter rather than a senior minister making a public statement.
Defence minister Rajnath Singh had already visited the general’s home and briefed Prime Minister Narendra Modi. By the time the IAF tweeted about the death, a meeting of the cabinet committee on security was under way at the Prime Minister’s residence to discuss the situation arising out of the disaster.
Earlier, at 1.50pm, the IAF had confirmed that a Russian-made Mi-17V5 chopper with General Rawat on board had “met with an accident today near Coonoor, Tamil Nadu” and that “an inquiry has been ordered to ascertain the cause of the incident”.
Sources said the chopper crashed shortly after taking off from an airbase in Sulur near Coimbatore. The crash happened about 10-15km from the helipad in Wellington where it was to land.
“Gen. Rawat was on a visit to Defence Services Staff College, Wellington (Nilgiri Hills), to address the faculty and student officers of the Staff Course today,” the IAF said.
Asked the possible reason for the crash, an IAF official said: “Weather could be one of the factors; another could be a technical defect. The weather in the hills has been foggy and nasty.”
Villagers from nearby Katteri first informed the Nilgiris district administration about the disaster, prompting the authorities to send rescue teams from the police, fire services, revenue department and the army up the steep hilly terrain to the crash site.
Krishnasamy, a local villager, told Tamil television he had heard a loud noise.
“I saw it (chopper) hit a huge tree and crash down like a ball of fire. A few people seemed to be dropping off in flames. I couldn’t see much more because of the fog. The police were immediately informed,” he said.
Visuals from the site showed trees ablaze and pieces of the burning aircraft scattered on a hillside enveloped in smoke. Rescuers scurried to douse the fire, some of them using buckets and water hoses. Personnel apparently picked up charred, severed limbs, PTI reported.
An army official said the bodies had been completely charred, making identification very difficult.
While the crash occurred at some distance from human habitation, averting possible mass casualties, it brushed a house during its fall and damaged it, PTI reported. However, the residents were not home.
Drones were deployed to search for the victims and trace the aircraft’s black box.
Rawat, who had joined the army as a second lieutenant in 1978, served as army chief from December 17, 2016, to December 31, 2019, before being appointed India’s first Chief of Defence Staff days before his retirement.
The office of the CDS, conceived after the 1999 Kargil conflict, was created to help achieve better interoperability between the three armed forces. Rawat’s responsibility was to facilitate the establishment of unified theatre commands for the best use of military resources.
“General Bipin Rawat, India’s first CDS, was a visionary who initiated far reaching reforms in the Indian military’s higher defence organisation. He was instrumental in creating the foundation of India’s joint theatre commands and giving impetus to the increased indigenisation of military equipment, a legacy which will be carried on and strengthened by successive generations,” an army statement said.
“The deceased 11 military personnel accompanying the CDS on the way to Wellington will also be equally missed by everyone. They performed their duties as per the best traditions of the armed forces.”
The Mi-series helicopters are “very reliable” workhorses for the IAF and are regularly used in high-altitude operations and rescue and relief missions, sources said. These aircraft are also used in ferrying VVIPs, including the Prime Minister.
"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.
“My heart goes out to the families of those who lost their loved ones in this accident,” Rajnath tweeted. “General Rawat had served the country with exceptional courage and diligence.”
Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, chief of the air staff, was headed for the accident site, sources said.
An army official recalled how Rawat had had a narrow escape when his Cheetah helicopter crashed in Nagaland six years ago. Rawat and crew members suffered minor injuries when the chopper hit the ground nose-down, plunging 20-25 metres, barely 30 second into its flight.
On Wednesday, the Tamil Nadu government had readied a team of burns experts and plastic surgeons at a private hospital in Coimbatore. But Rawat was in no condition to be flown from Coonoor to Coimbatore even on an air ambulance, sources said.
Floral tributes paid to Rawat, others
Floral tributes were on Thursday paid to Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat and 12 others killed in an Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter crash here earlier.
Senior Army officials, Tamil Nadu Ministers and Army veterans laid wreaths and paid floral tributes to the mortal remains of the deceased persons at the Madras Regimental Centre at Wellington near here.
The mortal remains of the crash victims in caskets wrapped in the Indian tricolour were brought to the venue in decorated army trucks.
Tamil Nadu Ministers K N Nehru, MP Saminathan and K Ramachandran, senior state government and police officials and Army personnel among others paid tributes to the departed persons.