Coonoor/New Delhi: The flight data recorder of the military helicopter that crashed in a wooded, hilly area near Coonoor in Tamil Nadu killing India's first Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat and 12 others was retrieved on Thursday.
As Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said in a statement in Parliament that an inquiry was already underway and the lone survivor was on life support, in Wellington, not far from the crash site, bugles sounded the last post to honour those who had been killed. The mortal remains of the victims in caskets wrapped in the Indian tricolour were taken to the Madras Regimental Centre at Wellington in decorated army trucks. Senior Army officials, Tamil Nadu ministers and Army veterans laid wreaths and paid floral tributes.
The remains were later taken to Coimbatore by road, about 70 km away, from where they would be flown to New Delhi in a special IAF aircraft.
Two boxes, including the flight data recorder, or the black box, were found after authorities expanded the search area from 300 metres to one kilometre. They are likely to be taken to Delhi or Bengaluru to ascertain the cause of the crash, officials said. The black box is expected to provide crucial data on the chain of events leading to the crash of the Mi-17VH helicopter that went up in flames in apparently foggy conditions on Wednesday afternoon, killing 63-year-old Rawat who was on his way to the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) in Wellington to address faculty and student officers, his wife Madhulika and 11 others.
There was only one survivor, IAF's Group Captain Varun Singh, who is an instructor at the prestigious DSSC and received Gen Rawat at the Sulur airbase from where the entourage was heading towards Wellington in the chopper. All efforts are being made to save Group Captain Singh, who is on life support at the military hospital in Wellington, the Defence minister said in his statement. A tri-services inquiry headed by Air Marshal Manavendra Singh has been ordered by the Indian Air Force. A team of investigators had reached Wellington yesterday (Wednesday) itself and started their work, Singh said in his statement read out in both houses.
Both houses of Parliament observed a moment's silence to pay tribute and mourn the deaths. Laying down the timeline, the minister said, The Indian Air Force Mi17V5 helicopter took off from Sulur air base at 11.48 a.m. on Wednesday which had to land at Wellington at 12.15 pm.
The Air Traffic Control at Sulur airbase lost contact with the helicopter at approximately 12.08 pm. Later, a few locals reported a fire in the forest near Coonoor and rushed to the spot where they saw the remains of a helicopter engulfed in flames.
Rescue teams from local administration also reached the crash site and tried to recover survivors, he said.
All those recovered from the wreckage were immediately rushed to the military hospital at Wellington." He said the last rites of Gen Rawat will be performed with full military honours.
The last rites of the other military personnel who died in the crash will also be conducted with appropriate military honours, he added.
Besides CDS Rawat and his wife, his Defence Adviser Brig Lakhbinder Singh Lidder, Staff Officer Lt Col Harjinder Singh and nine other Armed Forces personnel, including the Air Force helicopter crew, the minister said.
Their names are Wing Commander Prithvi Singh Chauhan, Squadron Leader Kuldeep Singh, Junior Warrant Officer Rana Pratap Das, Junior Warrant Officer Arakkal Pradeep, Havildar Satpal Rai, Naik Gursewak Singh, Naik Jitendra Kumar, Lance Naik Vivek Kumar, Lance Naik B Sai Teja, he said.
Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari had been sent to the spot after receiving information about the accident on Wednesday itself, the minister said.
The Air chief has taken stock of the situation after visiting spot and the hospital. Speaker Om Birla expressed grief at Gen Rawat's untimely demise and said that the country had lost a skilled warrior, an outstanding strategist and an experienced leader.
In the Rajya Sabha, Deputy Chairman Harivansh informed the house about the tragic accident. Reading out Gen Rawat's obituary, he said the CDS had an illustrious military career spanning over four decades during which he held several important staff positions and went on to become the Chief of Army Staff on December 31, 2016.
Those who paid tributes in Wellington included Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin and Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan.
Stalin, seen wearing a black muffler, later briefly spoke to the Army brass present there.