All 20 people on board a military helicopter were killed when it crashed in flood devastated northern Indian, Air Force Chief NAK Browne said on Wednesday.
The helicopter carrying soldiers, police and rescue workers crashed on Tuesday afternoon during a rescue mission in Uttarakhand where flash floods and landslides have killed some 822 people.
The death toll from the crash rose from eight to 20 after rescue workers continued their search for bodies at the crash site in a mountainous area of the state, Air Force officials said.
"Twenty warriors have died. It is a loss for the entire nation," Browne said in Dehradun.
"It is difficult to say at the moment how the plane crashed, if it was because of a technical fault or poor weather conditions," he said.
"The cockpit recorder has been found," he added.
The helicopter had been flying a mission near the holy pilgrimage area of Kedarnath, the epicentre of the disaster.
Those killed were from the National Disaster Response Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the air force, officials said.
Air chief NAK Browne also said, "rotors won't stop, we owe it to our men who died. NDRF, ITBP and our men have done an outstanding job."
He said the first objective for all was to move to safety those who are still stuck in the mountainous terrain post-rain rage. Bad weather is suspected to have led to the crash of the newly-acquired Russian-built Mi-17V5 helicopter.
Rescue choppers continued to do rescue sorties to Badrinath and Harsil, where 5000 people are still feared stranded.
20 dead in IAF rescue chopper crash
The chopper went down north of Gaurikund, the base camp for the trek to Kedarnath, at around 12.30pm, an IAF spokesperson said. There were five IAF, six Indo-Tibetan Border Police and nine National Disaster Relief Force personnel on board. Only eight bodies have been recovered so far.
"Why are the gods so angry that they are even killing the saviours who are rescuing the sea of humanity in Uttarakhand?" an IAF squadron leader blurted out on hearing of the crash.
The IAF, however, said sorties would continue. The crash added to the gloom on a day when nearly 8,000 persons - most of them at Harsil and Badrinath - couldn't be evacuated with cloudbursts and torrential rains battering rescue efforts for the second day running.
The rescue operation
The number of helicopter sorties dropped from 300 just three days back to 53 on Tuesday but the state government assured the Supreme Court that evacuation would be completed within 72 hours. Rescuers managed to get 1,000 people to safety despite hostile weather conditions.
The Mi-17 took off from Gauchar, off the Rishikesh-Joshimath axis, to aid rescue efforts in Guptkashi and Kedarnath, which has been battered by flashfloods of June 15 and 16.
It was bringing back ITBP and NDRF men after they successfully completed the rescue effort in Kedarnath. The crashed chopper had made two successful sorties to Kedarnath during the day.
This is the second helicopter accident in the state in a week. A private chopper carrying relief material crashed on Sunday near Gaurikund, but there was no loss of life.
"The nation mourns with me the loss of our heroes whose selfless work has saved thousands of lives," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is on a two-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir, said.
Death toll at 822
The death toll rose to 822 with 142 bodies being found, including 127 in Kedarnath, officials said. A few days ago, the chief minister had put the number of dead at 1,000, which locals and rescuers say is a conservative figure as damage has been extensive and thousands of people remain unaccounted for even after 10 days.
Rain brought more destruction on Tuesday, with two cloudbursts reported from Almora and Devprayag districts. Three people were killed and many houses flooded. Rescue operations had to be put on hold in Badrinath and Gangotri areas, where 6,000 people are stranded.
The next two days, too, hold out little hope, with the meteorological Centre, Dehradun warning of heavy rainfall at some places. "Besides heavy rains, the met centre has also predicted moderate to rather heavy rain and thundershowers at many places," Anand Sharma, director, metrological department, said.
Rain also delayed mass cremation of bodies which is now expected to start on Wednesday.
The IAF, army and local administration launched a massive operation to send firewood and fuel for conducting last rites of those killed in the Kedarnath Valley. DNA samples of the dead will be preserved for their identification, a senior police official said.
(With AFP and PTI inputs)