All 20 rescuers, including IAF and paramilitary personnel, were feared dead after an air force helicopter crashed in flood-ravaged Uttarakhand on Tuesday as rain again hampered the bid to rescue thousands still stranded.
Bad weather is suspected to have led to the crash of the newly-acquired Russian-built Mi-17V5 helicopter. 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 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.
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 PTI inputs