Sukumar is still shaken by what he saw in the Coonoor hills on Wednesday, December 8. It was a little after noon when a neighbour called him saying there was a crash near their house. As he rushed to the spot, Sukumar saw a burning helicopter stuck between two trees in the hilly slope next to his house.
“I was nearby and reached there within minutes. We saw the helicopter burning but there was no way to retrieve anyone as it was on fire and we thought there could be more blasts. We could not do anything to rescue the people caught inside,” Sukumar recalls.
As Sukumar and others alerted the police and fire force, they also started combing the nearby area looking for anyone who may have fallen from the chopper.
“We saw three people when we reached the spot. We slid down the slope to check if they were alive. Two were alive but we didn't have any equipment to take them back to the road. Then we climbed back to the settlement nearby and collected bedsheets, rope and sickles,” he tells TNM.
By the time Sukumar and the other residents climbed the slope, the local inspector also reached the spot. “We informed him that two people were alive and he came down with us. We removed the first person, placed him on a bedsheet and took him up the slope. Then we came back for the next person. I gently told him to relax, and he said, “Some water please”.
An army officer told Sukumar later that the person who asked for water was none other than Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat. “When the officer told me it was General Rawat, I felt bad that I could not even give him water,” Sukumar says.
Though it cannot be confirmed whether the person was indeed General Rawat, Kasim Sait, who owns the estate where the crash happened, told TNM that they found two people alive initially.
“As soon as I heard the crash, I rushed there with two estate workers. One of the men did ask for water, but we knew we should not give him water fearing this could create medical complications,” Sait says. Sait was also told by local police officers and army officials that this man was Rawat.
Sait recalls that as the helicopter was burning, their priority was to find water to douse the fire. “We broke a water pipe that carries water to the estate. All the residents came with pots to fill water and we did whatever we could,” he says.
By the time Sukumar, Sait and others moved the injured men to the road, firefighters from Coonoor also had reached there. Senior firefighter NC Murali, who was among them, said, “We got into our vans and rushed to there, but the vehicles could not go right to the crash spot. There were no water outlets that we could use to connect our fire hoses. All of us with the residents just used whatever we could including buckets and utensils to throw water on the fire. Another vehicle with foam had taken a different route to reach the crash spot,” Murali recalls.
Murali says that except the three people who had fallen from the helicopter, everyone else was charred beyond recognition. “Even after the fire went out, the wreckage was scalding hot. It was difficult for us to even pull people out. Also, it took time as we had to move tree branches and metal sheets to reach them,” he says.
Thangamma, a tea plantation worker, was among those who tried to douse the fire. "There are a few houses nearby, we grabbed whatever we could get and filled water in those. I could not see any survivors though, there was too much smoke," she recalls.
Sait and his family have been living in Coonoor for generations. “I watch helicopters fly here all the time. But I have never seen any of them flying this low and this close to the estate. Normally they take a deeper U-turn to reach Wellington. Since my office is at a higher elevation, I could see the big cloud into which the chopper disappeared. It seems it hit the tree and crashed,” he says.
Sukumar, who was at the spot within minutes, saw the trees falling over. “The helicopter hit two trees. First it crashed into one and the top half of that tree fell. Then the chopper hit the second tree and that also broke and fell down. These trees are more than 100 years old,” he says.
The sight of the chopper vanishing into a large cloud is part of a video that emerged from Coonoor. The video, reportedly shot by tourists who were exploring the area, shows a helicopter flying overhead and disappearing into the mist.
Watch a report by TNM’s Pooja Prasanna at the crash site