Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu was found dead in the remote and inaccessible Luguthang village, about 30 km from Tawang near the India-China border, on Wednesday morning. His relatives and villagers reportedly identified the body.
The sad news came after five days of intense search operations since the Pawan Hans A350-B3 helicopter carrying Mr. Khandu and four others went missing near the Sela Pass at 10.05 a.m. on April 30 while flying from Tawang to Itanagar.
All five bodies have been traced. The four others were the pilots, Captains T.S. Manik and J.S. Babar; Khandu's personal security officer Yeshi Chodak and Yeshi Lhamu, sister of Tsewng Dhundup, Congress MLA from Tawang.
The breakthrough in the search came when some villagers spotted the bodies and the helicopter wreckage and informed a control room. Immediately, search teams were mobilised to trek to the crash site. There is no road to Luguthang and the porter route is also now reportedly snow-covered, delaying retrieval of the bodies.
Official sources said three bodies were charred beyond recognition. The crash site is located in the Mukto constituency, which is represented by the Chief Minister.
Union Minister for Development of the North East Region B.K. Handique, who is camping in Itanagar to oversee the search operations, told journalists that a panchayat leader, Thupten, identified the body of the Chief Minister. But a formal identification of all the bodies was yet to be done. He said their recovery was expected to take time as it was a gruelling trek. An Army helicopter would lift the bodies from the crash site.
He said the Tawang Deputy Commissioner would do the formal identification after the bodies were retrieved. The body of Khandu would be brought to Itanagar so that people could pay homage. It would then be taken to Tawang for the last rites.
On April 30, the ill-fated helicopter took off from Tawang at 9.56 a.m. and was scheduled to reach the helipad at Itanagar at 11.30 a.m. but radio contact was lost after about 20 minutes and after it had just passed over the Sela Pass, which is located at an altitude of 13,700 feet.
Although seven locations were identified based on satellite data of the Indian Space Research Organisation and mapping of the probable crash sites done by the Sukhoi-30 meant for focussed search and rescue missions, the actual crash site did not figure among them.
While the Indian Air Force deployed Mi-17 and Cheetah helicopters for the search, about 3000 Army, Indo-Tibetan Border Police and Sashastra Seema Bal personnel and over 1000 local villagers scoured the high altitudes.
Search operations were stalled from day one as several of the locations were covered with snow and inclement weather prevailed.
A pall of gloom descended on Itanagar with shops and business places spontaneously downing the shutters.