Saturday, July 23, 2011

A tragic tale of two air crashes

The tragedy of two helicopters crashing within three days in the same area while on a rescue mission has cast a veil of gloom over the country.

The first helicopter, a Huey (UH-1H), crashed last Saturday while on a mission to rescue a team of military officers and journalists. The second helicopter, a Black Hawk (UH-60), crashed three days later during a mission to recover the five bodies killed in the first crash. The second crash resulted in nine more deaths.

On July 11, a 35- member team embarked on a mission to investigate the Ton Num Petch forest (the watershed of the Phetchburi River). This was part of a forest surveillance project at the Kaeng Krachan National Park started five months ago.

"The watershed area was located at the highest altitude there," said Chanachai Kaewphang, the journalist from Channel 7's Praden Ded, who joined the trip.

The two-kilometre distance on steep hills was preceded by a 10km trek.

During the mission, they found and investigated five unarmed forest encroachers from the Karenni tribe, who engaged in slash-and-burn agriculture within the Ton Num Petch forest. After obtaining information, the team deported the Karenni out of Thailand's territory.

"According to our plan, we were to stay in the forest for three nights and then the helicopter was to pick us up at the helipad where we had disembarked. However, because of the bad weather, the helicopter could not land," he said. So, the group had to stay there. The helicopter was only able to drop food supplies.

The next day, the helicopter successfully made three rescue trips after which 19 people remained. Three reporters from Channel 7 programme were on the first flight.

On Saturday, the helicopter continued its recovery mission but unfortunately crashed around noon.

"I was stunned when my colleague called me and said 'the helicopter that picked you up yesterday crashed!', " he said, adding that he rushed to Bangkok on the day he came back from the forest due to his duty.

Chanachai came to know later that Major Kittipoom Akekaphan, a soldier of Thap Phraya Sua Special (ad hoc) Task Force, who had accompanied and always taught him during the mission in the forest, was among the five dead.

The tragic tale does not end there.

Attempts were immediately made to recover the officers' bodies. Due to the bad weather, the military decided to dispatch one of its better helicopters, the Black Hawk (UH-60).

On Tuesday, three days after the first crash, the Black Hawk took off to retrieve the five bodies. Shockingly, it crashed and nine more people perished - eight soldiers and a reporter from Channel 5.

"The second crash was a double shock for me," said Chanachai.

Major Manas Tongkote, a soldier from the same unit as Major Kittipoom who was killed in the first crash, said these twin crashes are the worst accidents ever. There have been no helicopter crashes here before.

Manas is one of those who had joined the survey group at Ton Num Pheth and returned from the forest by the last flight on Friday before the helicopter crash the next day.

Though terribly saddened by the events, Major Manas said his unit now was busy with duties in bring back all the bodies.

"All 14 deaths came from a mission to protect the environment. I will do my best as a reporter to continue their aims," said Chanachai, the 25-year-old reporter.