An army helicopter crashed onto a school just before landing in the scenic Naltar Valley of Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), killing seven people onboard – including the ambassadors of Norway and the Philippines.
Air Commodore Syed Muhammad Ali, director of media at the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), told APP that a MI-17 helicopter was taking a delegation of foreign diplomats to Naltar Valley to witness the inauguration of a chairlift at the PAF’s ski resort. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was to be the chief guest at the ceremony.
“The dignitaries were being flown from Gilgit to Naltar to attend the national-level event under the arrangement of the Foreign Office in coordination with the Pakistan Army,” he said. Apparently the crash was caused by a technical fault in the helicopter, triggering an intense fire aboard the craft.
Norwegian Ambassador Leif H Larsen, Philippines Ambassador Domingo D Lucenario Jr, wives of the Malaysian and Indonesian ambassadors and two pilots – Major Faisal and Major Altamash – as well as a crew member were killed in the incident.
Three other envoys, including Poland’s Ambassador Andrzej Ananiczolish, Dutch Ambassador Marcel de Vink and Indonesian Ambassador sustained injuries.
An eyewitness said the wind was quite strong when the chopper came crashing down upon the school. “I saw the helicopter going down. The wind was quite strong when this happened,” said a senior government official, who was in Naltar as part of his duty.
Fortunately, the school was shut at the time of the crash, he said.
A local police official on duty near the site told AFP: “I was watching the helicopters arriving, they were coming since the morning, it was their third or fourth trip. One helicopter suddenly started whirling at its place and went down with a bang, then there were flames.”
An emergency medic, who was deployed nearby ahead of the inauguration ceremony, said the helicopter only exploded and caught fire after landing.
“The pilot was gesturing at us to come and help him. We rushed there, broke the windows, and started dragging people out. After some minutes, there was an explosion, injuring some of the medics too,” he told AFP.
An eyewitness, present at the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) in Gilgit, said there were at least five people, who were being brought on stretchers by security officials after the tragedy.
According to a Foreign Office statement, heads of diplomatic mission of more than 30 countries and their family members, as well as some Pakistani dignitaries, were flown to Gilgit by a C-130 aircraft.
From Gilgit, the diplomats were being taken to Naltar in three helicopters for a three-day excursion trip. “Such excursion trips are regularly organised by the foreign ministry in consultation with the diplomatic corps,” said the Foreign Office.
According to an official statement, the prime minister, who was informed about the incident during his flight to Gilgit, cancelled the trip and returned to Islamabad. He directed immediate transportation of the injured to the nearest hospital and provision of best medical treatment to them.
A PM Office statement said arrangements were made later to transport the bodies to Islamabad.
‘Accident, not an act of sabotage’
Engine failure was the most likely reason for Friday’s crash in Naltar Valley, said Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry ruling out the possibility of any subversive activity.
“It was an unfortunate accident due to a technical fault in the engine of the helicopter when it was approaching the landing site,” Aizaz told reporters at a news conference.
“There was no terrorism. An accident is an accident. It’s sheer bad luck,” he insisted.
Defence Minister Khawja Asif and chief military spokesperson Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa also separately denied reports of sabotage.
The foreign secretary said unprecedented security arrangements were made in the area with a deployment of over a thousand security personnel. “It was not a security lapse. All heights were occupied by the security personnel,” Aizaz pointed out.
In reply to a question, he said the army chief has constituted a board of inquiry to investigate the reason behind the tragic helicopter crash. The black box of the ‘helicopter’ has been found and an investigation has already begun, he informed reporters.
When asked, he said the outcome of the investigations will be made public.
In response to another question about the condition of the MI-17 helicopter, the foreign secretary insisted that it was in good condition and was regularly serviced.
“It was commissioned in 2002 and it was being regularly serviced,” he said.
Details of the injured
Aizaz said a total of 19 passengers, including ambassadors of Lebanon, Malaysia, Norway, Netherlands, Romania, South Africa, Philippines, Poland, Sweden and Indonesia were on board.
He said the Indonesian ambassador suffered 75% burn injuries and he is said to be in a critical condition.
The ambassador of Poland received spinal cord injuries while the Dutch envoy was being treated for leg and head injuries, he said, adding that both of them are out of danger.
Due to bad weather the bodies as well as the injured could not be brought back to Islamabad.
“The first priority of the government is to bring back the ‘mortal remains’ of those who lost their lives in the tragedy,” he said
Meanwhile, the PM has tasked three cabinet ministers – Lt Gen (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, Ahsan Iqbal and Khurram Dastagir Khan – to accompany the bodies of the diplomats and their spouses, respectively, to Norway, Malaysia and Indonesia and Philippines.
These bodies will be sent on special flights as a gesture of respect and to convey the heartfelt condolences of the government and people of Pakistan.
Outpouring of grief
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced a day of national mourning over the tragic incident. He also extended heartfelt condolences to the families of the deceased ambassadors and others including spouses of the Malaysian and Indonesian ambassadors and two pilots.
The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) in a separate statement said army chief General Raheel Sharif also expressed his deepest grief over tragic loss of precious lives.
“It is sad day for all of us and our heart goes out to the bereaved families at this sad moment of their life,” the army chief said.
Nawaz calls Norway’s PM
The PM also telephoned the prime minister of Norway, extending condolences on the sad demise of Norwegian ambassador. He said the ambassador would be missed and his remains would be sent to Norway as soon as possible. “We will do our best to look after the families of the deceased diplomats,” he said. The Norwegian PM also thanked Nawaz for his timely actions.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2015.