While en route to the Pakistan Air Force Ski Resort, watching vegetation, settlements and hills vanish in the distance, little did the foreign dignitaries and the crew members manning the MI-17 helicopter know what fate had in store for them.
The delegation, comprising diplomats and their better halves from various countries, was delighted to inaugurate the newly-constructed chairlift at the resort and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was soon to join them at the venue.
Battling the walloping wind, the chopper developed a technical glitch and crashed onto a school in the scenic Naltar Valley of Gilgit-Baltistan on Friday afternoon. “I watched the helicopter go down from a distance,” said journalist Nazakat Ali. “I saw policemen scurry to the site instantly and pull the injured out through the broken windows,” he told The Express Tribune on Saturday. Ali said the rear end of the chopper was in flames while the rescue operation was under way.
Other eyewitness accounts concurred with Ali’s testimony. Sub inspector (SI) Abdul Rehman and his colleagues were the first to reach the site. While the fire was still on, they risked their lives to protect those who had survived the crash but were severely injured.
The squad members who accompanied Rehman were special grade constables Ashiq Ali, Aqil Khan, Basharat, Fida Ali, Abdul Rahman, foot constable (FC) Abdul Kareem, FC Ijlal Hussain, FC Ghayasuddin, FC Obaidullah, FC Shahid Azim and head constable Hafiz Baig.
“The first person to come out of the chopper was a uniformed man, probably a crew member, followed by a foreigner,” said Rehman.
Talking to The Express Tribune, the Gilgit police department official said the squad was able to rescue six, including a woman. “We were gutted not to have been able to save everyone. Had it been possible, we would have rescued all of them at the cost of our lives,” he said. Recalling the dedication of his team, Rehman said Fida handed him his gun because it prevented him from working freely.
By the time all the injured were pulled out, medical help had arrived. An emergency medic deployed close by said there was an explosion and the chopper caught fire a few minutes after the crash.
The injured were treated by Dr Mubarak Shah Hunzai and Dr Hanif Hunzai at the site. One of the doctors also sustained a foot injury during the rescue operation.
The incident left Norwegian envoy Leif H Larsen, Philippines Ambassador Domingo D Lucenario Jr, wives of Malaysian and Indonesian ambassadors, two pilots – Major Faisal and Major Altamash – as well as a crew member dead. Polish Ambassador Andrzej Ananiczolish, Dutch Ambassador Marcel de Vink and the Indonesian ambassador were injured.
The Pakistani flag was hoisted at half-mast across government buildings as the government had announced a day of mourning on Saturday.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2015.