By Sudarshan Varadhan
COONOOR, India (Reuters) - The helicopter carrying India's defence chief seemed to be flying unusually low before it ploughed into a hillside in heavy fog and went up in flames, killing him and 12 others on board, two eyewitnesses said on Thursday.
Construction worker Jayaseelan was at home near the southern Indian town of Coonoor when he heard the distinctive rumble of a helicopter closing in. After hearing a crash, he rushed outside.
"I saw smoke billowing out of the woods and an odd cracking sound. The helicopter had crashed near my brother's house," said Jayaseelan, 57, who only uses one name.
The craft had taken off from the nearby Sulur Air Base just before noon on Wednesday, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told parliament. The base lost contact with it around 20 minutes later, just before it was due to land in the cantonment town of Wellington.
Military helicopters ply this route often, but this one seemed louder and closer as it travelled through heavy fog, according to Jayaseelan and another eyewitness, Satish Kumar.
Inside the machine were General Bipin Rawat - hand-picked by the government in 2019 to serve as India's first armed forces head - along with his wife and a dozen other defence personnel. Only one passenger, an Air Force captain, survived the accident.
Geaphic: Helicopter carrying Indian defence chief crashes - https://graphics.reuters.com/INDIA-CRASH/HELICOPTER/lgvdwoooepo/chart.png
'CRYING IN PAIN'
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Jayaseelan and two other local residents said they struggled to reach the wrecked Russian-designed Mi-17 V5 helicopter because of the intensity of the flames engulfing it.
Emergency services arrived shortly after, but the hilly terrain meant they had trouble reaching the site with firefighting equipment, said Kumar, 45, who lives nearby.
"Out of the first four people brought out from the crash site, one was alive," he said. "He was crying in pain."
Wrapped in blankets provided by locals, rescue workers and defence personnel began extricating the bodies. Some were badly burnt, Jayaseelan said.
Within an hour of the accident, into which the Air Force has ordered an inquiry, Jayaseelan said the area was flooded with policemen, defence personnel and firemen.
"The police asked us if we saw anyone suspicious or armed in the woods," he said. "We told them we hadn't seen anyone like that."
(Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; editing by John Stonestreet)