Chopper’s watery grave

2009-05-13 00:00

“I SAW its nose go into the water first and then I saw the tail, which was still in flames, go in after … Then there were just pieces of the chopper floating all over.”

This was how Quin Mlangeni, a resident of the village on the bank of Woodstock Dam near Bergville, where a South African National Defence Force (SANDF) helicopter crashed yesterday morning, described the accident.

Mlangeni was fishing at the dam when he saw three helicopters approaching him from a northward direction. Only minutes later, he said, the helicopter at the back of the pack dropped, landing just a few hundred metres away from him.

“It made a wave about two metres high,” he said. “The first thing I could think of to do was to go on my knees and grab my fishing line out of the water.”

According to a police statement, the crash occurred at around 11.30 am during a training flight. It was occupied by three people and was en route to Dragon’ s Peak flying past the upper Tugela River.

Five hours after the incident, all that had been recovered from the 40 m-deep dam by police and SANDF divers who were called in to assist was a flask, two helmets, a pair of boots (one of which was shredded), a flip-flop and a door of the Agusta A109.

Although the bodies of the occupants (who were suspected to have drowned) were searched for tirelessly by divers and the helicopter search teams, at that point, none were found.

Two members of the SANDF were holding one of the recovered boots against a dent in the recovered door. When asked if they thought that one of the occupants might have caused the dent during the crash, they declined comment.

In a statement released by the ministry yesterday, the newly appointed minister of Defence, Lindiwe Sisulu, expressed regret about the death of the three members of the South African Air Force.

Ministry spokesman Sam Mkhwanazi said although it is known that the helicopter was on its way to the Dragons Peak Park, it was not clear where the aircraft was coming from.

“We are still gathering information,” said Mkhwanazi, “The ministry has made a decision not to release the names, ages and ranks at this stage. It will be released once their next of kin have been informed. ”

He added that a Board of Inquiry has been convened to investigate the cause of the accident.

Meanwhile, Zwangaye Sithole, disaster manager of the Uthukela District Municipality, assured The Witness that emergency services will not rest until the bodies are recovered.

“We have divers from Ladysmith and Pietermaritzburg here,” he said.

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