Itanagar : A missing aircraft, lives of 13 air warriors on board and several media reports of the ill-fated aircraft going missing were what prompted Taka Tamut, an Everester from Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India, to voluntarily participate in the search and rescue operation initiated by the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the local administrations of Siang, Lower Siang, West Siang and Shi-Yomi districts.
In a telephonic conversation with EastMojo, 27-year-old Tamut, who himself made headlines by climbing Mt Everest in May last year, narrated his memorable experience of the 18-day-long operation, which finally ended on June 29, to locate and retrieve the bodies of the 13 air warriors from the crash site.
Tamut was one among the 15-member rescue team which was left stranded following bad weather at the site where the aircraft had crashed on June 3.
“I was thoroughly following local media reports on the missing aircraft as it was untraceable for almost two days despite the IAF putting all its efforts. I tried to find out ways to contact the authorities concerned to let them know about the ways I could be a part of the search and rescue operation,” said Tamut.
“On June 5, two days after the aircraft had gone missing, I, along with one of my mountaineer friends, left for Pasighat, the headquarters of East Siang district, from Itanagar. Before that, I bought all the equipment required for trekking including shoes, rain coats, ropes, tents, etc,” said Tamut.
Immediately after reaching Pasighat, Tamut contacted Siang deputy commissioner Rajiv Takuk over the phone and told him about his plan to voluntarily participate in the search and rescue operation.
“Thankfully, the DC allowed me and my friend to join the operation and also provided us with five low-altitude porters as we had to carry food, equipment and many other materials required for the trek. By the time we started the journey, we were accompanied by three more high-altitude porters,” Tamut said.
The team then moved towards Bele-Molo village through Kaying circle on June 8 from where their actual journey on foot for Payum started.
Tamut said that there was a lot of confusion in the beginning of their journey as the IAF personnel asked them not to leave for Payum and according to them the crash site was in Tato, a circle in Shi-Yomi district.
But after a series of discussions and working on the inputs provided to us by the people concerned, we decided to head towards Payum on June 9.
“On reaching Payum, we had a meeting with the locals and the extra assistant commissioner and we were told that some of the villagers had actually seen a plane fly over the village. Working on all the inputs provided, we decided to move towards Gasheng village,” said Tamut.
Tamut told EastMojo that the trek from Payum to Gasheng was one of the most difficult ones as they had to go through a dense forest and it took almost 10 hours on foot to finally reach Gasheng on June 10.
The downpour was continuous but still we did not stop our journey because it had been already more than a week that the aircraft was missing. During this course of journey, the only thing that kept us going was the thought of the family members of the crew who were on board, Tamuk said.
“On reaching Gasheng, a woman told us that she saw a plane fly over the hamlet and most importantly it was not flying in a steady position. She also told us that when the plane was flying through the passage between Gasheng and Gate village it was totally out of control, however, it somehow managed to cross the pass,” said Tamut.
Adding to this, Tamut said they also met a local from Gate village who told them that a local hunter of his village had heard a sound like that of bomb blast near Gate but was not sure from which direction the sound had come from.
Every bit of information they had received till then was being relayed to the district administration.
“We then started to work on all the collected information and eventually came to an understanding that the crash site could possibly be at a pass between Pari Adi and Pahu Dino which is covered with dense forests and is located at a very high altitude. This is when we asked the low-altitude porters to go back and also sent a message to EAC Kaying, who then managed to send us an IAF chopper to carry out a recce,” said Tamut.
On June 11, Tamut boarded an MI-17 helicopter which also had IAF officers and personnel on board from Gasheng and that is when they came across the site where the plane had crashed. By then it was already dark.
“On June 12, we flew towards the crash site and landed near a lake which was quite far from the crash site. The first rescue team, including me, landed around 9 in the morning. After reaching the camp, I, along with a jawan from the Indian Army, started our trek towards the crash site and by the time we reached, it was already 3:50 pm,” said Tamut.
Tamut said the scene that they came across on reaching the crash site was devastating, as along with the parts of the aircraft, even the bodies of the crew members were lying around everywhere.
“The scene was heartbreaking, that is all I have to say,” said Tamut.
An intermediate campsite was then formed at a distance of around 1.5 hours from the crash site in which the rescuers planned their strategies to move the bodies out of the site.
“From June 13, we started to collect the bodies and mortal remains of the air warriors. This was a Herculean task and the route was not at all a smooth one. Going up and down those hills would make one give up, but then we were there for a mission. To be honest, we and the Army were the only ones carrying most of the load as for some reasons the personnel sent by the IAF were sadly on the older side,” Tamut said.
“The process of recovering the bodies concluded by June 14 and the same was reported to the IAF and local administration but the weather did not help us. It actually started to get worse by the 15,” he said.
Finally, on June 18, a sortie was made by the IAF in which they dropped some ration and also took some of the rescuers from the site. These people had to be taken because there was no place in the tents.
Finally on June 19 — after 17 days of the crash — the IAF chopper took away six bodies from the camp site. The next day, they took the mortal remains of seven others.
Tamut said the days between June 12 and 17 were the worst that they had to face as there was very less food and the weather was at its worst.
“There were days when we had to survive on water and biscuits, had a hard time sleeping on the tents which was not sufficient for all the members,” he said, adding: “Though the bodies of the air warriors were airlifted, we were left behind and that is from when our waiting period started.”
Weather conditions got worse and heavy rainfall continued to batter them for several days. “Not complaining but neither I nor were the IAF personnel prepared for this. But having said that and after going through all such days of hardship, I guess my participation in the operation was worth it,” Tamut added.