Third helicopter crash stuns Thai army

A third helicopter crash in just nine days claimed three more lives and injured one soldier in Phetchaburi's Kaeng Krachan district early yesterday.

The tragedy occurred before the dead from two previous chopper crashes this month were able to reach their final resting place.

It brought the total death toll of virtual back-to-back helicopter tragedies to 17.

Sergeant Pattanaporn Tonjan was the sole survivor from the three inter-linked aviation tragedies, which have stunned the nation.

All helicopters belonged to the Royal Thai Army (RTA).

In the wake of the crashes, RTA Aviation Centre's chief Maj General Pittaya Krajangwong ordered all Bell-212 helicopters grounded for checks. The Army currently has about 20 such helicopters.

"I am so sorry for what happened. Three more lives were lost," he said.

The survivor Pattanaporn, a mechanic on the Bell-212 that went down yesterday, was quoted as saying that the two engines suddenly stopped working at the same time.

"From his report, the helicopter then lost control, hit the ground and exploded," Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha said.

A witness said he saw Pattanaporn and rushed in to pull the injured soldier away from the aircraft that started to catch fire.

"Another soldier was trapped under the wreckage and called for help. Many locals wanted to rescue him but the flame spread too fast," the witness said.

Killed were 1st Pilot Major Thirawat Kaewkamon, 2nd Pilot Lieutenant Burana Wanjai, and mechanic Sgt Major Wichien Janpat.

They and Pattanaporn boarded the aircraft in Bangkok and headed to Phetchaburi to continue the mission to retrieve the bodies of those killed in the Black Hawk crash last Tuesday.

This helicopter with a different crew had successfully lifted the bodies of 9th Infantry Division chief Maj General Tawan Ruangsri and TV cameraman Sornwichai Kongtan-nikul from the dense jungle on Saturday. Tawan and Sornwichai were among nine people killed in the Black Hawk crash, which was blamed on bad weather.

The Black Hawk hit the ground during its mission to airlift the bodies of five victims in the first helicopter crash, which took place during a rescue mission too on July 16.

Yesterday's crash occurred about 30 kilometres from the first tragedy.

"We never thought that another crash would happen," Prayuth said.

The five bodies of the first helicopter crash have already been returned to their families with proper ceremonies being held.

But nine bodies from the Black Hawk crash were not expected to reach Kanchanaburi until last night. Disaster-victim identification procedures will then be conducted.

Some 16 of the 17 killed were soldiers.

Investigations will start to officially determine the exact causes of the three crashes. Currently, bad weather is blamed for the first two, while engine failure is blamed for the latest tragedy.

First Army Region chief Lt General Udomdej Seetabut said all the three crashes saddened him. "But at least this time, there's a survivor," he said.

Pattanaporn was being treated at the Phra Mongkutklao Hospital in Bangkok.

His backbone was broken but he was in safe condition. He remained conscious and could talk.

"I believe he will have a full recovery within six months," Colonel Dr Phirapol Polpong said in his capacity as head of the hospital emergency unit.

Pattanaporn's relatives said the survivor had worn many amulets and Buddha images.