Wednesday, Sep 17, 2003
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By Sandeep Dikshit
Due to glacial movement, a few aircraft parts and the body of a serviceman were recovered. The remaining bodies and the wreckage of the aircraft are inaccessible, as they are buried under tonnes of ice and snow.
The 50-member salvage team, which included crack trekkers from the Army's 36 sector force, concluded that attempts to unearth the wreckage would endanger the lives of the searchers.
The search mission faced an uphill task from the day it was set up in the first week of August. Landslips impeded its progress on the approach to the South Dhaka Glacier.
The difficulty was compounded by the flowing rivers of ice as the team approached the site where an Indian trekking team had stumbled on the frozen remains of a sepoy, Bali Ram, in July.
The news about the calling off of the search mission, codenamed "Operation Punar Uthan'' (Op. Resurrection), comes as a disappointment as well as relief for hundreds of surviving relatives of the 98 Amy and Air Force personnel aboard a military aircraft which lost radio contact while returning from Leh in inclement weather on February 7, 1968.
The relatives include S.K. Bhattacharjee, the 79-year-old brother of a crew member in the aircraft, Warrant Officer S. Bhattacharjee. He had nursed hopes of receiving his younger brother's body and cremating it with full religious rites following media reports earlier this month about several skeletons having been recovered.
"I thank you,'' was Lucknow-based Mr. Bhattacharjee's brief reply on being informed about the calling off of the mission after it could not locate any more bodies. "Our mother had written many letters after they were declared missing and died of shock leaving me to mourn. You have done a noble job in informing me. I understand that the recovery mission was very difficult.''
However, the search team did recover the frozen remains of Bali Ram whose body was later cremated with military honours in his native village not very far away from the crash site. Like the close relatives of Garhwal Rifles personnel aboard the flight, Bali Ram's wife too had remained unconvinced about his death.
"The possibility of any survivors is ruled out,'' noted the search team.
While the remaining 97 bodies will now remain perpetually buried under snow, the search team has reconstructed the accident that remained a mystery for decades because it left no trace.
The aircraft had flown head on into a perpendicular wall of ice due to bad weather and severe turbulence.
It completely disintegrated on impact and the wreckage fell on the glacial bowl at the foot of the mountain. It was immediately buried due to multiple avalanches set off by the impact.
There it remained buried and undiscovered for years till an Italian expedition in 2001 came across badges of the Garhwal Rifles. Glacial movement led to the surfacing of the body of Bali Ram and a few aircraft parts this year.
These were sighted by the mountaineering expedition leading to the activation of the operation to recover the bodies and salvage wreckage of the aircraft.
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