Netanyahu: Romania helicopter crash is an immense tragedy
IDF announce seven bodies found at site of crash, believed to be six Israeli servicemen and one Romanian who were aboard the helicopter.
- CH-53 helicopter crashed Monday afternoon in bad weather in Carpathian Mountains
- Israeli search team includes elite troops, members of canine unit and military rabbis
- Six Israeli and one Romanian were on board helicopter at the time of the crash
- IAF says technical fault unlikely, cancels further drills
The Israel Defense Forces spokesman announced Tuesday evening that Romanian officials had found seven bodies at the site of the Israel Air Force helicopter crash that occurred on Monday.
The officials believe that the bodies are of the six Israeli servicemen and one Romanian who were aboard the helicopter, which crashed in the Carpathian Mountains .
The IDF has informed the families of the Israeli victims. The servicemen aboard the helicopter were involved in a training exercise in Romania at the time of the crash.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a message following the announcement, saying that "The people of Israel fear for their finest boys, who were on an important mission to ensure the security of Israel, sent by the IDF and the state."
Speaking at a graduation ceremony in Jerusalem, the prime minister said that "we still don't have all the details, but we can say that the tragedy is immense and that this is a difficult day for every Israeli."
"They were lighter than eagles, stronger than lions," Netanyahu said of the six servicemen who were likely killed in the crash. "But today in pain, with a tight throat, we ask how could heroes fall from so high, how could instruments of war fall to the ground?"
"The IDF, its soldiers and commanders guarantee our existence," Netanyahu continued. "They stand between our tragic fate in exile, when we were defenseless against the most murderous impulses in history, and where we are today, with the power to defend ourselves from these evils."
The prime minister remarked that "the wild attacks in certain circles on the morality and commitment of IDF soldiers and commanders are baseless vilifications. There is no army more moral than the IDF and we have proven this time after time in the face of the vilest of enemies who sanctify death and barbarianism while we uphold life and enlightenment."
"We fight while searching for those who seek peace," he added.
According to the IDF announcement earlier Tuesday, a certified Romanian prosecutor has signed the death certificates of the seven individuals. Israeli rescue experts and representatives of the IDF Rabbinate and the Casualty Identification Center were preparing to make their way to the exact location of the bodies in order to make the final ID.
IDF unit 669 and the IAF aircraft dispatched by Israel to Romania were to spend Tuesday evaluating the crash site, based on what is known of the whereabouts of the helicopter's remains, as well as the weather conditions and the general terrain for the area in which the search operation is to be conducted.
The rescue operation was very complex, as it was impossible to land near the crash site, leaving as the only options a hike along a steep mountainous path or a rope descent from the air. Soldiers from the 669 were joined by members of an IDF canine unit, who helped in the hunt for the bodies.
An Israeli crew of four pilots and two mechanics were with a Romanian officer on board the Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter, known in the IAF as the Yasur. Israeli sources said the aircraft was carrying double its normal three-man crew because of the long flying distances involved in the exercise, and the need to give training experience to as many crewmen as possible.
'Hard to survive'
The IDF spokesman said earlier Tuesday that it was doubtful any of the seven airmen had survived.
"It would have been very difficult to have come out of this incident alive," said IDF spokesman Brigadier General Avi Benayahu. The helicopter slammed into the peak of a mountain, he said, and then rolled hundreds of meters down the slope before bursting into flames.
Israel sent two Hercules air force planes to Romania with more than 80 soldiers, search and rescue personnel, a canine unit, doctors and military rabbis - who usually play a role in identifying bodies - on board. After extensive searches throughout the area over the course of the morning, the IDF said it had still not been able to locate any survivors.
Romania rescue services managed to land their own plane within meters of the crash site by around 8:30 A.M. on Tuesday, after their search efforts were delayed by hours due to poor weather and turbulent land conditions. The rescue crew then hiked up to the site of the crash, where they waited for the Israeli team of forensics experts and rabbis to join them.
The IDF released on Monday night the names of the six missing Israeli crew members: Lt. Col (Res.) Avner Goldman (48), from Modi'in; Lt. Col. Daniel Shipenbauer (43), from Kidron; Maj. Yahel Keshet (33), from Hatzerim; Maj. Lior Shai (28), from Tel-Nof; Lt. Nir Lakrif (25), also from Tel- Nof; Sergeant 1st Class Oren Cohen (24), from Rehovot.
The Romanian Air Force officer involved in the crash was identified by local media sources as Captain Stefan Claudiu Dragnea, aged 31.
Technical problems 'unlikely'
The Israel Air Force's Major General Ido Nehushtan and his Romanian counterpart, Major General Ion-Aurel Stanciu, have opened a joint investigation into the cause of the crash.
Israel Air Force chief Nirmod Shefer warned Tuesday against drawing any early conclusions regarding the cause of the disaster. He did say, however, that there were no indications as of yet that the crash had been due to technical problems, as the helicopter had been in "excellent condition" prior to the flight.
It thus remains unclear whether the crash was caused by poor weather, a technical failure or human error.
According to Romania's Defense Ministry, the helicopter was flying at low altitude when it lost radio contact mid-afternoon Monday.
The IAF confirmed that it had lost contact with one of two helicopters taking part in Monday's drill, saying it appeared that the aircraft had crashed at around 4:00 P.M. in a mountainous area in bad weather, making it difficult for rescue teams to identify and reach the crash site.
Israel Defense Forces Chief Gabi Ashkenazi spoke with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday night, and updated them with details on the crash.
Romanian and Israeli troops were taking part in Blue Sky 2010, an 11-day joint aviation exercises where troops are trained to fly at low altitude in search, rescue and medical evacuation exercises. The exercises were scheduled to run through Thursday.
Two IAF helicopters took part in Monday's drill - which was also aimed at acquainting IAF crews with long-range missions in unfamiliar terrain - though the crew of the second aircraft did not notice that their comrades had left the formation.
In 2006 Israel and Romania signed a military exercise and cooperation deal; they extended the contract last year.
The American-made CH-53 is the IAF's largest helicopter and has been part of Israel's air fleet since the late 1960s. Most have been in service for more than 40 years and have undergone a series of comprehensive avionic overhauls, the last of which was meant to keep them flying through 2025.
In recent years the IAF has significantly expanded the scope of joint exercises with the air forces of its NATO allies. The drills also allow Israel's air crews to practice longer-range missions than those allowed by the country's small airspace, and to practice navigating unfamiliar, mountainous terrain.
The drills allow airmen to simulate aerial warfare with enemy forces, and many use advanced NATO equipment that lets military planners closely examine the results of each combat drill.
In the past Israel has conducted military exercises with a number of Eastern European countries. The IAF canceled training flights for Tuesday, in the wake of Monday's crash.