the full story of 25 hours of search
It was September 2, 2009, it was a Wednesday.
When the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh was not in Hyderabad, there was not much hustle and bustle in C Block. But after 11 o’clock that day there was an atmosphere of chaos everywhere.
The then Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy had left Begumpet by helicopter at 8.38 am to attend an event in Chittoor district. According to the scheduled program, he was to reach there by 10:30. But they had not reached there.
Reports started pouring in on the electronic media that his helicopter had lost contact with ATC and the helicopter was not traceable.
But soon news started circulating in some channels including the channel of Sakshi Group that the Chief Minister was completely safe and was going to Chittoor by road.
By then State Home Minister Sabita Indra Reddy, Finance Minister Rosaiah and other senior ministers and state Chief Secretary Ramakanta Reddy had reached the Secretariat, all tracking information from the Chief Minister’s Office.
During this, rumors also started floating among the journalists who reached the Chief Minister’s Secretariat. Since the chopper’s connection with ATC was broken in Nallamalla forest area, someone said that this area is under Maoist control, so has the Chief Minister been kidnapped? This rumor also started spreading.
A statement was issued by the government by noon.
It was said in this statement that the helicopter is missing and the Chief Minister has not been found, efforts are on to trace him. Apart from the Chief Minister in the helicopter, Chief Secretary of the Chief Minister’s Office Subramaniam and Chief Security Officer ASC Wesley were on board.
The disappearance of the helicopter including the Chief Minister had become a national level sensation. The central government was also alerted. Declaring alert in six districts, the state government asked to do everything possible for the search operation.
State police and central government intelligence agencies said that the police, CRPF and Anti-Naxal Police Force should be sent to the forests of Nallamalla. Army helicopters were called from Secunderabad and Bangalore. Apart from this, a Sukhoi aircraft was also sent to the forest, which was capable of thermal imaging. By then the Congress leaders and workers had started protesting in the state.
But due to bad weather it was not possible to send the helicopter. Then it was told by the government that with the help of ISRO’s satellite, the helicopter is being traced.
I was present in the Chief Minister’s Secretariat since morning that day. In the evening went to the office of his newspaper ‘Andhra Jyoti’. At eight o’clock in the night, it was learned that a team of ABN channel would go to the forests of Nallamalla. There was no news about the Chief Minister, but an information was received about the helicopter. I was on that team.
My bureau chief told me, “You are not going as a print media reporter but as a reporter for a TV channel.”
The team with me included crime reporter Satyanarayan, reporter Vamsi, photographer Narayan, cameraman Srinivas and Akki Ramu. Satyanarayana told me that you may have to stay for a day or two in Nallamalla, so take your clothes.
We reached Atmakuru at 3.30 in the morning. Several media persons were already present with their respective DSNG vans in the R&B guest house building there. There I called my local reporter Kothachari. He had been a sub editor in Hyderabad and later became a staff reporter in Kurnool. They came and took us to the press conference center in Atmakuru.
‘Couldn’t know anything’
We discussed the disappearance of the helicopter and we were divided into two groups. Satyarayan, Vamsi, Kothachari and cameraman Srinivas were on their way to the place where oil was found to have leaked into the Krishna river. I, Kurnool’s bureau in-charge Subbarao, photographer Ajaneyulu and cameraman Ramu Tata got into the Indica car towards the forest of Nallamalla.
We went from Atmakuru to Nalakaluva and from there proceeded towards Nallamalla. Journalists of local and national TV channels were already present there. After going inside six kilometers, it was difficult for the car to move due to the mud on the entire road. When we saw that the car could not move forward, we decided to get out of the car and walk. After walking for two to three kilometers, we saw some jeeps coming. After the call of the state government, Congress workers were also engaged in the search operation.
There were Congress workers from Guntur on two jeeps, we reached Galleru river in their jeep. Subbarao told that the area of tigers is about to start in Nallamalla. At least 50 media persons were present there. Apart from him, 50 other workers and villagers were present. We neither saw the police nor could we hear the sound of the search helicopters. Seeing no movement, we guessed that the Chief Minister might have been traced. When we went inside a little more, we could hear the sound of a helicopter. It was clear that the search operation was going on.
At eight o’clock in the morning, a call came from Editor Srinivas. He said that the Air Force officials have told that a helicopter has been seen on the hills of Velugode in Kurnool district.
At the same time, the Mayor of Kadapa, Rabindranath Reddy was passing along with his supporters, when I talked to him, he also told the same. They told that they are going towards Velugode. We went with them. Subbarao sat in his car and we in our car. The driver gave us a water bottle and a food tiffin. We put it in the bag. After walking some distance, it seemed that we were walking in the right direction.
We also met Anaparthi MLA Seshareddy on the way. Rabindranath Reddy and a large number of workers were present with him. We were all moving towards Velugode. A villager told that after going eight kilometers ahead, the hill will be found. But after walking a long distance there was no trace of the hill.
On the way, I opened my tiffin box, in which there were two bags, one puri and one idli. I took the idli bag. Ramu also took breakfast, we also shared it with other friends. We had breakfast while walking. There was a new enthusiasm in the body after drinking water.
To reach here, it was becoming difficult to walk wearing shoes. I took off my shoes for a while. When I saw some bike riders, I asked them to take the cameraman Ramu to the front. I had hoped that at least visuals like this would be found first. But they did not give lift to Ramu. However, the reason for this could be that riding a bike on a muddy road is a very difficult task.
It was getting difficult to find the helicopter
Though we were getting tired, Ramu and I were encouraging each other. I wanted to run. But one was a bag, on the other hand it was getting difficult because of jeans pants. I was wearing a leather coat. However, due to this coat, it also helped to avoid rain. In this situation we had reached the sanctuary.
As soon as we came there, we saw that many media personnel are present at the same place along with local Congress workers. We got there early. It felt like a helicopter but it was not there. At the same time a helicopter circled high in the sky. Even from the helicopter inside the forest, we were guessing where to go.
But now we didn’t know where to go. That’s why we all stayed. The DIG of Kurnool range was also present there. Our other team’s cameraman Srinivas and reporter Vamsi also came there. When Mayor Rabindranath asked two people to walk ahead, I went ahead with Ramu. There were some other media persons too, but after some distance they returned back. We went ahead with a correspondent of ‘Surya’ magazine.
When we proceeded following the path of the helicopter, there was a hill. Some local people were also present. We climbed that hill with them. When it reached there, the helicopter had turned towards another hill. I was feeling anger and frustration at the same time.
‘We are stuck in the jungle’
At that place it seemed that there was a source of water from the side. This area is known as a tiger reserve and according to the local people, tigers keep roaming here. So was fear.
Local people told that if you walk for 15 kms, then Srisailam Highway will come and to go back you will have to walk for 30 kms. I decided to go towards Srisailam Highway.
Signals were coming on the cell phone. I called the bureau chief of Hyderabad City Shashikant. I called them so that if anything happened to me, they would be in a position to help quickly. I told him that we are trapped in the forests of Nallamalla and we may go missing along with the Chief Minister.
We told them where we are moving and where we have reached. He told that in many media channels there are also rumors of missing journalists in the forest. Even after talking for a while, the signal was stopped.
After a while I again called Shashikant, when the helicopter started circling the hill in front. Shashikant suggested to move closer to the helicopter. I felt that there is no use in going there, but Shashikant believed that one should walk there and see. Then we also decided to go there.
We were present on a hill, from there we had to climb down to another hill. We had nothing left to eat or drink. After walking some distance we found Guntur journalists of Sakshi group. We asked each other whether the local people had told us the right path or not? But we continued walking, we wanted to reach there by going round the helicopter. After covering some distance, the helicopter returned.
We sat where we were standing. There was no strength left in the legs. The road was muddy and slippery. However, the clothes soaked in the rain were now about to dry. But to walk on any hill, at least 20 to 30 kilometers have to be walked. You have to climb up and down at least twice. There was no condition to even walk on the road.
There was no signal on the phone and above all that warning was also coming to mind ‘Tigers roam in these areas, be careful.’ All this was going on in my mind that the helicopter appeared again. The helicopter was stationary in one place in the air. We saw a ray of hope and felt that we should run away. We all started running.
We didn’t have the strength to walk, but we were trying to run. We were trying to climb down one hill and climb another. When we climbed, we saw relief and rescue workers working. Immediately we looked at the wreckage of the helicopter.
when the helicopter was found
We had just reached the place where the helicopter crashed, it was the top of the hill. The wreckage of the helicopter was scattered after colliding with the mountain, the rear part was in one place, the wings in another and the engine part in the third place. Everything was scattered in pieces. The engine had burnt out. The body of CM YS Rajasekhara Reddy was near the engine, his identification was possible on the basis of less hair on his head.
Relief workers told that the body of one pilot is still in his seat, the face of the other pilot was also found. The identification of the security officer was made possible by the gun. I was recording all these things on my cell phone.
All the bodies were scattered. The body parts were being collected, some parts were also burnt as the helicopter caught fire. However, it was later found that the helicopter was not completely burnt due to rain. Bad smell and foul smell spread throughout the area.
The pieces of the dead bodies were being packed separately in black polythene. Those packets were being bundled again in white clothes and with the help of a rope, they were being carried to the helicopter stuck in the air. Based on estimates, I can say that the debris was spread over at least five acres and the entire area was surrounded by rocks and relief workers were finding it difficult to contain it.
But it was a strange coincidence that the signal on the cell phone was coming completely. Editor Srinivas called around 1.30 pm. The helicopter was noisy, but I told them about the situation.
Shashikant also got a call. After that I went towards the burnt helicopter engine and recorded my first P2C from there. Then a P2C was recorded from among the relief workers, till then the officials had asked to vacate the place.
Standing on one side, I spoke to the in-charge of the operation, Rajiv Trivedi. While talking to him the rain had intensified. While talking to him, I was thinking that I have reached here first, but I was told that the cameraman of HMTV reached here first. After us the team of TV 5 also reached.
Taking shots and bites, it was half past two in the afternoon. It was raining heavily and we had to leave early to save the camera. Rajiv Trivedi also came down with us. As we were getting down, we saw several reporters climbing up. It was reported in many places in the media that Rajasekhara Reddy died due to a helicopter crash in Pigeon Hill, but in reality he died in the hill opposite Pigeon Hill, which is called Pasurutala Hill by the local people.
How did the helicopter crash?
The Chief Minister usually uses the Agusta helicopter. But the helicopter on which Rajasekhara Reddy was aboard was Bell-430. Hence the suspicion arose, with many people saying that they were victims of conspiracy.
The government constituted a technical committee of DGCA and got the accident investigated. The committee, headed by RK Tyagi, gave a 139-page report which stated that the gearbox had malfunctioned and the pilot lost control of the helicopter while trying to fix it. It was also said in this report that all the investigations that should have been done before taking off this helicopter were not completed.
Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy along with CMO Chief Secretary Subramaniam, Chief Security Officer ASC Wesley and helicopter pilot SK Bhatia, co-pilot M Satyanarayana Reddy were killed in this accident.
According to the DGCA report, the cockpit voice recorder stopped working on September 2, 2009 at 9:27 minutes and 57 seconds, the helicopter was traced by the Air Force at 9.20 am on Thursday.
25 hours after the Chief Minister’s helicopter went missing, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram officially announced his death in Delhi.