The haunting final cries of the doomed Z-9 helicopter crew echoed through villagers’ minds hours after the Chinese-made military air craft crashed into a deep quarry outside the capital yesterday morning.
Shortly before landing after a routine training flight, things went badly wrong and the pilot began to quickly lose control, prompting desperate pleas for help over the aircraft’s loudspeaker system, witnesses and the sole survivor said.
“I heard them yelling for help. After that, I saw the helicopter smash into the wall of the crater and drop down into the water,” said Doung Kanha, 24, a villager who witnessed the crash while she was taking out the rubbish. “I saw the crew member put his hand up and I thought he was saying goodbye.”
Four bodies were recovered from the crash site and a fifth man managed to survive by jumping from the Z-9 seconds before it struck the side of a 40-metre cliff face surrounding a waterlogged quarry in Dangkor district’s Prey Sar commune.
She said she saw two men escape the wreckage, but one was pulled under by the tail of the sinking helicopter.
“I saw the tail of the helicopter out of the water … and two men swam out from it, but then suddenly one man drowned along with the tail of helicopter,” she said.
Military and police officials yesterday confirmed the dead as Ouk Bunnaha, a brigadier general who commanded the Air Force’s helicopter unit; Brigadier General Eang Vannarith; and trainee pilots Thorn Vanday and Kham Bunnan.
The Z-9 was one of 12 helicopters bought with a $195 million loan from China last year. Officials said yesterday it was the first time the Z-9s had been used to train new pilots.
Minister of Defence Tea Banh, who arrived at the crash site at about 1:30pm, said that it was impossible that there would be any survivors.
“All we can do is search for the bodies, because the pit is very deep. It is not a normal pit: it is a hellish pond. People sank into the water, and there’s no way they could have survived in that water,” he explained.
Banh said it was too early to draw any conclusions regarding what caused the crash as the investigation was ongoing, but hinted at the possibility of a design flaw or mechanical failure.
Major General Hul Sam Oun, commander of the 99 Infantry Battalion, said the initial investigation had concluded “primarily that the reason of the crash is because of engine failure”.
The brother of deceased trainer Eang Vannarith yesterday said he was trained as a pilot in Russia and had clocked up an impressive number of air miles, adding that the family depended on him to make a living.
“I am shocked. I heard of his friends dying in a plane crash at Bokor resort, but now it is my brother’s turn,” he said. “I can’t believe this happened to my family. He was the breadwinner after my parents passed away. He was the one we depended on.”
Another witness, Sok Sambo, 39, said he thought a bomb had gone off before he raced to help the sole survivor, Cheng Chan Sambo, who was struggling to make his way out of the muddy quagmire.
“I heard a sound like a bomb going off,” he said, adding that he and five other villagers rushed to help the survivor make it to shore. “When he was saved, he couldn’t speak much and borrowed my phone to call his workplace to tell them that his chopper had crashed.
Amateur footage of the crash aired on state broadcaster CNC last night showed the Z-9 attempting to land before surging forward into the quarry.
Villagers living near the quarry described rushing to the edge of the huge crater when they heard one of the helicopters’ engines struggling.
Chan Sambo, the sole survivor of the deadly crash, was being treated at Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital yesterday afternoon for minor injuries sustained in his miraculous escape.
His aunt, Chhuon Eang, said she was thankful her nephew survived, apparently with only a few cuts and bruises.
“My nephew sustained only minor injuries. He just has scratches on his forehead, feet and arms. The doctors at Calmette have been very attentive, and now my nephew is on the mend,” she said.
As Chan Sambo slept, a hospital staff member, who requested anonymity because she was not authorised to talk to the media, said that shortly after his arrival, he told senior military officers visiting the ward that the Z-9 suffered mechanical problems shortly after take-off.
“He described the incident to a senior RCAF official, saying that it was his first training flight. His superior asked him to join the others to see how it worked. But when the helicopter was taking off, it seemed that the machine was having problems. Then the instructor attempted to land and hit something causing an explosion before it sank into the water,” she said.
The search for bodies and parts of the plane ended at 6pm while the bodies were cleaned at the hospital before being sent to the families for funerals to be held, according to Om Phy, Air Force deputy chief of staff. “We deeply regret this tragedy.”