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India's top military official, Bipin Rawat, dies in a helicopter crash

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Why did a helicopter go down in India, killing the country's top military officer, along with 12 other people, including his wife? Here's NPR's Lauren Frayer.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: TV footage from the crash site shows firefighters dousing the helicopter's smoldering wreckage and carrying bodies in slings through a village in the hilly jungles of southern India.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISHNASWAMY: (Speaking in Tamil).

FRAYER: A villager named Krishnaswamy says he saw the helicopter crash into a huge ball of fire and smoke. Thirteen of the 14 people on board were killed, including General Bipin Rawat, who was the equivalent of the United States chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was on his way to give a speech at a defense college in a Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter.

AJAI SHUKLA: It's one of the safest models in the whole world.

FRAYER: Retired Army Colonel Ajai Shukla says it's the same model the prime minister travels in. Officials say it lost contact with air traffic control seven minutes before it was supposed to land. There was no distress call. But the area where it went down can be difficult to navigate, Shukla says.

SHUKLA: The mountains in that area are about 6,000 to 8,000 feet. The rainfall is pretty heavy. There are clouds that waft in and out of the valleys - fairly difficult flying conditions.

FRAYER: The helicopter did have black box voice and data recorders, which investigators want to analyze. They also want to interview the sole survivor, an air force captain who is on life support.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAJNATH SINGH: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "We're working to save his life," India's Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament today. Military officials are also working to figure out their future command structure. General Rawat was less than two years into a newly created role. He was reorganizing India's armed forces, a herculean task, says one of his colleagues, retired commodore Uday Bhaskar.

UDAY BHASKAR: Sometime in 2022, he was hoping that he would be able to announce the creation of these reorganized theater commands.

FRAYER: It's unclear now whether that reorganization will happen and who will be in charge of one of the biggest standing armies in the world.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDERICO ALBANESE'S "THE ROOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.