BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, June 11, 2006 – A coalition recovery team retrieved the remains of seven international aid workers yesterday who were killed when their helicopter crashed in eastern Afghanistan last January, military officials reported.
A Turkmenistan Airlines MI-8 HIP, chartered by the International Committee of the Red Cross for a humanitarian mission in Pakistan, disappeared over Afghan airspace Jan. 20 after the helicopter departed from Peshawar Airfield in Pakistan en route to Turkmenabad, Turkmenistan. Seven persons were onboard.
Transportation officials from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan have searched for the missing helicopter since its disappearance. The aircraft, located June 1 by local Afghan villagers, crashed along the eastern side of an extremely steep and rocky mountain, just north of Alasai village in Kapisa Province.
Upon learning of the discovery, the coalition immediately began preparations for a recovery mission.
"We sent an elite High Altitude, High Angle Rescue and Recovery Team consisting of Turkmenistan recovery experts and coalition ground forces to the crash site to facilitate the investigation and recovery," said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, commander of Combined Joint Task Force 76.
Turkmenistan officials initially traveled to Kabul to request assistance for the recovery operation. Due to the high altitude and remote location of the crash site, U.S. forces were asked to assist in the recovery mission.
"Ultimately, on June 6 or 7, we were officially asked to perform this mission," said U.S. Army Maj. C. Eric Benson, director of the CJTF 76 rescue coordination center. "We alerted our rescue team and began detailed planning within the organization."
The High Altitude, High Angle Rescue and Recovery Team is the reason why the U.S. "is the only country in theater with the specific skill set and capability to conduct this type of mission," said Benson. "It's not simply a matter of having an aircraft with the capability; it's a matter of being able to link a specialized air crew with a specialized ground crew."
The recovery team, consisting of seven specialized U.S. parajumpers, a U.S. surgeon, and two Turkmenistan recovery experts, endured many hazards during the successful operation, including steep and rugged terrain, difficult weather conditions and an altitude of about 12,500 feet, requiring the recovery team to take a special medication starting 48 hours prior to the mission to prevent acute mountain sickness.
Turkmenistan officials on the recovery mission flight told U.S. Army Lt. Col. Drew Kosmowski, the surgeon on the recovery team, that the passengers killed in the crash were heroes in their country.
"The two Turkmenistan officials told me the pilot was the senior and most qualified rotary-wing pilot in all of Turkmenistan," Kosmowski said. "The passengers in the back of the helicopter were doctors who volunteered to assist Pakistan after the earthquake in October. They were returning from serving in Pakistan when the aircraft crashed." "The coalition responded at the request of the international community so that these heroes could be returned to their families for a proper burial," said Freakley.
Since the crash occurred on a steep ridgeline, the recovery team was forced to land about one kilometer from the crash site. Carrying the equipment necessary for the operation, the recovery team's trek toward the site was made more difficult due to the high altitude and rough terrain, said Kosmowski.
After working continuously for four and a half hours at the site, the team successfully recovered the remains of all seven aid workers.
According to Kosmowski, the Turkmenistan officials were "extremely satisfied with the procedures and the outcome of this recovery mission."
ICRC spokesman Reto Stocker said the Red Cross "expresses heart-felt gratitude to everyone who had something to do with the recovery operations."
The remains of the victims were transferred to proper caskets at Bagram, and then flown to Kabul where they were subsequently returned to Turkmenistan, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Paul Fitzpatrick, CJTF 76 spokesman.