Hopes fade for finding helicopter crash survivors

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 June, 2008, 12:00am

Hopes of finding survivors from the crash of a helicopter carrying injured victims of the Sichuan earthquake dimmed yesterday as a widespread search for the missing aircraft entered its fourth day.

Survival experts said that even a healthy person, let alone victims of an air crash, would struggle to cope for so long without food, drinking water or shelter in such difficult and mountainous terrain.

The rapidly closing window of opportunity to find the five crew and 14 passengers aboard the Russian-built Mi-171 helicopter prompted the army to offer a reward of up to 10,000 yuan (HK$11,250) to any civilian who could provide valuable information as to the aircraft's whereabouts.

Radio contact with the helicopter was lost as it tried to climb above bad weather on Saturday afternoon. It was ferrying 14 quake survivors from Li county to Chengdu .

The military has few clues to the location of the crash site, despite intensive surveillance from the air and a search by 10,000 soldiers of a 30 sq km area southeast of Yingxiu - the town nearest the epicentre of the devastating quake.

Major General Liu Fafeng , commander of the PLA's Jinan military region, said the search effort was now relying on local information.

'We determine the search area partly by the information we gather from locals. Special troops enter every village to see if there is any valuable information. We will give a 10,000 yuan reward to people who provide important clues,' General Liu told the Beijing News.

Some villagers told the army that they had spotted some shiny objects in thick forest on Zhaogong Mountain. More than 1,500 soldiers spent two days cutting a way into the area, before concluding yesterday that it could not be the crash site.

Most of the time rescuers are trekking beneath dense foliage, according to China Central Television.

Carpeting the ground with troops 'is the most backward approach but also the most reliable method, because if the helicopter crashed on a mountain and disintegrated, the wreckage would be hard to find from the air', General Liu said.

'We have to go step by step. It is a huge challenge in terms of physical strength and will.'

PLA aircraft are continuing to search the area using new, highly sensitive radio signal detectors.

The hope is that if the downed helicopter's radio transmitter is turned on, troops can pin down its location. But the deep valleys of the area may muffle the signal and there is not much time left before the aircraft's emergency battery runs out.