Israel United in Mourning 54 Victims of Helicopter Crash

Israel was united in mourning today for the 54 soldiers and airmen killed Tuesday night in the crash of a troop-carrying helicopter off military exercises near Jericho. Burial services were held for 42 of the victims today and 12 will be buried tomorrow. Hardly a region of the country was spared the loss of a life. Military cemeteries from Haifa to Beersheba, in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Rehovoth and in many smaller communities were crowded with the bereaved parents, wives and friends of the victims.

At all the cemeteries the funeral services were simple. Military honor guards bore the plain wooden coffins to the burial sites. Unit commanders delivered eulogies and military chaplains recited the prayers for the dead. Three volleys were fired into the air as the coffins were lowered. The government did not declare an official day of mourning. But the bitterly fought election campaign was suspended for a day as if by a tacit understanding the various factions realized that a time of tragedy is not a time for politicking.

INVESTIGATION IN FULL SWING

While the funerals were being held, an investigation of the fatal crash was in full swing by a special team of experts appointed by Chief of Staff Gen. Mordechai Gur and headed by paratroop veteran Gen. Avraham Orly. Enemy action was ruled out from the start as a possible cause. The investigators are trying to determine whether an internal explosion, possibly the accidental detonation of a hand grenade carried by the heavily armed troops, may have caused the disaster.

Since yesterday they have been busy re-assembling the giant Sikorsky C-53 troop-carrier that hit the ground and burst into flames only minutes after taking off on a routine exercise. The investigators listened to tapes of the pilot’s conversations with ground control during the brief period that the copter was air-borne. The pilot, Capt. Moshe Wittner, 25, of Haifa, gave no indication of trouble although eye-witnesses on the ground reported that the helicopter began to lose altitude for no apparent reason shortly after take-off. The witnesses said it was flying unusually low and crashed into the first rise in the terrain on a plateau above Jericho.

It was learned that a malfunction was found in the helicopter’s communications system before the flight but was easily corrected by take-off time. The aircraft, which could carry 5 1/2 tons and 60 fully-equipped troops was not overloaded. Special precautions were taken to make sure of that. At the last minute, four soldiers who had been assigned to the flight were taken off, a stroke of fate they will long remember.

WORST AVIATION DISASTER

The crash was the worst aviation disaster, in Israel’s history and it inevitably recalled other episodes when members of the defense forces lost their lives in routine peace-time activities. The record death toll was the loss of 69 naval personnel when the Israeli submarine Dakar disappeared in the Eastern Mediterranean in January, 1968 on her delivery voyage from England to Israel.

In December, 1970, 20 soldiers were killed in a landslide near Sdom on the Dead Sea and on January 11, 1971, 11 soldiers were killed and 42 injured when a munitions truck blew up on the docks at Eilat. Ten soldiers were killed in July. 1971 when a C-53 helicopter crashed into the sea off El Arish in northern Sinai. April, 1974 was an especially tragic month. Fourteen soldiers were killed when a French-made Superfrelon helicopter crashed on Mt. Hermon and eight were killed when two helicopters collided on the Mahnayim airfield near Safad.

Accidents involving military personnel not in combat are always taken hard by the Israeli public. The heavy loss of life in Tuesday’s tragedy cast a pall over what was to have been a festive week. Jerusalem is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its reunification and many radio and television programs were related to that event. All were cancelled or postponed. A special Knesset session scheduled for today was cancelled.

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