Media reports about an Indian Air Force AN-32 plane going missing with 13 men aboard in Arunachal Pradesh on June 3 prompted Taka Tamut, a 27-year-old Everester from the state, to volunteer for a mission to search for survivors.

As the effort stretched on for 18 days, bad weather at the crash site in Siang left Tamut and others in the 15-member team stranded, requiring them to eventually be airlifted themselves. When the mission finally ended, the young mountaineer described his experiences in a phone conversation.

Tamut said that after he read about the plane going missing, he tried to find ways to contact the authorities to let them know how exactly he could help. Tamut has considerable mountaineering experience, having scaled Mount Everest in May last year.

“On June 5, two days after the aircraft had gone missing, I, along with one of my mountaineer friends, left for Pasighat, the headquarters of East Siang district, from Itanagar,” he said. “Before that, I bought all the equipment required for trekking including shoes, rain coats, ropes, tents, etc.”

Once they got there, Tamut contacted the deputy commissioner of Siang, Rajiv Takuk. “Thankfully, the District Collector allowed me and my friend to join the operation and also provided us with five low-altitude porters as we had to carry food, equipment and many other materials required for the trek,” he said. “By the time we started the journey, we were accompanied by three more high-altitude porters.”

Taka Tamut after scaling Everest in May last year.

Tamut said that there was a lot of confusion at the beginning of their journey because Indian Air Force personnel told them that the crash site was in Tato, in Shi-Yomi district. “But after a series of discussions and working on the inputs provided to us by the people concerned, we decided to head towards Payum [in West Siang district] on June 9,” he said.

In Payum, the team was told that some residents had actually seen a plane fly over the village. “Working on all the inputs provided, we decided to move towards Gasheng village,” said Tamut.

Tamut told EastMojo that the trek from Payum to Gasheng was very difficult as they had to go through a dense forest. It took almost 10 hours on foot to finally get there.

“The downpour was continuous but still we did not stop our journey because it had been already more than a week that the aircraft was missing,” he said. “During this course of journey, the only thing that kept us going was the thought of the family members of the crew who were on board.”

In Gasheng, a woman told the tea that she had seen a plane fly over the hamlet and and that it had not been flying in a steady position. “She also told us that when the plane was flying through the passage between Gasheng and Gate village it was totally out of control, however, it somehow managed to cross the pass,” said Tamut.

In addition, they also met a resident from Gate who told them that a hunter from his village had heard a sound like that of bomb blast near the hamlet but was not sure from which direction it had come.

Every bit of information they had received was being relayed to the district administration.

“We then started to work on all the collected information and eventually came to an understanding that the crash site could possibly be at a pass between Pari Adi and Pahu Dino which is covered with dense forests and is located at a very high altitude,” said Tamut.

The team asked the low-altitude porters to go back and sent a message to Extra Assistant Commissioner in Kaying about what they had heard. He sent an Indian Air Force chopper to carry out a reconnaissance mission.

Mountaineers move towards the crash site of IAF's AN-32 aircraft at Payum in Arunachal Pradesh. Credit: IANS

Finding the wreck

On June 11, Tamut boarded an MI-17 helicopter, which also had air force personnel on board. That is when they came across the site where the plane had crashed. By then it was already dark.

“On June 12, we flew towards the crash site and landed near a lake which was quite far from the crash site,” he said. “The first rescue team, including me, landed around 9 in the morning. After reaching the camp, I, along with a jawan from the Indian Army, started our trek towards the crash site and by the time we reached, it was already 3.50 pm.”

Tamut said the scene that they came across on reaching the crash site was devastating. Along with aircraft debris, the bodies of the crew members were strewn around.

“The scene was heartbreaking, that is all I have to say,” said Tamut.

An intermediate campsite was established around one and a half hours from the crash site in which the rescuers planned their strategy to move the bodies out of the site.

“From June 13, we started to collect the bodies and mortal remains of the air warriors,” Tamut said. “This was a Herculean task and the route was not at all a smooth one. Going up and down those hills would make one give up, but then we were there for a mission. To be honest, we and the Army were the only ones carrying most of the load as for some reasons the personnel sent by the IAF were sadly on the older side.”

The process of recovering the bodies concluded by June 14. But then the weather got bad. On June 18, a sortie was made by the IAF to drop some rations. They were able to airlift some rescuers from the site.

Finally on June 19 – 17 days after the crash – an air force chopper took away six bodies from the camp site. The next day, they took the remains of seven others.

The team was finally rescued on June 29. Credit: IAF via Twitter

Tamut said the days between June 12 and 17 were the worst that they had to deal with very little food and very bad weather.

“There were days when we had to survive on water and biscuits, had a hard time sleeping on the tents which was not sufficient for all the members,” he said. “Though the bodies of the air warriors were airlifted, we were left behind and that is from when our waiting period started.”

Weather conditions got worse and heavy rainfall continued to batter them for several days. The rescuers were only airlifted on June 29. “I am not complaining but neither I nor were the IAF personnel prepared for this,” Tamut said. “But having said that and after going through all such days of hardship, I guess my participation in the operation was worth it.”

This article first appeared on EastMojo.