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Military helicopters collide in Israel, killing scores

February 4, 1997
Web posted at: 7:30 p.m. EST (0030 GMT)
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SHAAR YASHUV, Israel (CNN) -- Two military transport helicopters flying to Lebanon in fog and rain fatally collided in midair in an explosion of white light Tuesday.

Military chief Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak said 65 troops serving in south Lebanon and eight air force crew members were killed in the crash. There were no survivors, and no one on the ground was killed, officials said.

Example helicopter

"Our men are picking up and collecting parts of the helicopters and the bodies," Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said at a news conference.


The small nation, in which the odds were greater that most people would know someone killed, was plunged into mourning. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on national television to extend condolences, and said an investigation was already underway.

"Today the whole Israeli nation is united," Netanyahu said. "The families are all our families. They are all our sons. We all weep together. Our thoughts are with the families, in the hope that we shall know no more grief."

Officials described the crash as the worst air disaster in Israel's military history. The worst previous accident was a 1977 helicopter crash that killed 54.

Helicopters carried explosives

The crash occurred around 7 p.m. (noon EST) in a farming community, just south of the border with Lebanon. Both helicopters were carrying ammunition, and explosions were seen at the site for several hours after the crash.

One of the helicopters crashed into a kibbutz, where an unoccupied guest house was damaged. The other helicopter went down in a cemetery.

Garish red lights lit up the faces of emergency workers carrying bodies away from the crash site. Convoys carried the dead to a nearby army base for identification, Israel Radio said. The army closed roads around the crash site.

The helicopters were ferrying elite troops to southern Lebanon as part of a troop rotation, the army said. They fly by night to reduce the risk of being targeted by Hezbollah guerrillas.

Investigators considering human error

The weather was stormy, but military sources tell CNN that it was probably not to blame. They said they were considering human error as the investigation gets under way.

The military aircraft did not carry in-flight recorders. The helicopters turn their lights off upon entering Lebanon, and some reports indicated one of helicopters may have turned off its lights early.

A blue-ribbon commission of inquiry is being formed and will be led by the former commander of Israel's air force, Mordechai said.

The exact number of people aboard the Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters was not disclosed.

Netanyahu cancels trip, leaders extend condolences

The prime minister canceled a trip to meet with Jordan's King Hussein scheduled for Wednesday, and also cancelled a separate meeting with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Both leaders telephoned their condolences.

In Washington, the White House said President Clinton also conveyed his sympathies.

"The President sent a message to Prime Minister Netanyahu extending, on behalf of all Americans, sincere condolences to the families of the victims and the people and government of Israel," a White House statement said.


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