All 23 people on a Lao military helicopter that crashed earlier this week while traveling to northern Laos have been confirmed dead, military officials and state media said Thursday, though the cause of the accident remains unknown.
Air traffic control in the capital Vientiane lost contact with the MI-17 helicopter—registration number RDPL-34062—at 1:10 p.m. local time on July 27, shortly after it departed Wattay International Airport, heading for Houaphan and Xieng Khuang provinces.
The aircraft was located Wednesday crashed in a remote area of Xaysomboun province’s Longchaeng district, a Lao military official told RFA’s Lao Service, adding that all 19 passengers and four crew members were killed in the accident.
“We have accessed the crash site—all the people on board were killed because the helicopter hit a mountain in eastern Longchaeng district,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The recovery team can now retrieve all the bodies from the crash site.”
An official with Division 703 of the Lao Air Force told RFA that the remains of the dead would be flown to Vientiane for identification and then turned over to relatives for funeral proceedings.
Lao state media cited a Ministry of Defense statement Thursday confirming that all people aboard the helicopter died in the crash.
The ministry said that an investigation is underway into the cause of the crash, but preliminary findings suggest recent heavy rains and extreme weather in the region is likely to blame.
The weather has also hampered recovery efforts by a task force committee assigned to the site, which is reportedly located deep in in the jungle on a slope of Phu Bia Mountain in Longchaeng.
On Wednesday, a senior official from the Ministry of Defense told RFA that at least one of the 19 passengers was a “high-ranking military patient” who had received treatment in Hospital 103 in Vientiane and was returning to Houaphan province.
Hospital 103 is a military hospital operated by the Ministry of Defense which was built to treat soldiers.
A doctor from Hospital 103 told RFA on Wednesday that three other passengers were health professionals from the facility accompanying the patient in the helicopter.
The identities of the other passengers and crew members were not immediately known.
Recent air disasters
Aircraft in impoverished Laos are mostly outdated, and the country has suffered at least two major air disasters within the last two years.
On May 17 last year, a Ukrainian-made Antonov AN-74TK-300 aircraft owned by the Lao military crashed while approaching an airport in Xiengkhuang, killing 17 passengers, including Lao Deputy Prime Minister Douangchay Phichit, Minister of Public Security Thongbanh Sengaphone, and two other high-ranking officials.
The group was en route to attend the 55th anniversary of “strategic gains” made by the Lao military during the Indochina War, according to state media.
The crash, which was attributed to a technical error by the pilot, is the second deadliest air disaster in Lao history, after the crash of Lao Airlines Flight 301 seven months earlier.
On Oct. 16, 2013, Flight 301—an ATR-72 turboprop—plunged into the Mekong River during bad weather as it approached Pakse Airport in southern Laos’s Champasak province, killing all 49 passengers.
Six Australians, seven French, five Thai, three South Koreans, two Vietnamese, as well as passengers from China, Myanmar, Taiwan and the U.S. were killed in the crash, which was also attributed to pilot error.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.