June 16, 2024

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17 hours to find the accident that killed Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian president

17 hours to find the accident that killed Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian president

Shortly before embarking on a deadly helicopter flight on Sunday, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his delegation of top officials held a group prayer. Someone suggested having lunch, but the president objected, saying he was in a hurry to get to his next destination.

Mr. Raisi boarded the plane and sat by the window. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdullahian stopped to take a photo with a crowd of people gathering on the runway. He smiled and placed one hand on his chest while holding a brown bag in the other hand.

About one o’clock in the afternoon, a convoy of three people The helicopters took off From the helipad on Iran’s border with Azerbaijan, with the president’s plane in the middle. But about half an hour into the flight, the president’s helicopter disappeared.

Phone calls to passengers aboard the president’s helicopter were met with silence until someone answered. “I don’t know what happened,” Ayatollah Muhammad Ali Al-Hashem said, looking stunned. “I’m not so good.” Two hours later, his phone also stopped working.

As a frantic 17-hour search began, government officials began desperate efforts to guard against potential threats from abroad, especially unrest at home, taking into account the women- and girls-led uprising in 2022 that demanded the end of the Islamic Republic.

While the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was reassuring Iranians on national television that there was no need to fear any disruption to the country’s security, officials were scrambling. Iran has put its armed forces on high alert, fearing that enemies such as Israel or ISIS will carry out secret strikes. It directed media coverage of the incident, controlled the flow of information and prohibited any reference to the president’s death. The government deployed plainclothes security agents on the streets of Tehran and other major cities to prevent anti-government protests or celebrations of Mr. Raisi’s death, and cybersecurity units of the police and the Intelligence Ministry monitored Iranians’ social media posts.

This account of what happened in the hours after the incident was pieced together from accounts of senior Iranian officials traveling with the president; Reports and videos from state television; Government statements; Open source reports and video footage; Five Iranian officials, including two members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; three Iranian diplomats; former vice president; Many Iranian journalists; A photographer was present at the crisis management center near the scene of the accident and participated in the search.

On board the helicopter carrying Mr. Raisi and Mr. Amir Abdollahian were the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Al-Hashem, who was the imam of Friday prayers in the northern city of Tabriz; Malek Rahmati, Governor of East Azerbaijan Province; and General Seyyed Mehdi Mousavi of the Ansar unit of the Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian equivalent of the Secret Service, who was the head of presidential security. The helicopters followed the planned flight path, but shortly after take-off they encountered dense fog in a valley of undulating green mountains.

Transportation Minister Mehrdad Bazarbash, and Gholam Hossein Esmaili The president’s chief of staff was on board the main helicopter. He had just emerged from the fog when they noticed a commotion in the cockpit.

Mr. Bazarbash asked the pilot what was happening, he told state television as he recalled those first hours. The pilot told him they had lost track of the president’s helicopter, and it was not responding to radio calls, indicating it may have made an emergency landing. The pilot turned around and circled the area several times, but fog obscured the view and landing in the valley was too dangerous, Bazarbash said.

The two helicopters eventually landed at a copper mine in the mountains in northwestern Iran, 46 miles from the nearest city. Within hours, a modest office building there will be transformed into a dedicated crisis management center, housing hundreds of officials, military commanders and even hikers and off-road motorcyclists, said Azin Haqiqi, a photographer from Tabriz who was at the site. The center said in a phone interview.

On state television, Mr. Al-Ismaili said he called the mobile phones of Mr. Raisi, Mr. Amir Abdullahian, Mr. Al-Hashem and another official. No one is responding.

He asked for the pilot’s number, but it was Mr. Al-Hashem who answered in the end.

“Where are you?” Mr. Esmaili asked as he recounted the conversation. “What happened? Can you give us a signal to find your location? Can you see the others? Are they okay?”

“I’m in the trees,” he said. “I’m alone. I can’t see anyone.”

When Mr. Ismaili pressed him for more details, the cleric described being in a forest with burned trees. On subsequent calls, his voice began to fade, and he seemed more confused. After about two hours he stopped responding.

Mr. Bazarbash called the National Air Control Center to obtain the helicopter’s coordinates, but technicians there could only provide an estimate of the crash area and, because of the remoteness of the location, were unable to track phone signals.

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The exact location remained elusive. There was no signal from the helicopter. Panic began when officials on other helicopters realized that the president’s plane had crashed violently and that Mr. Raisi, who was widely viewed as a potential successor to the supreme leader, and others on board were either seriously injured or dead.

Bazarbash said in an interview with state television that officials informed Tehran and requested emergency search and rescue teams, but it took hours for their arrival, slowed by dangerous weather and narrow roads that snake around the mountains.

Mr. Bazarbash said that the officials of the presidential party did not wait for emergency crews, but rather set off in cars with people from the copper mine. But amid the fog, wind and rain, he said they had to abandon their cars and walk to nearby villages, hoping locals could help them find the crash site. He said the efforts failed, and they returned to the mine.

In Tehran, Mohammad Mokhber, the first vice president and now acting president, oversaw the scheduled cabinet meeting. Despite learning of the incident and Raisi’s possible death, he continued his mundane government work and waited until the end of the meeting to deliver the news to the rest of the cabinet, according to Ali Bahadori Jahromi, the prime minister. Spokesman.

Mr. Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, who was informed of the incident immediately after officials confirmed the disappearance of the president’s helicopter, called an emergency meeting of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council at his home, advising its members to maintain order and show strength. According to a member of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and a government official they were briefed on the meeting but were not allowed to discuss it publicly.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance contacted media organizations and established coverage guidelines, issuing a gag order against suggestions that the president and other officials might be dead, said four journalists in Iran who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

The first reports that the president’s helicopter had made a “hard landing” appeared on state television in the early afternoon. For hours, misinformation circulated in official and semi-official media, with some reporting that Mr Raisi was driving back to Tabriz or that he was safe and sound, or that the passengers on board the helicopter said they had all survived.

An Iranian businessman and media analyst, both of whom have large social media followings, said in interviews that the Intelligence Ministry called them around 6 p.m. on Sunday and asked them to delete social posts about the incident. Fars News Agency reported on Thursday that the intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guards had arrested a person who they said had spread inaccurate information about the president’s helicopter.

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However, by 11pm on Sunday, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance asked state media to switch to the call to prayer and asked them to prepare for an official announcement in the morning.

Returning to the mine was General Hossein Salami, the Supreme Commander of the Revolutionary Guards He took command of the operation There, they settled into a conference room where a large screen displayed a 3-D map of the crash area.

It was chaotic; “Everyone was on edge,” photographer Mr. Haqiqi said. “Search groups would go out in waves and come back saying it was impossible to see anything. Inside the control center, people were screaming, running from room to room, desperate for news.

A statement issued by the Iranian Armed Forces said that Iran needed its advanced drones to locate the crash site, but they were deployed in the Red Sea, so the country had to turn to Turkey to request a drone from it. Eventually, an advanced Iranian drone returned from the Red Sea and found the crash site, the statement said.

At the first sign of light on Monday, rescue teams headed out on foot. Mr. Haqiqi, who accompanied one of them, said it took an hour and a half to climb a steep mountain and then descend through a muddy forest.

But the first to arrive at the site were volunteer motorcyclists. video One of them is shown running through the trees and shouting: “Haji Agha, Haji Agha,” while shouting at Mr. Raisi using a term of endearment. When faced with the helicopter’s broken tail, charred wreckage and luggage scattered on the ground, he wails, “God is great, Hussein,” invoking God and a Shiite imam.

The armed forces said in a statement that the helicopter exploded and turned into a ball of fire upon impact, adding later that the initial investigation showed no signs of foul play or bullets on the plane. But several officials questioned whether security protocols had been adhered to and why the president had flown under stormy conditions.

The bodies of Mr. Raisi and Mr. Amir Abdullahian were discovered near the rubble. They were burned beyond recognition, according to the three officials in Tehran, two members of the Revolutionary Guard and Mr. Haghighi, who viewed the bodies.

Mr. Raisi was identified by his ring, and Mr. Amir Abdullahian by his watch.