On a helicopter, going down: inside a lethal crash in Iraq
If it weren’t for a helicopter crash on Mount Sinjar last week, New York Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin would have written about the pilot, Maj. Gen. Majid Ahmed Saadi. Instead, she writes about the crash.
The New York Times
Reporter Alissa J. Rubin was injured Tuesday in a helicopter crash in Kurdistan and dictated this article from her hospital bed in Istanbul. She suffered broken bones and a fractured skull in the crash.
ISTANBUL — If it weren’t for Tuesday’s helicopter crash on Mount Sinjar, what would I have written about the plight of the Yazidis?
I would have started, I guess, with this mountain that everybody is talking about, to which the Yazidis fled. It’s hard to overstate the size of this mountain, which is such a sacred place to the Yazidis, and the place they went to escape the terror that the Islamic State has been inflicting on them. It’s really more of a range than an individual mountain — 60 miles long, 5,000 feet high — and it is no wonder the relief operation posed such challenges.
Then I would have written about our pilot, Maj. Gen. Majid Ahmed Saadi, a veteran Iraqi Arab officer helping the Kurds rescue the Yazidis. Adam Ferguson, our photographer, and I were waiting all day at the Kurdish military base in Fishkhabour, Iraq, for a helicopter to take us to Mount Sinjar.
Majid came in from his first run up the mountain with a full load of Yazidi refugees, and a British television journalist said to him: “Why are you taking such risks overloading your helicopter like that?”
He just said: “I checked my numbers, I checked the weight, and it was possible to do it.”
Also waiting with us was a Yazidi member of Parliament, Vian Dakhil, whose heart-rending speech in the Iraqi Parliament on Aug. 5 really touched people. She seemed very together, very organized (although she was inexplicably wearing high heels), and, of course, passionate about her people’s plight.
When we finally got in the helicopter, it was 3:45 p.m., not a lot of daylight left. I had a seat on a load of bread. Otherwise, there were no seats, no seat belts; it was the kind of flight the U.S. military would never have allowed.
The helicopter was full of bread, and probably bullets, too: bread for the Yazidis and bullets for the Kurdish peshmerga fighters on top of the mountain.
The pilot made a big impression. You know, the Yazidis feel so betrayed by the Arab neighbors they had lived among for so many years; they all turned on the Yazidis when the Islamic State forces came. Many of the atrocities were carried out not by the militants but by their own neighbors.
Yet here was Majid, an Iraqi Arab, who was taking off from his own job — he was in charge of training for the Iraqi air force — to help these people.
He told me it was the most important thing he had done in his life, the most significant thing he had done in his 35 years of flying.
It was as if it gave his whole life meaning; he was especially moved by all the Yazidi children.
The top priority was to get food up there. There were many places where there had been no airdrops of food at all, so these drops by the Kurdish authorities were important.
When we were nearing the top of the mountain, people were gathered already. I remember one mother holding her son by the hand on one side, her daughter on the other, and they were trying to stay upright in the downdraft from the rotors so they could push forward to climb aboard. They made it on.
We were on the ground only about 10 minutes. The Yazidis were battered. Some older people were barefoot, legs swollen from walking; others were just totally dehydrated; and children sunburned. The kids — a lot of them — were crying, afraid and confused, and others were silent, just frightened.
When we landed, it was almost scary, with people thronging to get to us. All these people just wanting to get onto the helicopter and off this mountain. And I’m sure most of them had never seen a helicopter up close.
So many climbed into the helicopter, coming up the rear-loading ramp, the crew couldn’t get the ramp closed. So the crew had to reopen it and make people get off.
The helicopter crew tried to take off, but then had to set the helicopter back down.
Then there was this sad moment: Crew members pulled this woman and her two children off the helicopter. They were crying. The mother was quite thin.
Then Majid took off. But you could see he was going to use the downward slope of the mountain to aid in the takeoff, until he could build up enough lift. The nose of the helicopter was pointing downhill as the flight started.
I felt the helicopter hit something; later, someone said it was a rock. I thought the pilot would right it, but then I saw the ground come up. I didn’t know what would happen, but I knew it was bad.
Later, someone told me the co-pilot shut off the fuel when they lost control, which made us stall. Otherwise, the chopper might have caught fire and exploded.
When we went down, I thought, all right, we’re on a mountain, it’ll slide a long way before it stops. Stuff fell on me; I didn’t know if they were people or things. Then Dakhil landed on top of me.
Everyone was groaning. There were no screams, but everyone was groaning. Adam was great. He dragged me out of the helicopter, as I couldn’t possibly walk. Adam wrapped his scarf around my head to stop the bleeding.
A peshmerga soldier took off his kaffiyeh and wrapped my arms together so that they wouldn’t flap around. I thought it was really sweet at the time, but then I realized how sensible it was: He was immobilizing my arms because both my wrists were broken.
Just before dark, a rescue helicopter came.
Several people picked me up and carried me aboard in a very inexpert fashion; that really hurt, unfortunately. I heard myself groan like everybody else. At that moment, it just hurt so much. But then I thought, that’s good. At least I’m alive.
I bet a lot of them are not.
How is the pilot? Did he make it? He just wanted to help.
Postscript: About 25 Yazidis, five crew members, five Kurdish politicians and four Western journalists were aboard the transport helicopter. Nearly all were wounded, although none as seriously as Rubin. Dakhil was also evacuated to Istanbul, with both legs and several ribs broken.
The only person to die in the crash was the pilot, Majid.