An Air Force deputy commander and three other soldiers were killed Monday morning when a Chinese-built Z-9 military helicopter crashed into a flooded sand mine during a routine training exercise in the southwest of Phnom Penh.
The crash occurred just after 9 a.m. in Dangkao district’s Prey Sar commune when the helicopter attempted to descend onto land close to the edge of the large, flooded quarry.
Video of the crash taken by witnesses, who had described watching the helicopter rising and falling in the air about 10 times before it crashed, shows the helicopter about to touch its wheels to the ground before inexplicably rising and careening into the quarry.
General Moeng Samphan, a secretary of state at the Defense Ministry who spent the day directing the rescue efforts, said four military officers had been killed and another rescued by villagers.
Gen. Samphan identified the four who were killed as Air Force deputy commander Brigadier General Ieng Channarith, who heads the military’s helicopter training school, Major General Ouk Ponaha, Major Than Vandy and Major Kham Bunan.
The fifth person on board, Cheng Soksambo, a cadet in pilot training, was rescued from the crash and sent to Calmette Hospital at about 10:20 a.m. Videos showed Mr. Soksambo unconscious and wearing civilian clothing after being rescued.
Chea Chansaroeun, a garment worker who had taken the day off, said he was eating at his home nearby when he heard the helicopter circling the valley as it made repeated attempts to land.
“Then I heard the explosion when it hit the water,” he said. “When the helicopter disappeared into the water five minutes later, one man floated up. He has a blessed life.”
The bodies of the four others were pulled out of the water between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. after an extensive search.
It remained unclear Monday why the helicopter crashed. Officials at the scene, including Defense Minister Tea Banh, who described the flooded quarry as “an evil hole,” told reporters to wait for recovery of the helicopter’s black box for more information.
At the crash site, a helicopter maintenance worker based at the Pochentong Air Base, from which the Z-9 took off, said the vehicles had no apparent technical faults.
“They were fine. There were no problems,” said the man, who declined to give his name but wore a uniform emblazoned with the logo of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, which is a producer of the Z-9 helicopters.
Officials began arriving at the scene at about 10 a.m., with a small part of the helicopter’s fuselage surfacing and almost 2,000 onlookers peering down from the quarry walls.
Descending a long ridge of land in the flooded quarry crowded with uniformed soldiers at about 11 a.m., General Hul Sam Un, the commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Transport Battalion 99, told the soldiers to begin searching for the four officers.
“Did you just come here to take a look or to save people?” Gen. Sam Un shouted to the soldiers. “Get into the water.”
Stripping down to their underwear, the soldiers swam into the water to retrieve the fuselage. Two boats, without working outboard motors, were then lowered into the water by rope.
A team of trained rescue officers arrived shortly before 1 p.m. and began searching the waters of the quarry with aqualungs and rope.
Having located the Z-9 helicopter, which was one of 12 obtained last year in a nearly $200 million loan and purchase deal with the Chinese government, rescue workers then began slowly winching the aircraft out of the water.
About half an hour after the Z-9 first appeared above the surface, the swollen body of one of the four officers killed in the crash was carried out of the water, followed by a weeping relative, to a waiting ambulance. Five minutes later, the body of a second officer was recovered from the helicopter and transported to an ambulance.
Members of the Cambodian Mine Action Center’s underwater demining squad arrived soon after to assist with the recovery of the two bodies not found in the Z-9.
Gen. Samphan, the Defense Ministry secretary of state who directed the rescue efforts, confirmed by telephone that the pair were recovered from the water at about 6 p.m.
At Calmette Hospital, where the survivor of the crash, Mr. Soksambo, was taken, the man’s uncle, Heang Seng, said that his nephew had regained consciousness but was still fragile.
“He told me that he had piloted for half an hour and then changed over with his pilot trainer and then it fell down,” Mr. Seng said. “He said that he did not know the real reason for the crash [and] he only knew that it had crashed when it hit the water.”
Health Minister Mam Bun Heng said at the hospital that the government would cover the costs of treatment for Mr. Soksambo’s injuries. However, Dr. Chhuoy Meng, the head of serious emergencies ward, said his injuries were relatively minor.
“Now his situation is good,” Dr. Meng said, explaining that scans showed Mr. Soksambo had avoided any serious injuries.
“He got injured on his mouth, and has many wounds on his body, [but] he still has good breathing and blood pressure, his spirit is normal and his hands and legs can move normally.”
(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)