Rumduol/Chantrea districts, Svay Rieng province – Flying in battering rains on Sunday evening, the helicopter carrying the late national police chief Hok Lundy spouted flames, careening over rice paddies before crashing into a Rumduol district village, killing all four people on board, officials and eye witnesses said Monday.
Ten kilometers from the crash site in Kompong Chak commune’s Prey Kiev village, police in neighboring Svay Chrum district heard the helicopter’s engine struggle and seize while witnesses saw flames, Provincial Governor Chieng Am told reporters at the site on Monday morning.
Emergency crews from Svay Rieng Referral Hospital said they had arrived at the scene in the dark and rain shortly before 8 pm on Sunday and used automobile headlamps and flashlights to retrieve the bodies, which were strewn about the site, each about 10 meters from the other.
A crowd of over a 1,000 people gathered Monday morning as police stood guard around the wreckage about 10 km north of Svay Rieng town.
The stench of kerosene rose from the mud around the strewn and mangled remnants of the five-passenger Eurocopter AS350 Squirrel, of which only a tail stripped of its rotor blades remained recognizable.
The helicopter crash-landed in a fenced-off, 70-by-80-meter undeveloped lot in the middle of the village, just avoiding houses less than 15 meters away. No injuries were reported among those in the village.
Khem On, a 42-year-old rice farmer living in the house immediately next door to the crash, said she ran outside after first hearing the approaching helicopter while she was cooking dinner.
“The helicopter came from the west. I heard the engine changing its noise…. I saw the helicopter go lower and lower and then I heard the explosion,” she said.
Kong Sovannary, 43, a high school teacher living 3 km away, said he had also seen the passing aircraft. “I heard the noise of the helicopter, which was so loud, and then I opened the window and I saw the helicopter was low and I saw the fire,” he said.
Staff at Svay Rieng Referral Hospital said Deputy Provincial Governor Kim Thea, who arrived at the hospital asking for help, alerted them to the crash shortly before 8 pm.
Hospital workers and police retrieved the bodies of Hok Lundy, RCAF Lieutenant General Sok Sa Em, and pilots Hoeu Rotha and Tep Setha.
According to Khong Vuthy, a nurse, the retrieved bodies were washed, sutured, and injected with formaldehyde. Sok Sa Em and Hok Lundy were also dressed in fresh military and police uniforms, he said.
At around 12:30 am, a 10-car convoy of ambulances and SUVs left for Phnom Penh with police lights flashing but without sirens, crossing the Mekong River by the ferry at Neak Loeung, where 10 bodyguards were waiting, according to people in the convoy.
In Sarin, also a nurse at the hospital, said by telephone on Sunday that he had accompanied Hok Lundy’s badly damaged body to Phnom Penh in an ambulance, arriving at the late police chief’s Prampi Makara district home by 2:30 am.
“His daughter was crying, wise men and monks were already there,” In Sarin said, adding that the body was then transferred to a casket.
Hours after the crash, mourners began congregating outside the Mittapheap commune house.
By morning, the group had swelled to a mostly male crowd of high-ranking police officers who wore white shirts and black satin ribbons pinned over their hearts and red threads tied to their wrists, in accordance with Buddhist custom.
Barefooted nuns and teary relatives streamed in and out of the house, where the body lay.
Bodyguards and shiny Lexuses, Land Rovers and Land Cruisers with government license plates surrounded the Prampi Makara district property.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, his wife, Bun Rany, Defense Minister Tea Banh, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, and Senate President Chea Sim all visited.
Images aired Monday evening on state broadcaster TVK showed Prime Minister Hun Sen among the many who wept during the lavish funeral service.
The Sokha Helicopters helipad directly behind Hok Lundy’s Bavet town mansion in Svay Rieng province, was deserted Monday morning.
Before excusing reporters from the mansion premises, Immigration Police Major General Nuth Chantarith told reporters that a memorial service was likely to be held at the house on Monday evening. Workers could be seen erecting a tent in the grounds.
Hok Lundy leaves behind a wife, Men Pheakdey, 52, and four children.
According to a family driver who asked not to be named, Hok Lundy’s eldest son, Dy Vichea, 23, who is CEO of Sokha Helicopters and a pilot, was returning to Cambodia on Monday from Africa.
Hok Lundy’s eldest daughter, Dy Chindavy, 21, is married to Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manit, and was in Phnom Penh during the fatal crash. Another son, 19-year-old Dy Rotha, and daughter, 17-year-old Dy Panha, both study in Australia and are traveling back to Cambodia.
Hok Lundy, 55, will be buried in Svay Rieng province’s Bavet commune, according to funeral organizers.
Villagers from Hok Lundy’s native Svay Rieng province, which he governed under the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea and again briefly after the 1993 election, also clustered around the periphery of his Phnom Penh house on Monday.
Hoeu Soth, 68, had traveled by shared-van in order to witness the funeral.
“We were very sorry when we heard he was killed in a helicopter crash late last night because he helped with so many roads, schools and pagodas,” she said, stretching from the long commute, which was made even longer by Water Festival traffic congestion on the road to Phnom Penh.
The scene was much more low-key at Phnom Penh’s Wat Lanka in Chamkar Mon district, where family and friends mourned the two helicopter pilots who died.
Despite injuries to pilot Tep Setha’s hands and legs, his face was recognizable, said his grief-stricken wife, San Kuntheavy.
She had learned at about 10 pm on Sunday night that her 44-year-old husband died, she said Monday: “I was so shocked when I heard the sad news that my husband died by helicopter crash, that at first I didn’t believe it.”
Tep Setha had been an RCAF pilot, but started working for Sokha Helicopters about a year ago, San Kuntheavy said.
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul, Douglas Gillison in Svay Rieng and Katie Nelson and Saing Soenthrith in Phnom Penh)