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

Shortly before embarking on a fatal helicopter ride on Sunday, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and his delegation of senior officials held a communal prayer. Someone suggested having lunch, but the president objected, saying that he was in a hurry to get to his next destination.

Raisi boarded the plane and sat next to a window. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian stopped to take a photo with a crowd milling around the tarmac. He smiled and placed one hand on his chest while he held a brown briefcase in the other.

Around 1 p.m., a convoy of three helicopters took off from a heliport 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.

Calls to passengers on the president’s helicopter were answered silently until someone answered. “I don’t know what happened,” Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Al-Hashem said, in an anguished tone. “I’m not feeling well.” Two hours later, his phone also went silent.

As a frantic 17-hour search unfolded, government officials began an aggressive effort to guard against potential threats from outside and especially internal unrest, mindful of an uprising led by women and girls in 2022 demanding an end to the Islamic Republic.

As Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, assured Iranians on national television that they need not fear any disruption to the country’s security, officials were struggling. Iran put its armed forces on high alert, worried that enemies like Israel or ISIS could carry out covert attacks. He directed media coverage of the accident, controlling the flow of information and prohibiting any suggestion that the president was dead. The government deployed plainclothes security officers to the streets of Tehran and other major cities to prevent anti-government protests or celebrations over Raisi’s death, and cybersecurity units from the police and Intelligence Ministry monitored Iranians’ posts on social networks.

This account of what happened in the hours after the crash was reconstructed from the 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; a former vice president; several Iranian journalists; and a photographer who was present at the crisis management center near the accident and who participated in the search.

The president and a delegation of senior officials traveled to Iran’s border with Azerbaijan early Sunday to inaugurate a joint dam project. When the three helicopters carrying them took off, there was dense cloud cover, according to videos published in state media.

Also on the helicopter carrying Mr. Raisi and Mr. Amir Abdollahian, the Foreign Minister, were Mr. Al-Hashem, who was the Friday prayer imam of the northern city of Tabriz; Malek Rahmati, governor of East Azerbaijan province; and General Seyed Mehdi Mousavi of the Ansar unit of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Iranian equivalent of the Secret Service, who was the head of presidential security. The helicopters followed a planned flight path, but shortly after takeoff they encountered thick fog in a valley of green mountains.

Mehrdad Bazrpash, Minister of Transport, and Gholam-Hossein Esmaili, the president’s chief of staff, were in the helicopter he was leading. He had just emerged from the fog when they noticed a commotion in the cabin.

Bazrpash asked the pilot what was happening, he told state television, remembering those first hours. They had lost track of the president’s helicopter and it was not responding to radio calls, the pilot told him, suggesting that he might have made an emergency landing. The pilot turned around, Bazrpash said, circling the area several times, but fog blocked visibility and descending into the valley was too risky.

The two helicopters eventually landed at a copper mine in the mountains of northwestern Iran, 46 miles from the nearest city. Within hours, a modest office building would be transformed into an ad hoc crisis management center, staffed by hundreds of officials, military commanders and even hikers and off-road motorcyclists, Azin Haghighi, a photographer from Tabriz who was at the center, said in a telephone interview.

On state television, Esmaili said he called the mobile phones of Raisi, Amir Abdollahian, Al-Hashem and another official. Nobody answered.

He dialed the pilot’s number, but it was Mr. Al-Hashem who finally answered.

“Where are you?” Mr. Esmaili asked, recounting 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 middle of the trees,” he said. “I’m alone. I can’t see anyone.”

When Esmaili 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 sounded more confused. After about two hours, he stopped responding.

Bazrpash called the national aerospace control center to obtain the helicopter’s coordinates, but technicians there could only provide an estimate of the crash area and, due to the remoteness of the site, could not trace telephone signals.

The exact location remained elusive. There was no sign of the helicopter. Panic began to set in when officials on the other helicopters realized that the president’s plane had crashed violently and that Raisi, who was widely seen as a likely successor to the supreme leader, and others on board were seriously injured or dead. .

Officials notified Tehran and requested emergency search and rescue teams, but they took hours to arrive, delayed by dangerous weather and narrow roads winding around the mountains, Bazrpash said in an interview with state television.

Bazrpash said presidential party officials did not wait for emergency teams to arrive, but instead got into cars with people from the copper mine. But in the fog, wind and rain, he said, they were forced to abandon their cars and walk to nearby villages, hoping that local people could help them find the accident site. The effort proved futile, he said, and they returned to the mine.

In Tehran, Mohammad Mokhber, the first vice president and now acting president, oversaw a scheduled cabinet meeting. Although he knew of the accident and the possibility that Raisi had died, he continued with mundane government business and waited until the end of the meeting to break the news to the rest of the cabinet, according to Ali Bahadori Jahromi, the government official. spokesman.

Khamenei, the supreme leader, who had been informed of the crash immediately after officials determined that the president’s helicopter was missing, called an emergency meeting of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council at his home, advising its members to keep order and project strength. according to a member of the Guard Corps and a government official who were informed about the meeting but were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

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

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

An Iranian businessman and a media analyst, both with large social media followers, said in interviews that the Intelligence Ministry contacted them around 6 p.m. on Sunday and told them to delete social posts about the crash. The Guards Corps’ intelligence wing arrested a person they said had published inaccurate information about the president’s helicopter, Fars News reported Thursday.

However, around 11pm on Sunday, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance asked state media to switch to calls for prayers and told them to prepare for an official announcement in the morning.

Back at the mine, General Hossein Salami, commander in chief of the Guard, had taken command of the operation there and was installed in a conference room where a large screen projected a three-dimensional map of the accident area.

“It was chaotic; “Everyone was nervous,” said Haghighi, the photographer. “The search parties went out in groups and came back saying it was impossible to see anything. Inside the control center, people were screaming, running from room to room and desperate for news.”

Iran needed its advanced drones to locate the crash site, but they had been deployed in the Red Sea, so the country had to turn to Turkey and ask for a drone, according to a statement from the Iranian Armed Forces. However, in the end, an advanced Iranian drone returned from the Red Sea and found the crash site, the statement said.

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

The first to arrive at the scene, however, were the volunteer motorcyclists. The video shows one of them running through the trees, shouting “Haj Agha, Haj Agha,” while he shouts for Raisi using a term of endearment. When he comes across the helicopter’s broken tail, charred remains and luggage scattered on the ground, he shouts: “Allah or Akbar, ya Hussein,” evoking God and a Shiite imam.

The helicopter exploded in a fireball on impact, the military said in a statement, later adding that a preliminary investigation showed no signs of foul play or bullets on the plane. But many officials have questioned whether safety protocols were observed and why the president traveled by plane in stormy conditions.

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

Raisi was identified by his ring and Amir Abdollahian by his watch.

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