Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Arctic Voyage Ends in Tragic Helicopter Crash

A ninth member of an international Arctic expedition died Monday from injuries received in a helicopter crash near the Bering Strait that killed two French journalists, a Swiss businessman and five Russian journalists and scientists, according to Russia's Committee for Emergencies.


Five other French citizens and eight Russians were injured in the crash Saturday near Mys Shmidta, a snow-bound outpost of 25, 000 people 11 time zones east of Moscow and 1, 000 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, a spokesman for the committee said Monday.


It was a tragic ending to an ambitious expedition that this reporter had followed closely, spending a week last month in the Far North with many of the people who were aboard the ill-fated helicopter.


The expedition, which crossed from the Urals to the Bering Strait on a mission to study the lives of indigenous peoples, was sponsored by the Swiss watchmaker Longines and led by a joint French-Russian team of researchers and adventurers.


The Russian Committee for Emergencies identified the foreigners who died as: Roget Rossier, Longine's director of communications; Regine Bois-Gabbey of the magazine Geo; and Dominique Baudoin of Canal Plus TV.


The expedition, which set out on Feb. 28, completed its crossing of Russia's Far North on May 2 and had since been wrapping up its scientific work. Moving across the desolate terrain on specially fitted snow cats, it had created what Galina Gracheva, a Russian researcher who died in the crash, called a "snapshot of Russia's northern people in 1993".


The members of the expedition were an enthusiastic international group who overcame language and cultural barriers to grow close during their unprecedented survey. Often, they communicated only with hand signals. The expedition leader, Jean-Marc Liautaud, who survived the crash, joked a few weeks ago that on the tundra "everyone speaks one language: sign".


Such a survey required the continuous use of helicopters. The doomed flight of the Mi-8 helicopter over the Bering Strait was part of the expedition's grand finale celebrations.


One of the survivors, Yevgeny Osipovsky, a trilingual reporter for Radio Mayak, described the crash from his hospital bed in a telephone interview with Russian television. He said a heavy fog had forced the pilot to attempt a landing when suddenly Osipovsky felt a "terrible blow".


He awoke on the icy ground amid the wreckage with several broken ribs.


"I heard moans and shouts in Russian and French", he said. "The helicopter broke into three pieces. There was nobody inside, all the passengers were thrown out. Away from me, several people lay motionless amid the debris of the helicopter. Nobody and nothing could help them".


The injured waited three hours on the frozen tundra in temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius before a rescue helicopter located them, Osipovsky said. The expedition's second helicopter landed safely, according a Longines press release.


The five French survivors of the crash - expedition leader Liautaud; Marie Brunet-Debeyne, a researcher; and correspondents Alexandra Geneste, Philippe Boucher and Jean-Francois Chaigneau - have been evacuated to a Paris hospital, according to Longines. The Russian survivors - Mikhail Putintsev, Alexander Tolstobrov, Yevgeny Savchenko, Olga Utesheva, Alexander Sheremetyev, Viktor Serov, Alexander Bolotin and Osipovsky - were flown Monday to a Moscow military hospital, according to the father of one of the injured.


Russia's Committee on Emergencies declined to say Monday which of the injured Russians died on Monday.


The committee identified the Russians who died earlier as: co-pilot Sergei Usachev; flight mechanic Gavrilov (first name not available); translator Vladimir Glazunov; researcher Gracheva; and a correspondent for the weekly Moscow News, Vladimir Konstantinov.


A German journalist who had spent the last two and a half weeks with expedition, but who was not with the group on Saturday, said by telephone Monday from St. Petersburg that heavy fog created by warm air from the south had plagued the expedition's closing weeks.


"The pilots were very careful, often refusing to fly even though weather looked good", said Andreas Schwander.