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Helicopter crashes near Banda Aceh with 10 aboard

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—A U.S. helicopter with 10 people aboard on a tsunami relief mission crashed Monday near the Banda Aceh airport, but initial reports left unclear the extent of injuries or deaths.

No fireball erupted, only whiffs of smoke, and the helicopter reportedly landed on its side, according to sketchy early reports.

The accident illustrated one of the consequences of trying to mount a global disaster relief operation hurriedly in a relative backwater: The skies over this disaster-stricken city buzz with so many aircraft and helicopters ferrying relief supplies and transporting victims that it is severely stressing the civilian air-traffic controllers.

"It has been crazy, very, very crazy," said Harnomo Teguh, a relief air-traffic controller brought in from Jakarta, the capital. "Every day is a bad day."

The airport in this remote provincial city has one 2,500-meter airstrip and no radar. Air traffic controllers guide aircraft in with radios and by sight.

Before the massive earthquake and colossal tsunamis smashed into Aceh Province on Dec. 26, the city airport would handle an average of three or four aircraft arrivals each day. Now, air traffic has climbed more than twenty-fold. Traffickers handle 80 to 90 arrivals of planes or jets daily, while coordinating with an additional 110 to 120 helicopter landings and takeoffs each day from fields adjacent to the runway.

To make matters worse, the big earthquake that caused the tsunami—it registered 9.0 on the Richter scale—cracked the walls of the airport-control tower, making it unsafe.

So airport workers built a temporary wooden hut on the roof of a building housing toilets near the terminal, and crammed it with radios. Air-traffic controllers look out through an open window, deafened by the roar of jetliners.

"It's very small, it's humid, it's wet and it's crowded. They have no sound-proofing to prevent the jet blast during takeoffs. It's driving everyone nuts," said Maj. Ramesh Tiwari, a Singapore air force officer.

Meanwhile, a caravan of 45 aid trucks was trying late Sunday to reach the heavily damaged Indonesian city of Meulaboh in a bid to get large volumes of badly needed food and medical supplies to tsunami victims on the coast.

Up to now, aid agencies have only been able to deliver limited assistance via military helicopter, ships and amphibious landing craft.

Thousands of people may be starving in the hard-to-reach areas, aid workers say, and many of the seriously injured at risk of infection, because they haven't been able to get medical treatment in the two weeks since the tsunami hit.

If the truck convoy to Meulaboh gets through, it could open up a more effective way to reach the survivors in the isolated areas. Meulaboh could become a hub for assistance along the coast, though aid expert still must assess whether the heavily damaged city is capable of playing such a role.

"It's (the convoy) a major step forward," said William Hyde, coordinator of the tsunami response in Indonesia for the International Organization for Migration, which helps people displaced by wars and disasters. "It offers an anchor to start building up more infrastructure."

Aid officials want to develop alternative relief sites to overcrowded Banda Aceh, the capital of the hard-hit province. The hospitals in Banda Aceh, itself heavily damaged, are overflowing.

"In talking to people, what's most needed is rice," said Kristin Dadey, a program officer with the International Organization for Migration.

Aid to the region is steadily increasing. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday that global pledges total over $6 billion, including $350 million from the U.S. government, "and if $350 million isn't enough, I'm sure the president will try to get more," he said on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer." Powell added, however, that "we've only committed roughly $50 to $60 million of that $350 so far."

As its contribution to relief efforts in north Sumatra, where some 100,000 people perished, neighboring Singapore's military last Friday brought in a disassembled mobile air-traffic control tower aboard three Hercules C-130 aircraft. Soldiers set up the unit over the weekend on the airport's tarmac. Atop a wheeled base, the 8.2-ton facility towers 30 feet in the air. Access is by narrow, steep stairs.

"It's extremely stable in up to 60-knot winds," said 1st Warrant Officer Andre Ravi of the Republic of Singapore air force.

The air-conditioned cabin, which can hold six controllers and is soundproofed, was ready to go by Sunday afternoon and began serving as a shadow operations center while Indonesian controllers become familiar with it, which may take several days.

"We have to phase them in. If you have to do something new in aircraft control, you have to prepare them mentally and physically," said Tiwari, the Singaporean major.

So many flights have clogged the Banda Aceh airport recently that several relief agencies have complained that supplies are being delayed as VIP visitors, such as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, arrive in private aircraft and briefly shut the airport down.

Many of the helicopters buzzing over Banda Aceh are from the U.S. military. The Pentagon deployed the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off Sumatra, and its 15 or so Sea Hawk helicopters ferry relief supplies up and down the devastated coast, stopping in Banda Aceh to reload.

"Usually they'll make four or five runs a day, depending on where they'll go," said Navy Capt. Larry Burt, the air wing coordinator on the carrier.

While the military helicopters fly lower and in different routes than the airplanes and jetliners, civilian controllers must remain aware of—and coordinate—all the flights.

"We definitely overwhelmed them at first," Burt said.

To ease the headaches, Navy air-traffic controllers arrived off the carrier to assist the Indonesian crews. Then an Australian air force contingent took up the reins as the liaison between Indonesian traffic controllers and military units operating helicopters.

Shouting over the roar of a taxiing jetliner, Australian air force Flight Lt. Greg Owens said he and other Australians on his team sit next to the Indonesian controllers on each daytime shift.

"It's easier for us to talk to the Indonesian controllers face to face than by radio," Owens said, adding that the airport noise has made clear communication a challenge.

"If our guys say, `We want to land on the soccer field,' or `We want to land on the paddock next to the soccer field,' by being there we can explain it to them," Owens said.

In prior times, five civilian air traffic controllers staffed the Banda Aceh airport. Several of them lost homes and loved ones, and are still in such shock they cannot work, said Teguh, the Indonesian controller. Authorities in the Indonesian capital sent up 13 additional controllers as reinforcements. Still, they feel intense pressure.

"Things are happening very fast," Teguh said.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Ken Moritsugu contributed from Jakarta, Indonesia.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tsunami

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