Ex-astronaut praises crew, fellow passengers after helicopter crash

Former American astronaut Eugene Cernan

Well the survivors of Sunday's helicopter crash near the south Bohemian town of Milevsko have been talking about their ordeal - including the most well-known of the 12 passengers on board, the retired American astronaut Eugene Cernan. Mr Cernan was visiting the land of his Czech forebears when the fateful accident took place, as Rob Cameron reports.

Eugene Cernan, now 67, was the second American to walk in space, and the last man ever to set foot on the moon. He's been in the Czech Republic since Friday as a guest of the Czech Army, and the helicopter was taking him and former Czech cosmonaut Vladimir Remek to a ceremony in the village of Bernatice when the pilot was forced to make an emergency landing. Mr Cernan told Czech Radio how the actions of the pilot and crew almost certainly saved the lives of the 12 people on board.

"We came down, the engines quit. We don't know why. But I can tell you without knowing anything else that the pilots and the crew reacted to avert an even bigger accident."

Mr Cernan praised the quick reactions of military police officer Jaroslav Selong, who smashed one of the windows and began dragging the passengers out of the helicopter. He also reserved special praise for former Czech cosmonaut Vladimir Remek, who went back to the craft to pull out more survivors.

"He said 'Gene, we got to get out of here, got to get of here' and I could walk on one leg, so he pushed me through a window, it was only about so big. Someone pulled me out the other side and he got out and together we hobbled across the field. It was damp, it was raining. And I just sort of fell to the ground, and he - God bless him - got up and went back to help more people. Another hero of the moment."

Investigators are still searching for clues as to what caused the engine of the Russian-made Mi-8S helicopter to suddenly cut out, sending the helicopter falling 150 metres to the ground. Defence Ministry officials say pilot error has been ruled out, suggesting that a combination of bad weather and serious technical failure was to blame. Whatever the reason, Sunday's crash was just the latest in a series of embarrassing and often fatal accidents involving the Czech air force's outdated Russian-built fleet.

The fact that VIP guests were on board only makes the accident more embarrassing. But Eugene Cernan, speaking to Czech Radio in hospital, was in stoic form after Sunday's drama.

"Right now? How do I feel right now? I feel like someone sealed me up in a big wine barrel and threw me over Niagra Falls! I'm OK. I'm fine, and when I leave here I will leave here knowing I had the best imaginable care possible. When I leave here Wednesday morning I'll be hurting, I'll have some sore bones, but there will have been nothing more that could have been done for me no matter where I had been."