'No sign of life' at crash site of helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, state media says: Updates

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Editor's Note: This page is a summary of news on the crash of the Iranian president's helicopter for Sunday, May 19. For the latest news, view our live updates file for Monday, May 20.

Hope is dwindling in the search for survivors after "no sign of life" was detected at the crash site of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his foreign minister, according to Iranian state media.

Rescue teams had located the incident site on Monday after Raisi and other top officials crashed into a mountainous area of northwest Iran the day before. The officials had been missing for over 12 hours and search operations were hindered by blizzards and difficult terrain through the night.

No survivors were found, Iranian state news agency IRINN and semi-official news agency Mehr News reported. "President Raisi's helicopter was completely burned in the crash ... unfortunately, all passengers are feared dead," an official told Reuters.

Citing Pir-Hossein Kolivand, the head of the Iranian Red Crescent Society, Iranian state media reported that rescue teams had identified the incident site early Monday. Kolivand did not provide further details but said "the condition is not good," according to Iranian state news agency IRNA.

A Turkish drone identified a source of heat which was suspected to be the helicopter's wreckage and shared the coordinates of the possible crash site with Iranian authorities, Anadolu news agency said on X.

Darkness and cold, rainy, and muddy conditions made it difficult for rescuers to reach the incident site, according to Iranian state media, which said the rain later turned into driving snow. The chief of staff of Iran's army ordered all the resources of the army and the elite Revolutionary Guard to be put to use in the search and rescue operations, Reuters reported.

Raisi, Amirabdollahian, and other top officials were returning from a trip to the border with Azerbaijan for the inauguration of a dam. Raisi, 63, is second only to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the country's political hierarchy. The hardline Raisi has long been considered a strong candidate to succeed Khamenei, his 85-year-old mentor.

About an hour after the crash, rescue teams reached the area and started search operations, Iran's Press TV reported. But they faced an extremely tough task in the mountain terrain and Babak Mahmoudi, who leads the relief and rescue operation for the Iranian Red Crescent Society, told Press TV that visibility was less than 15 feet.

"We have rain pouring down and the ground is slippery and muddy,'' Mahmoudi said, according to the broadcast's translation. "That has really complicated the efforts there.''

The incident comes at a turbulent moment for Iran, the main supporter of anti-Israeli militia groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen. Last month, Iran took the unprecedented step of firing a barrage of missiles and drones into Israeli territory − an attack largely repelled with the help of U.S. forces − in retaliation for the killing of a top Iranian general and other military officials at the Iranian embassy in Syria, a strike widely attributed to Israel.

The U.S. has been making concerted efforts to keep the Israel-Hamas war from escalating into a regional conflict, most recently sending national security adviser Jake Sullivan on a weekend trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Graphic close-up: Maps show how US, Israeli weaponry was used against Iran's aerial attack


∎ Khamenei tried to appease public concerns in a statement, saying: "We hope that God returns the honorable president and his companions to the arms of the nation. All must pray for the health of this group of civil servants. The Iranian nation must not be concerned or worried; there will be no disruption in the work of the country."

∎ The Iranian armed forces have picked signals from the helicopter and a crew member's cell phone, informing rescuers about the location of the crash site, the Iranian Tasnim news agency reported.

∎ President Joe Biden has been briefed on the helicopter crash, White House press secretary Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One. The State Department said it is "closely following reports" of the incident.

∎ Several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Russia, have offered to help with search and rescue efforts. The European Union said it activated its satellite mapping service to lend assistance at Iran's request.

∎ Raisi and the rest of his traveling party were flying in a U.S.-made Bell 212 helicopter with capacity for 15 people, including crew, although it's not clear how many were on board, Al Jazeera reported.

Who is Ebrahim Raisi? Iranian president missing after helicopter crash: Here's what to know about Raisi

What power does the Iranian president have?

Raisi was elected president in 2021, and since taking office has ordered a tightening of morality laws, overseen a bloody crackdown on antigovernment protests and pushed hard in nuclear talks with world powers.

In Iran's dual political system, split between the clerical establishment and the government, it is the supreme leader rather than the president who has the final say on all major policies. Khamenei has strongly endorsed Raisi's main policies.

Raisi's victory in a closely managed election in 2021 brought all branches of power under the control of hardliners, after eight years when the presidency had been held by pragmatist Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated a nuclear deal with Obama administration officials.

But Raisi's standing may have been dented by widespread protests against clerical rule and a failure to turn around Iran's economy, hamstrung by Western sanctions.

Raisi had been at the Azerbaijani border for the opening of the Qiz-Qalaisi Dam, a joint project. Interior Minister Ahmed Vahidi told state TV only that one of the helicopters in a group of three had come down in the incident, and that authorities were awaiting further details.

What happens if an Iranian president dies while in office?

If an Iranian president dies in office, the first vice president takes over, with the confirmation of the supreme leader, who has the final say in all matters of state, according to Article 131 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution.

A council consisting of the first vice president, the speaker of parliament, and the head of the judiciary must arrange an election for a new president within a maximum period of 50 days, the constitution says.

Cold, foggy in mountain forest where helicopter crashed

Weather information from the World Meteorological Organization indicates conditions in the region along and near the border of southern Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran were cloudy with high humidity early Sunday evening.

Pictures circulating in media reports showed rescue workers in dense fog, and that’s supported by images from European satellites that show clouds and fog in the region.

The helicopter reportedly went down in a heavily wooded part of the vast Arasbaran forest where three countries have conservation areas and where scientists study endangered species such as the Persian leopard.

— Dinah Voyles Pulver

Contributing: Reuters

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Iranian president live updates: Officials fear all passengers are dead