Sunday, January 24, 2010

In The Nick of Time

The Star of Jan 22, 2010 carried a news item captioned ‘Heroes recount how they saved 9’ It told of the heroic exploits of two rescuers, Saiful Azhar and fisherman Yeoh Lai Pin relating to the Dragon Boat tragedy on Jan 17 in Penang.

In the said incident, 5 students and their teacher were drowned during training for a boat race. It was a sad outcome to what was intended to be just a sporting event. We feel for the concerned families in their hour of bereavement.

I am reminded of an incident many years ago, not quite similar, but also revolved around a water activity - a white water rafting downstream. I had mentioned about wanting to narrate about this episode in a previous posting.

This happened during the Kelantan River Expedition. We were (Putras of RMC) on our Hari Raya Break (crazy) from Feb 23 till Mar 03, 1963. There were altogether about 20 of us, averaging 18 years of age and a teacher-in-charge (‘ call me Gopala M.K.’)

On the way after leaving Gemas in the wee hours of the morning (Gemas was a hub of train change-over to the East Coast leaving @ 0200hrs?) excitement was in the air. Even though we were in the berth section of the 2nd class coach most were wide awake. Some were engrossed in empty talk listening to OP Aziz expounding his theories of a social-democrat in readiness of him going into politics (to the sceptical comments of Mr Gopala, who must be thinking ‘why politics?’ when we should be bothered with maths, geography, history etc).

It was much to the awe of those young minds around (who must be thinking OP Aziz was way ahead of his time) and to the consternation of the ticket checkers (who kept coming to our section), insisting the booked berth coaches were out-of-bounds to the 3 s.y.ts from MWTC/ Tun Fatimah? who were without seats (being pre-Hari Raya rush) but invited in for a yarn by you-know-who!)

We were slated to go downstream from Manek Urai, in the upper reaches of the Kelantan river to Kota Bharu a distance of about 80km. It would take about 1 hr by road presently. We covered it in 3 days then, an enjoyable 3 days with all the excitement and drama thrown in.

When we arrived at Manek Urai there were 2 rafts all ready, waiting for us, made up of bamboos all nicely lashed up together. OP Wan Ghani had arranged for everything. (That we were told. When we later arrived in Pasir Pekan at the end of the journey, he had the whole group for lunch at his house. Great guy!).

We only had to further improvise the rafts by having our ‘ponchos’ set up tent-like, to provide cover.Otherwise they were perfect.

(Unlike on the Perak River Expedition later in the year, we had to spend 2 days to build our own rafts out of light wood and bamboo. The bamboos were already felled arranged through Kemunting Camp in Taiping.These were stacked ready in Sauk (of the weapons snatching notoriety, remember?) We loaded them up into the 3-tonners (lorry) and off to Chenderoh Dam to start lashing them and later off downstream when ready – but that’s another story!)

In Manek Urai we broke up into the 2 groups of 10 each to a raft. In my group were OPs Rahman, Mansor ( later Datuk, Dr. who at one time helmed the ITM), Aziz ( later Datuk, Deputy Mentri Besar, Pahang and a 2 term Senator) Mohd Sham (later Datuk , Dr.) Muhamad (later Maj-Gen, Datuk) Syed Mustffa and Ismail ( both joined the Army) yours truly Hank, plus two others I don’t quite remember now.

OP Rahman made himself out to be the skipper and was fortunately accepted readily by everyone. He christened the raft the 'Kon Tiki’ complete with the name written and stuck on a pole atop the ‘poncho’. OP Rahman is a very talented artist ( you still draw and sketch? ) who speaks impeccable Queen's English that you never would realise speaking to a guy from Kelantan (Trengganu?) when he sounds every bit a polished English gentleman!

Kon-Tiki was the raft used by Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl in his 1947 expedition across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands. It was named after the Inca sun god, Viracocha, for whom 'Kon-Tiki' was said to be an old name. Kon-Tiki is also the name of the popular book that Heyerdahl wrote about his adventures. (see Wikipedia)

It was truly a new experience for me, in fact for all of us. The raft had 2 rudders of long bamboo of about 4m one at each end. Both must be manned by one person each all the time. Both must react immediately at their ends to maneuver out of obstacles, such as floating logs or rocks along the way.

We cooked on the raft. The army-supplied fuel, made up of 2”x 2” pieces of hard candle-like material were used extensively ( 2 of those can cook a mess-tin of rice to be shared by 2 persons) We continued travelling at night keeping away from the banks lest overhanging branches hit us again. It did the first night. The raft shook, the makeshift clothes line was swept away. A PD Green uniform, some T-shirts and undies were lost. It was a frightful moment. It gave us a jolt as what to expect when rafting in the night. Visibility was poor. We could not relate to the river banks so we were not able to see that we were moving even. We only felt that we were moving. We were more careful after that. We kept to the centre and away from the banks. We were lucky it was no more serious than that.

On the next day it happened. It was mid-day. Some were cooking for lunch, while 2 were manning the rudder. We were in the centre of the free flowing waters. The other raft was about 25m downstream, more to our right. Not that far but near enough. It was hot and sunny so it must have been tempting for OP Mohd Sham.

At first he just dipped in and out by the side of the raft. All of a sudden he jumped into the water and swam towards the other raft. I think he did reach it. After exchanging some pleasantries with those on the other raft he jumped back towards us. I only realized it when he was cheered on. It was not going to be easy as he was now going against the current and water flow.

'This is going to be a disaster', I thought to myself. The others didn’t notice that I pulled a life-jacket from the pile next to me and held it in my hands. I made myself ready. I took off my wallet and handed it to someone just in case if I need to jump in.

Sure enough. One minute OP Mohd Sham was smiling happily swimming towards us but the next minute he shouted out loud, ‘help!, help!’ and waving frantically. He was about 15m away. He was exhausted. He was not going to make it.

I got up threw the life-jacket to him. It didn’t reach him. I jumped, swam towards the life-jacket and pulled it as quickly as I could to him. It was in the nick of time! OP Mohd Sham quickly grabbed the life-jacket. If I had been a split second late, it could have been a different story. It was close! We both held on to the life-jacket and inched our way back slowly towards our raft.

Under normal circumstances, when we approach a drowning/struggling person in the water it would be fatal to try and catch hold of him. The person would grab even a floating straw so they say. In a panic state he would grab you even before you reach him and would bring down both together.He would not be in the mood to be nice to you!

The technique is to approach him with both hands bent at 90 degrees at the elbows (with the clenched fists pointing skywards) That was fundamental in the Bronze medallion life-saving training. It could be a life and death thing. The moment the person grabs your wrists, you bring both wrists down into the water with a quick pull. His hold would be broken and he would automatically let go as his head would be bobbing in the water. You then twist him around and catch him under both armpits. It would be easy as he would be disoriented and facing the other way. That’s no way he could grab you. You then softly calm him and pull/swim backwards to safety.

In the case with OP Mohd. Sham I did away with this as I had pushed the life-jacket for him to grab. He didn’t need to grab me. I just had to calm him down after that.

We got onto the raft. The others got to OP Mohd Sham. He was ok. I got my wallet back, went to one corner to change into a dry T-shirt and only then that I realized. I forgot about my pocket diary. It was in my T-shirt pocket when I jumped in. It was still there but all wet. I had jotted some notes about the trip but they were not readily readable anymore. It was ok, that was ok, that was not the problem.

What saddened me most was that I had 2 passport-sized photos plus another slightly bigger one also in the diary and all were damaged. That was what I was sad about, but I didn’t tell anyone of them. One was of mine but the other two were of someone so dear to me then (not a photo of my loving wife, I met my wife years later) The damaged photos were for a long time with me. I dared not tell that someone they were damaged. Anyway they are not with me now. I was very sad then but I have long forgotten about them. We did not keep contact. She is definitely a grandmother by now. I just wonder!

For the next few minutes upon getting up on the raft, I reflected quietly. What if there had been some submerged rocks or floating logs or a crocodile. It frightened me suddenly. What if I had not pulled the life-jacket and held it in my hands minutes before that. What if I had hesitated and not jumped even with the life-jacket in my hands. I dread to think about it.

I only had the personal satisfaction of doing justice to my life saving knowledge, acquired 3 years earlier (which gave me the confidence) I may not have jumped in otherwise.

I was at the Victoria Institution (VI) before RMC. VI is the only school (I stand corrected) with a swimming-pool. Our swimming teacher then was Lim Heng Chek, an Olympian, rare in those days.

I joined a life savings group when I arrived at the RMC in Port Dickson (there was none since then after we moved to Sungei Besi) The beach then was just across the road from us, so training was convenient.

The life-saving test was done in mid-1960 at the Specialist Teacher's Training College pool at Cheras Road, K.L. I remember that. There were just a handful of us, less than 10. One was for an instructor's certificate while the rest were for the Bronze medallion. All got through, yes!

The Kon-Tiki made it on the morning of Feb 26. We berthed at Pasir Pekan across the river from Kota Bharu. We later pitched tent at Pantai Cinta Berahi (now Pantai Cahaya Bulan) for a few days before making our way back to our College on Mar 01.

OP Datuk Dr. Mohd Sham went on for medical studies in Canada? and became a very successful pediatrician while in the govt. He was also very involved in SCAN for many years after that.


abdulhalimshah said...

Dear Hank,
I am sure Dr. Sham Kassim must have owed his life to your timely rescue. What you did only ALLAH S.W.T. rewards you and that was a noble act.
I must congratulate you on that magnificent feat of being a life-saver. May ALLAH Bless you and the family.

kaykuala said...

Dear Hal,
Thanks buddy. It was all spontaneous. I'm glad I had the presence of mind.