By now most of you would have heard about the Belaga boat tragedy. If not, you can read it here:
This is the same boat I wrote about in my earlier post about my journey to Belaga - the KAWAN EMAS EXPRESS. Contrary to what many may believe, there are no roads connecting the various long houses between Kapit and Belaga. Not even rudimentary logging tracks or dirt paths. So these people have no choice but to rely on the express boat that plies the area. And there is only ONE express that goes upriver and another that runs the trip in the opposite direction. To make matters worst, during the Gawai season everyone was rushing to get back to their longhouses to celebrate... and they came bearing lots of gifts like chicken, new furniture, new sound system (think screaming loud speakers), bicycles, crates of beer and produce (PS: These were the stuff they fished out of the river). Bad news to a boat that was already over its capacity and over-weighted. This was an accident waiting to happen. It came as no surprise that when the boat's engine died midriver, people sitting on the roof started to panic and got up, thus leading to a shift in the weight that later caused the boat to overturn. Surprisingly, this is the first time an accident of this scale has happened. Prior to that, the boat that capsized along the Rejang were the smaller tongkangs or perahus.
Anyway, what happened that morning was my first patient for the day in Belaga casually mentioned something like "Mayuh orang dok. Nadai tempat lagi atas bumbung. Takut tebalik je" which translates to "There were just too many people. There wasn't even space on the roof. I'm worried it may overturn". She was supposed to send her daughter off to Sibu by that ill-fated express but decided against it after seeing the overcrowded express. Instead, her daughter had to take a 4 1/2 hour 4WD ride out to Bintulu and another 5 hours by bus to Sibu. A wise decision indeed.
By 10ish, the patients in Klinik Belaga were already talking about the capsized express. We asked around but no one could confirm the details so we just waited. Only at 11.45 did we get a call from the District Office to send a medical team down. Got all the staff together, formed 2 teams, briefed them on triaging, packed the kits and we were off by 12.30pm. Unfortunately, there weren't enough boats to bring our teams to the site of the disaster as most of the boats were already mobilised by the police, district office, VIPs, politicians and press! So we waited and waited till almost 1.30pm. Only then did they manage to procure 2 boats 2 make the 1 hour 15 minutes journey to the site.
|Ready to go!|
|Not taking chances despite knowing how to swim!|
So 6 of us piled into this covered perahu and trust me, it was like seating in a sauna during the 1 hour plus trip. Was sweating buckets as I also had a life jacket on!
After an hour or so, we passed the ill fated express. Only the hull was peeking out above water. I wonder how many people are still trapped inside. So far, only 1 body has been found and there are only 2 unaccounted for persons, one a pregnant mother. Unfortunately, no one can say for certain if this is the total number of casualties from this disaster as there was no passenger list or manifest for this express. Even the boat conductor could not keep tab of all the passenger in and on the boat. They were literally everywhere, hanging from the side railings and sitting on the roof!
|What's left of the express!|
Once we reached, we had to cross a floating gangway and scramble up a steep slope to reach the longhouse where the survivors were sheltering. I estimated there were at least 120 of them as many had already left using smaller boats back to Kapit.
|A balancing act|
The bags and boxes on the floating pontoon in the picture above is actually luggage retrieved from the ill-fated express. If you can see the triangular shaped container - there's actually a drowned prized fighting cockerel in it!
So we set up shop and started offering medical aid to the victims. By this time, most of them were already dry. There were minor injuries like abrasions which needed tending to but it was mainly headaches & stomachache, probably from swallowing the murky Rejang water!
Half way through, a rescue express was sent to bring some of the survivors back so our queue got a whole lot shorter! Many who were staying back were still looking for missing relatives or friends.
|To the rescue|
Thank God many of the missing victims are now accounted for as they had actually floated downstream and gotten assistance from the villagers to go home.
My heart goes out to the families of the still missing victims. Until now, all efforts to find them have failed miserably - from BOMBA divers to righting/ towing the express. Hopefully, more can be done.
There are plans for a road to connect the riverine towns of Kanowit-Song-Kapit-Belaga but that will take years to complete and people will still overcrowd the ONE and ONLY mode of transport in this area. What have we learnt from a disaster such as this? Prayerfully, enough to prevent a similar one from happening in the future!