Sunday, 9 November 2014

Come Hell or High Water - Drama at Tawai (Imbak Canyon)

When things go wrong, events often happen so fast that most people do not know what to do. They need time to think, to figure out what is the best course of action, to work out a solution.
Only, there is simply no time. Faced with such a crisis last week, Michael "Mike" Jose did not waste a moment. He grabbed a winch cable - literally the only lifeline around - and plunged headlong into the raging torrent.
His was the first life at risk, and he laid it on the line because his friends were in danger.
The stream less than 30 minutes earlier.
Barely half an hour earlier, I had driven across a calm stream, with water so clear we could see the smooth stones lining the bottom. It was 3.28pm, according to the EXIF data from photos and videos I took while fording the shallow water. 
The location was N 5.459667 E 117.159667, a place called Tawai, about 19 kilometres south of Telupid town.
It was October 28, Day Three (of eight) of Borneo Safari 2014, a planned 1,300km trek that had taken us thus far north from Kota Kinabalu to Pitas and Kota Marudu, and back south to Telupid.
There had not been much action in the first two days, only a lot of tarmac, and there were already rumblings of discontent about how boring the event was turning out to be. We should have been more careful about "what you wish for ..."
By the time panicky and frantic shouts over the VHF radio drew me back to the scene, Hilary "Alee Boy" Francis was in deep trouble.
I grabbed my camera and snapped the first shot of the unfolding drama at 4.07pm.
Hilary's Trooper was stranded in the middle of the stream, now swollen by heavy rain upstream into a ferocious, life-threatening monster. He was not alone as his wife Lynn was in the back seat, and Isuzu Malaysia manager Azhar was in the front passenger's seat, all of them with water up to their chests. And the water level was still rising, rapidly.
There was a lot of shouting among the crowds that had gathered on either bank.
Then, Mike picked up the winch cable and dived into the swift current. He was swept away almost immediately but had planned his path correctly and was pushed up against the quickly sinking vehicle. Ignoring the pain of being buffeted by swift water against hard steel and on the verge of drowning, he managed to secure the steel wire rope to the wildly rocking Trooper. 
There was now a glimmer of hope for the vehicle's three occupants, plus Mike himself, by now also stranded in the middle of the angry currents.
Meanwhile, the Isuzu's soaked electrical system began shorting out, winding up Hilary's power window as he tried desperately, fruitlessly, to keep it down. At one point, the wipers started sweeping the windscreen, all on their own. 
The danger was far from over. While the single winch line was able to prevent the car from being swept downstream, the current still threatened to topple it on its side. 
By then, enough time had passed for plans to form, and a light nylon line was successfully thrown from the far bank out to the trapped occupants, who then used it to pull a second winch cable anchored to a vehicle on that side.
With two cables, one on either side, the situation stabilised a bit. The tension of the two winches had to be adjusted constantly to prevent the car toppling over as the current pushed it one way, then the other. 
But the water level was still rising fast and soon, all four people were up on the roof of the car.
All hopes of winching the vehicle to safety faded, and thoughts now turned to saving the four lives.An empty jerry can was turned into a makeshift life preserver, used to throw a line out to the trapped people.
It was not easy but after some hairy misses, all four were eventually pulled to safety, soaked and shivering but alive.
Mike was not the only one who rushed to assist, there were many others who also helped to rig up the cars, lines and other equipment without which success would not have been possible. 
But it is clear that his role was critical to the rescue. If he had not made the initial plunge when he did, the rest would not have mattered. And, by the time the others went into the current to help, they at least had a safety line to cling to, the line that Mike had swum out to attach earlier.
The water continued rising until the Trooper's roof was all that could be seen. There was not much else that could be done except to prepare some hot food and drinks for the survivors and get them into dry clothes.

The unfortunate Trooper remained submerged a further 15 hours until 7.30am the following morning, when the river had subsided enough for it to be pulled onto dry land.
Eager hands got to work and within a few hours, all the water had been drained, oils changed and it was running like a Trooper again. The show must go on.
Hilary is safe but helpless to save his car.
There was another twist in the tale, towards the end. When every official and participant gathered at the Hakka Hall in Kota Kinabalu on the evening of Sunday, November 2, to celebrate the conclusion of another successful Borneo Safari, Mike was not present. 
When he should have been feted as Man Of The Hour, indeed of the entire event, for his heroism at Tawai, a series of miscommunication ended up with him not having a ticket to attend the official dinner, even as many groups reported that they had extra tickets because some members could not attend. Something must be done to put right this sad turn of events. 
Mike George Awa is a 26-year-old Lun Bawang from Long Sukang, near Lawas, Sarawak. He is an experienced mechanic whose resume includes supporting the Japanese team that competed in previous Borneo Safaris.