Missing flight QZ8501: United by mission's grim purpose

Missing flight QZ8501: United by mission's grim purpose
Staff Sergeant Low Cher Zhi (centre) cancelled his leave and volunteered for the mission. He is among the eight naval divers on board the MV Swift Rescue, which has been at sea since Dec 30.

Four days after the submarine support and rescue vessel MV Swift Rescue set sail for the Java Sea, it spotted signs of what could be plane debris in the water. All of a sudden, the atmosphere on the ship's bridge was charged.

Men swarmed on deck to look at the bobbing bag. When the order was given to check out the floating object, watchmen pointed to it so their colleagues on the fast rescue craft would not lose sight of it. It turned out to be trash, disintegrating on contact.

The only other suspicious sighting before this turned up some coconuts.

Still, the crew of 35 knows what to expect on a job like this: Long hours traversing the ocean punctuated by bursts of action.

The bridge is the hive of activity, with senior officers and military experts planning operations, keeping a surface watch and navigating the ship through choppy waters, while Indonesian voices stream through speakers.

On another deck, water telephony specialists listen for hours for pings from the flight recorder.

The eight-man dive team busy themselves with equipment checks or fitness training and brush up on their operational know-how, while the aptly named medical officer, Major (Dr) Hope Ang, 30, is seldom seen without his Oxford Handbook Of Anaesthesia.

Upon the alert about the floating object, they swing into action.

Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Chow Khim Chong, in charge of underwater search operations, is on deck while the dive team suits up. Medics stand at the ready. For while the mission may resemble a training mission, it has an all too real and grim purpose, one that unites these men.

Diver Low Cher Zhi, 29, cancelled his leave to go because of jiao dai, or the Chinese concept of accountability to one's kin.

Said the staff sergeant: "It can be as simple as leaving a note on the fridge. I cannot imagine what the victims' families must feel, not knowing where their loved ones are."

The pain is raw for those who had loved ones on board Flight QZ8501. If there is any closure to be found, the men of MV Swift Rescue, at sea since Dec 30, are doing all they can to help.

awcw@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Jan 7, 2015.
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