Searchers losing hope of finding survivors in copter crash

Grim recovery: Search and rescue personnel with some of the helicopter’s debris at their operation centre at Batang Sadong.
PHOTO: Zulazhar Sheblee / THE STAR

KUCHING - Almost 36 hours after the helicopter carrying several VIPs went down in rural Batang Lupar, tired searchers are losing hope of finding any survivors.

As darkness fell around the likely accident site, an estimated 200km by road from here, dozens of searchers continued to work from the air, land and sea.

They have expanded the search area strategically, one from where the first wreckage was sighted, another from the first body - that of Deputy Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Noriah Kasnon - was found.

State Fire and Rescue Department director Nor Hisham Mohammad, however, is not giving in to pessimism.

He would not even reply to any negative question.

Asked about dwindling hopes as the hours go on, he replied: "I reserve my comment. I still pray to find survivors."

Yesterday, Hisham dismissed speculation about the condition of the body that was found.

"The body was complete. That's all," he said.

The size of the search and rescue operation swelled throughout the day, with the number of personnel doubling between morning and afternoon.

By nightfall, Hisham said boats, helicopters and people were coming from everywhere, including ambulances from Simunjan and boats from Sibu.

"We do not lack personnel and logistics. We keep getting more. Tonight, we'll work right into the night. You could say our success rate was higher when the tide was low," he said, referring to the first body retrieval which happened at around noon, when the riverbank was most exposed.

The search is being complicated by Batang Lupar's geography. It is one of the few places in Malaysia where tidal bore occurs. Here, water from the sea surges into the river mouth, travelling inland and creating waves.

Inland is where the wreckage is believed to be.

"So we must try our best tonight (last night) to ensure we fully utilise the time we'll have when the tide goes low again," said Hisham.

Bits and pieces of the helicopter have been found far apart. The first was some 4km from the probable site of impact. Objects retrieved so far include an inflatable buoy, parts of the door and a chair.

The main search site is nothing more than a series of tents erected next to a jetty landing. For all of yesterday, the ferry there was operating on an interrupted schedule.

When news of the body came, the busy scene turned quiet almost immediately.

Cars were reparked, clearing a central median. The ferry operator moved a barge out of the way, just enough to enable a speedboat to berth as gently as possible on the ramp.

Hundreds of people gathered. Medical officers were present, with two ambulances readied next to a single police truck containing a bodybag.

Between the arrival of the body and the exit of the ambulance, it was no more than 20 minutes. The scene was never noisy, just sombre.

Najib: Debris found near Batang Lupar

It was crowded at the Department of Civil Aviation's (DCA) office here and the atmosphere was gloomy.

This was the venue where Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak delivered the news about the discovery of the helicopter debris yesterday morning.

The Prime Minister announced that debris believed to be from the missing AS350 helicopter was found near Batang Lupar at 9.50am yesterday.

There were, among others, a rotor blade, part of a helicopter wall, a door and a seat.

"The operation is challenging as the river is considered wide," he said.

Najib's announcement came as a confirmation of what had been a roller-coaster time since news broke that a helicopter carrying a deputy minister went missing after it took off from Betong at 4.12pm on Thursday.

At one point, there was much talk about the copter making an emergency landing in Sri Aman but the operations centre set up by the Fire and Rescue Department sent out a notice at 10.15pm on Thursday to dispel the news.

Chat groups were also swirling about lights being seen near a river which later turned out to be lights from a nearby tower.

DCA director-general Datuk Seri Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said there was no delay in issuing a search and rescue alert to find the helicopter.

The DCA, he said, had to go through a set of procedures before issuing such an alert.

He said the search and rescue alert was issued at 7.26pm, after exhausting all efforts to contact the helicopter.

Azharuddin said four helicopters flying nearby the AS350 also attempted to establish contact, but were unable to get any response.

Subsequently, he said, DCA alerted Hornbill Skyways, which chartered the helicopter.

Group switched to ill-fated copter for return trip

KOTA KINABALU - Deputy Minister Datuk Noriah Kasnon and her entourage had used a Sabah Air Bell helicopter to Betong but switched to the ill-fated Eurocopter for their return trip.

Sabah Air Aviation Sdn Bhd chief executive officer Chan Kong Ngee said this when explaining that the company's helicopters were not involved in the Sarawak crash after a picture of Noriah and her entourage standing in front of Sabah Air helicopters went viral on social media.

Chan said that the helicopter pictured with Noriah and four others was a Bell206 while the helicopter involved in the crash was a Eurocopter AS350.

He said the picture with the Sabah Air helicopter in the background was taken in Kuching on Thursday before they boarded it to Betong.

The deputy minister and her group flew on the Sabah Air helicopter to Betong but flew in the Eurocopter for their trip back to Kuching, he said.

"All our five helicopters in operation for the Sarawak elections are safe," he said, adding the helicopter with flight code 9MAZK was flown by Capt Roslan Mustapha and was presently operating in Serian.

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