A search for hope: One year after QZ8501

Last New Year’s Eve I was on board landing ship tank RSS Persistence on a search and rescue mission for Air Asia flight QZ8501.

Last New Year’s Eve we did not yet know that the plane had already crashed into the Java Sea, some passengers still strapped into the seats of the plane like they were when it took off, and then when it went down.

At that time, the crew and I still harboured hope that we would find something, pull someone, out of the wreckage. There was no New Year’s Eve celebration on board RSS Persistence – how could we celebrate, when we were supposed to provide some kind of relief for tragedy? 

Later I wrote a piece on the RSN-wide search effort for Navy News, still one of my favourite articles from my two years as editor of the magazine. 

Six pages in print is a lot of space to devote to an article, but stories will always compete for space, and quotes will always fight each other for the one that fits best on the page. And in an operation like this, when everyone has given so much of themselves, I wished I could publish them all.

To the men and women I sailed with – I hope this time you’re home for the holidays.

*

Everything happens so fast when the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) is activated for a search and rescue mission. Of course it does – of course we have to. I learn of the Air Asia QZ8501 crash on 28 December 2014, on Sunday morning while eating breakfast, and the day is slow but my phone is going crazy.

The RSN sends five ships for the search operation, one of them landing ship tank RSS Persistence. The ship crew is recalled on the same evening, and they will work through most of the night loading rations, equipment, stores for the two Super Puma helicopters that will be part of the deployment. That same night, as I am showered and ready to crawl into bed, I receive a call from a colleague. One of our missile corvettes RSS Vigour is already slipping off to join the search, and I go down to Tuas Naval Base to cover its send off with my team.

In less than 24 hours I will be at sea, too.

*

I am on board RSS Persistence when it leaves the next evening, on 29 December, only a day after the crash. It takes two days to reach the area where we are assigned to search.

Not long after, we find debris from the plane, debris that feel chillingly familiar. There is a chunk of plastic from the overhead luggage compartment, still labeled with the maximum load it can bear. There are parts of the plane’s body in Air Asia’s signature red, and a waterlogged life raft that someone, at some point before the plane started falling out of the sky, might have thought to inflate. The life raft takes more than twenty people to haul in through the ship’s side door, and even The New Paper and Channel NewsAsia journalists who are on board to cover the operation put down their cameras and notebooks to help.

The crew handles the debris with gravity, laying them on the floor with gloved hands, taking photographs and dimensions. They will be dried and packed away, stored until we can hand them over to BARSANAS, the Indonesian agency coordinating the international search effort. We hope they will be clues, a part of the puzzle at least, as they try to piece together what happened to the unfortunate plane.

With each item that is retrieved I think how familiar it looks. I’ve flown so many times on Air Asia, or any other airline for that matter, and slept through the safety briefing. Would I know how to activate a life raft? Seconds before the plane starts to nosedive, would it make a difference even if I did?

*

On the day I left, one of my father’s friends who retired from the Navy and is now a taxi driver, took me to Changi Naval Base. “Where are you going,” he asked me, as he always does when he drives me to deployments. I said the Java Sea, and he warned me that it was monsoon season, and the seas would be rough.

republic of singapore navy sea state

But it’s a big ship, I thought, and keep thinking – until the day I go out on one of the ship’s two fast crafts for a night search.

The sea is pitch black, and sea state makes the small craft pound hard. The Navy categorises wind and wave height on a scale known as sea state that ranges from zero to nine.

But I am a civilian, not a sailor, and the numbers mean little when I am being tossed about like a rag doll in the ocean. I hang on to the ropes that run along the sides of the craft for balance and am quickly soaked by the spray that the craft sends up. The water is salty, and every time the spray rises I turn my head for cover from its angry lashes that pelt my skin and sting my eyes.

The crew wields powerful flashlights, but even these fail to light up the crashing of the ocean, and the combination of wind and water is enough to send chills through multiple layers of clothing, all the way to my bones.

We are looking for someone who probably faced all the same conditions before death took him.

The search takes us close to three hours. I am probably the most seasick I have ever been in my life, and find myself regretting – many times – the hurried mouthfuls of chicken rice I shovelled down during dinner. RSS Persistence communicates with us through walkie-talkie, and I hear disjointed voices telling us that they will stay within sight. In the distance she is a beacon of light, not quite dry land but close, and I tell myself that soon I will return to her depths for a hot shower and warm clothes and the comfort of what has come to feel like home.

When we finally return, the seamen have such a hard time securing the crafts back in the well dock. Sea state is magnified in the confined space, and I watch as the ropes, which are meant to secure the crafts to the ship, snap five times in quick succession. They crack like a gunshot every time, sending a sliver of powdery white smoke trailing in the air.

We disembark the craft, soggy and weak-kneed, to croissants and hot Milo that the crew has saved us from night snack. Tomorrow the search will resume.

*

The cluster chiefs and chiefs of department, senior members of the crew, talk to their men. The reality by now – days after the crash – is that the chances of finding survivors are slim. We are now trying to retrieve bodies, and people need to be prepared.

I don’t allow myself to dwell too long on this possibility. There will be time to feel later, once the job is done.

On one of the surveillance flights that Super Puma helicopters carry out, I am in the air, together with a journalist from Chinese daily Zaobao. The flight takes three hours, and a combination of lethargy and airsickness lulls me into sleep.

RSAF air crew specialist Goh Zhe Wen
Goh Zhe Wen is an RSAF Air Crew Specialist, tasked to look for bodies or debris on the aerial surveillance flights.

Midway through, I awake to a flurry of activity. The spotters, whose job is to peer through binoculars to look for items from the air, have found a body. From where we are it is floating, tiny, almost doll-like.

The plan for recovering a body has been carefully thought through, led and executed by crew so senior they have contributed to Operation Flying Eagle, the RSN’s Boxing Day tsunami relief efforts, a decade earlier. When I interview them they can still remember the scenes of devastation as our landing ship tanks pulled up to Banda Aceh, the stench of thousands of corpses strewn across land and water.

It has prepared them for retrieving one.

They toss a bed sheet over a cargo net so the body, waterlogged and delicate after being soaked for five days, will not disintegrate as it is pulled carefully back to the ship through its side door. The medical team on board takes notes, photographs, and documentation of the find. Then the body is wrapped up, placed on a stretcher, and stored until we can hand it over to BARSANAS.

BARSANAS QZ8501

On the way there someone pipes the still, and the crew salutes, one last mark of respect.

*

Later, after more than a week out at sea, the talk turns to going home. Everyone has left someone behind. I wrote this, for Navy News:

SLTC Chow Khim Chong, who led the underwater search operations from MV Swift Rescue, was awaiting his father’s surgery the next day; ME2 Daniel Liao, Chief of the Fast Craft department on landing ship tank (LST) RSS Persistence had barely been married three days.

 There were missed birthdays and wedding anniversaries, newborn babies and young children waiting at home, aged parents alone on New Year’s Eve.

Yet I can’t sum up, in a sentence or even in a paragraph, how much a father can miss a newborn son, or how much a new husband knows this deployment is frustrating his wife. People don’t talk about missing home – it’s not something you bring up over chup chye and stir fried chicken for lunch, and it’s certainly not the conversation topic of choice for military men. But I see it in their clipped answers to my interview questions about home, on the wallpapers of their mobile phones when they try and connect to the ship’s sporadic wifi, in the plans they described for New Year’s Day.

Everyone loves someone, and so everyone will struggle, to a different degree, to reconcile the purpose of this mission – finding closure for the affected families – with being away from their own. This search operation is one deployment, one out of the many that a Navy man or woman will serve in their career. These are the emotions I am privy to. What about all the other missions, all the other sacrifices I will not see?

*

In my time on board I get used to shipboard life, or the slice of it that I know. I grow accustomed to the ship, and now I can wander around her eight storeys without getting lost, and I feel more sure-footed on her narrow stairways. Pipes, or announcements made on the ship’s public address system, no longer sound like a garbled foreign language as they did on my first couple of deployments. The crew gives me a walkie-talkie, mostly so I’m in the loop of what the ship is doing, and after a few missteps I figure out how to communicate on the same channel as them.

It’s easy to enjoy sailing from my perspective as attached personnel. I don’t have to wake up at unearthly hours to keep watch, and I am free to use the gym when it is unoccupied in the day. Most of the time I keep my own schedule, work fairly undisturbed, and have license to ask the crew all the nosy questions I want. This is as much as a civilian can experience of life at sea, a big part of why I joined the Navy at all.

Finally, after two weeks, it is mostly with relief that I finally head home – wistfulness will come later. Now I will not fall asleep to the gentle humming of a ship at sea; now my meals are no longer announced with a pipe – Hands to breakfast/lunch/dinner/night snack – and no longer come with the excitement of finding out what Chief Chef and his team have whipped up in the galley today. Now I will not wake up to the wakey wakey pipe or crackling voices on a walkie-talkie or the heavy-footed boot-clad footsteps of the crew striding past my door.

One year on, of course I will miss it. Of course I will miss it all.

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