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TSUNAMI DISASTER - In Penang, Malaysia
FISHEYE lends a hand in its aftermath

In November 2004, the BSAC Regional Coach (Singapore) had approached my dive school (the Mata Ikan Dive School No. 0395), to plan a dive expedition to explore the wrecks and reefs of North-West Malaysia during a time that the east coast of Malaysia was being battered by the North-East Monsoon. The weather in West Malaysia during this period of the year was expected to be mild and the seas calm.

The Andaman Sea merges into the Straits of Malacca, formed by the Indonesia Island of Sumatra on its West and Peninsular Malaysia with its offshore Islands of Penang and Langkawai and its related chain of small islands, rocks, and some wrecks that lies in its seabed on its east. These islands and wrecks were to be the object of our exploration.

Plans were made and as Penang was about 800 kilometers North of Singapore, the 2 vessels, belong to BSAC Dive School 0395, the MV Mata Ikan and the newly commissioned MY BARAM were duly stocked with provisions and sent ahead to wait for the party of BSAC divers who will travel by land to join them on the 6th of January to start the expedition. Both the vessels reached Penang on 1st December and were moored in a bay in the southern part of Penang – a very fortuitous choice of mooring as it later turned out to be. It was to be a few quiet days of routine charters and rest for the crew of both the vessels while waiting for the main party to arrive.

But faith had other plans.

On the faithful Sunday morning, the 26th of December 2004, an earth quake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale strucked beneath the sea just to the West of the Northern tip of Sumatra. This triggered off the largest killer wave in recent memory – a Tsunami of gigantic proportions causing devastation on a scale of which the world have not seen in the last half century. The areas that were affected were so extensive and the damage so massive that in many of the affected areas the government and the people were at a lost as to how best to respond.
The greatest damage were sustained in far off islands and shores of the Andaman Islands, Sri Lanka, Maldives, India, Bangladesh and even in distant Somalia on the African coast. Closer at hand the Indonesia Island of Sumatra suffered the greatest damage. The island of Phuket and its nearby islands, the Andaman coast of Thailand, as well as the northern coast of Malaysia and the islands of Penang and Langkawi were not spared.
In Penang itself, more than 200 fishing boats on the island, worth over RM2.5million, have been reported missing or damaged following the Tsunami on Sunday. Waves three-storeys high flattened coastal villages, destroyed homes, boats and cars were tossed about like toys and all but wiped out the coastal infrastructure in the northern coastal States of the Peninsula. The worse hit areas were the coastal villages of Tanjung Tokong, Sungai Batu, Teluk Kumbar and Pulau Betong.

The Penang Swimming Club dive section, BSAC Branch 229 was also not spared. Located at the basement of the swimming complex. The waves broke the stain steel heavy door and swept through the dive section storeroom damaging dive gears and the 2 compressors. Several buoyancy compensators, scuba tanks and other accessories were also dragged in the sea. “The water at the coast receded about 75 metres into the sea before the large waves hit us.

I was in the process of launching my boat when I saw the sea ran away from me! I have never seen anything like this before”, said Barry Siu, BSAC member witnessing the destruction of his clubhouse and his boat.

When the scale of destruction emerged later in the day, anxiety about the safety of the 2 dive boats and their crew were our foremost concern. Desperate calls were made to the captains of the boats but the calls were not answered – anxiety grew and grew. But by the Grace of GOD – finally in the evening, Captain Deon and Captain Christian replied. A huge load lifted off my shoulder and I let down a loud sigh of relief. What had happen was that, the captains, both being good Christians, were at church for Sunday prayers and had switched off their handphones, oblivious to the momentous events unfolding around them. The boats being moored on the South of the island were spare the onslaught of the Tsunami, which hit mainly the North and the West of the island.

In the aftermath of such destruction, both Y C and I thought that it would be insensitive and inappropriate to proceed with the expedition.

We had anticipated that Search and Rescue/ Recovery activities would soon follow and thought that the least we could do was to offer the 2 fully equipped vessels to augment any such official rescue activity, if they are required.

Both the vessels are well known to the Malaysian authorities especially the Mata Ikan, because the fully equipped diving live-a-board vessels were frequently used by the BSAC Regional Coach in Singapore, Y C Lee and the BSAC Technical diving guru, Mr Jack Ingle as well as the Korean BSAC Clubs for dive expeditions in the South China Seas for many years.

As it turned out, the authorities sent out a call for assistance to both the vessels and I was glad to accept the help offered as such facilities, were urgently needed but were in short supply.

Search operations for victims of the Tsunami in Penang started on Monday, the 27th December in the waters off Batu Ferringhi, Swettenham Pier and Balik Pulau.

The search operation involved about 70 people, and is jointly conducted by the northern region marine police and the Penang Fire and Rescue Department. The Fire and Rescue Department used two jet skis and two boats. Personnel from the Civil Defence Department (JPA3) and police as well as villagers were also assisting in the search. Being short handed and having to cover a large geographic area of search, they were happy to see the arrival of the boats and crew offered by the BSAC Dive School.

I flew in to Penang from Singapore with some helpers to take charge of the co-ordination. We were to assist in the search and recovery operation in Pulau Betong area. The Mata Ikan and the BARAM conducted search and survey work as well as to act as the “Mother Boats”, while the two inflatable tenders combed the coastal areas and were used to support divers searching all the sunken structures in the water looking for drowned bodies. The operation was far from easy. The water is shallow at about 8 metres however the visibility is near zero. What makes it worst is the muddy seabed must have been churned up by the large wave exposing decomposed substance buried for long time making the water very smelly. The divers also had to deal with a bloom of stinging jellyfishes clouding the muddy waters.

Responding to a call from a member of the public, at 9.05am on Tuesday, the Fire Department rushed to the sea off Swettenham Pier in inner George Town, with its speedboat Dolphin 02 to recover the body of a girl. She was wearing a blue t-shirt and dark jeans and she is believed to be aged 10 and 11. She was found about 1.5 kilometres from Swettenham Pier. A second body of a man wearing dark slacks and light coloured t-shirt, was also found near the North Butterworth Container terminal (NBTC) at Seberang Perai at 10.01am. The two bodies were sent to the Penang Hospital for post-mortem.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the helicopter unit also helped in the search. On Wednesday the body of a small boy, about 5 years old, was found near the coast among the rocks.

By Thursday, most of the affected areas have been covered and it was felt that further efforts would not be fruitful. It was decided that most of the active units be stood down until their help is further required.
The Mata Ikan and the Baram were released from duty and returned to their berth. The captains and the crew headed for hot bath, a good scrub and a well deserved rest.

As for the Penang Swimming Club BSAC 229, the Chairman, Mr Teow Siang Nam told us that their members are now taking turns in helping to repair and restore the dive club equipment and environment.

Our heart goes out to them but with the BSAC spirit we have no doubt that they will rise again to dive another day.




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