Led by a senior divisional officer of the Hong Kong Fire Services Department (HKFSD), a search and rescue team including 18 members of the HKFSD Special Rescue Squad, a medical officer and a registered nurse from the Department of Health, left for the earthquake disaster area in Sichuan on 15 May 2008, taking with them vital rescue equipment.
"Time was crucial," says Philip Kwok, senior ambulance officer, New Territories/South Division, Ambulance Command, Hong Kong Fire Services Department. "The team were ready on 13 May but due to flight delays, we were only able to depart at 2am on 15 May."
Arriving in Chengdu, the team were immediately transported to a steel manufacturing plant in Mianzhu City where 22 people were buried under the rubble of a four-storey building. "We set to work without any further delay but the chance of discovering survivors was slim two days after the quake. By the time we got there, no signs of life were detected," notes Mr Kwok, who was leader of the ambulance sector in the rescue operation. A second team of 20 joined in the search the next day.
"Fire brigades from all over the country including those as far afield as Shanghai and Beijing joined forces and rushed to the rescue," he expands, "We witnessed great coordination and efficiency in the mainland rescue teams."
Feet on the ground
For safety reasons, the daily search and rescue mission ended shortly after sunset. After a scrub at a nearby river and a change of clothes, the team gathered for debriefing sessions where the latest updates on the earthquake and feelings towards the day's work were shared. "There was no room for emotional interchange during the day so talking things out in the evening helped release stress," notes Cheng Kwok-chu, a senior ambulanceman, who was part of the first search and rescue team.
One evening though, the routine was interrupted. "Three men approached us and asked for help with two acquaintances who sent out an SOS from a mobile phone saying they were trapped inside a rubble-laden vehicle on a hillside somewhere between Wenchuan and Beichuan county," recounts Mr Kwok. A nine-man volunteer team was ready for action, preparing GPRS equipment, satellite phones, torches and rescue tools. However, the mainland rescue command unit understandably disapproved.
"A rescue mission near the earthquake epicentre in pitch-darkness without knowing the vehicle's exact whereabouts would only put the team in a dangerous situation. The volunteer team had to stay put because even the slightest miscalculation of the situation could be fatal," Mr Kwok explains.
On 17 May, a magnitude 5.2 aftershock broke the dead stillness of the site, but the bond between team members was unshaken. "We had to evacuate the site immediately," Mr Kwok recalls. "While hurrying out, we exchanged glances to ensure everybody was out of harm's way."
On the fifth day, the team left for Hanwang. "Shadowed by the reeking of corpses, we also relied on our sense of smell to locate bodies under collapsed building debris," says Mr Kwok who later realised the site had already been searched. Despite this, two more bodies were found.
The team completed their mission and returned home to Hong Kong on 22 May. "Lives were shattered. I saw orphans taking shelter with other families and parents who lost their only child to the earthquake," says Mr Cheng whose first child was born only months before the incident.
"Placed in such a hostile environment, people learned to appreciate the comparative stability offered by Hong Kong," adds Eric Chung, a senior ambulance officer responsible for coordinating logistic support for the mission.