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PC 121 tragedy: Search for the dead

Siteri Sauvakacolo
Sunday, August 13, 2017

Part 2:

It was early on the Saturday morning of July 24, 1999 and Dr Andrew Narayan had been enjoying his sleep at his home in Nadi when his home phone rang.

He could recognise the voice on the other end and straightaway knew it was some sort of medical problem but when Robbie, the caller/helicopter pilot told him the problem, it immediately became an emergency to some magnitude in his mind.

It was Island Hoppers, the helicopter company at that time and along with the help of a few other people and Dr Narayan was just beginning to put together a team called "Fiji Rescue".

This week, we have a look through the accounts of what happened when the PC 121 crashed on the hilltop of Mataicicia at Delailasakau, Naitasiri.

Dr Andrew Narayan was a general medical practitioner at that time and he owned a medical practice known as the Namaka Medical Centre in Namaka Nadi.

"We had done a lot of training and planning about a lot of different scenarios," Dr Narayan shared from his home in New Zealand.

"I guess this is the reason Island Hoppers and I were called to go on this mission but I cannot be certain who made the call.

"We were very quickly airborne 8.30ish and within 30 minutes or so had located the crash site.

"The thick bush overhead did not give us a clear view. It was clear that the plane had crashed but were there any survivors, we could not tell."

Dr Narayan said the helicopter did not have a winch to let him down and there was no place nearby to land so they went to Delailasakau Village.

At the village, a few policemen told him he could not go to the site until the minister gave them the clearance.

They had also found out that a group of villagers had left soon after the crash to try and reach the crash site.

"I was finally lowered into the accident site sometime between 10.30am and 11am.

"I was the first doctor to arrive at the site. I got lowered close to what appeared to be the area the fatal plane had initially impacted the ground.

"I started to follow the trail of the debris and looking carefully to see if there were any signs of life.

"The carnage was spread quite a long way down the hill. There were bodies everywhere." Unfortunately, they did not find any survivors. Around the same time the villagers who had started to trek up earlier in the morning were also coming up to the accident site.

Eighteen years after the deadly crash and although Dr Narayan may have migrated, he still has clear pictures of what happened in his mind.

The former Nadi resident shared it was really very difficult to paint the picture of the accident scene though it remains rather vivid in his mind.

He also took some pictures which he had passed on to The Fiji Times and were stored in the archives.

"It was not a pretty sight. Many bodies were ripped into pieces.

"There were times when we just could not avoid walking on body pieces and that was one of the reasons that we thought we should try and bag everything quickly before they got trampled on.

"I must admit in the heat of the moment we were able to hold our nerve and did what we had to do but it still sends shivers up my spine every time I think of the time I was walking around there."

Dr Narayan was a medical student in India and he had gone through a lot of deaths during his training.

It was this experience that helped him survive and had the brave heart to assist the victims.

"I trained in a rather large public hospital and saw a lot of gruesome stuff.

"I was involved with three very large disasters during my training days and was quite used to seeing a lot of dead people at one time. Dead and disfigured bodies had been in my life many a time.

"One of the disasters occurred very near our hostel when a four-storey factory with 800 people in it collapsed early in the night.

It crumpled into a big pile and had people trapped inside for days. Nearly 400 people had died in that accident."

Soon after the search, Dr Narayan said a lot of other people had also arrived including a college of his, a Dr Faizal.

"We had received message that there were 17 people in all on the plane so we started to try and account for them.

"Slowly we worked through the bush locating the different bodies and body parts and bagged them. By the end of the day we were able to get together 16 of the bodies into bags.

"We could not find the 17th body who later was discovered buried underneath the engine of the plane.

Dr Narayan was also keen enough to share his views on Fiji's response to public disaster management.

He labelled the search rescue for the PC 121 crash as a mess and was destined to be chaotic as nobody really knew who to turn to.

"To begin with the air traffic control did not know that a plane had gone missing for quite some time!

"It was when the passengers on the fatal crash did not turn up to places they had to be that people started to find out what happened to the plane.

"Nobody initially was in charge so everyone was doing their own thing. Later on I think sometime the police took over but I cannot be certain at what time that was as I was up in the bush.

"I suppose the remote location also made things very difficult to manage in terms what needed to be done as the authorities could not have eyes on the site and I had no communication gear to pass on any message," he said.

Despite everything that may have happened which has now been labelled history, Dr Narayan said his only disappointment was that they were not allowed to go in immediately.

"What if there were initially some survivors??

"I can understand bureaucracy and protocols always tend to find ways to be stumbling blocks to common sense but I am sure we can all agree that any chance of saving a human life no matter how remote of difficult it may appear must take priority."

So far, Dr Narayan has still been viewed by many people as the doctor who attended to the PC 121 crash.

He said the accident in 1999 made the news for a few weeks in Fiji and his name was mentioned a couple of times.

He still often talks about some of the things he saw when people ask him about the tragedy he witnessed at the site of the accident.

Although, he did not save anyone that day, his only hope was that his assistance in collecting all the different pieces of body which would have gone to their loved ones would have given them some closure.

"That helps me a little to come to terms with my role for that day."

This tragic crash, the mystery behind the cause of this horrific plane crash and all that happened, Dr Narayan shared could only give us a life lesson.

"Any one of us could have been on that plane that morning. You never know when your time on this earth is up.

"Live life to the fullest and make the most of 'now'."

Dr Narayan is now the team doctor for the Wellington Lions rugby team and has a very large private medical practice in New Zealand.

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