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Cessna heroes

Luke Rawalai
Monday, March 12, 2018

ONE can only begin to understand and value the meaning of life when suspended 200 metres from a cliff, depending on the trees below as anchor points where their lifelines are tied to.

This was the experience that the operations officer in charge at the Labasa Fire Station, Janendra Lal and his three senior officers went through when performing the risky job of retrieving the bodies of the Pacific Flying School's Cessna 172 crash victims, Merelesita Lutu and Iliesa Tawalo and the aircraft wreckage.

Mr Lal said during the risky operation, teamwork played an integral part of their operations.

"I was instructed by my superiors to head the rescue and search team that would salvage the victims' remains and the wreckage, and little did we grasp the enormous task we had to perform until we were at the edge of that cliff in Delaikoro," he said.

"As leader of the pack, my work was to identify the best team members who would easily co-ordinate with each other no matter what the situation was.

"We initially used 100 metres of rope to travel down the slope from the Delaikoro road to the ledge from which we would carry out our operations.

"Reaching that part was quite an effort and our first task was to find trees for our anchor points where our ropes would be secured before we could scale the cliff to begin our operation."

Mr Lal said while identifying the anchor points, they had to ensure there were strong trees because their lives depended on them.

"The team had to use close to 200 metres of ropes to reach the wreckage where work began, but imagine descending on the cliff with the wet weather condition that had set in," he said.

He said after scaling down the first 100 metres, they had to brace for the worst.

"Meanwhile, we had to also transport our hydraulic pump down the cliff on a stretcher which would power the equipment we were to use to retrieve the bodies.

"Our first attempt was futile given the weather condition so we had to continue through the next day."

Mr Lal said their work on Friday took three excruciating hours before they finally retrieved the bodies, adding that it was a difficult task.

"The bodies were then transferred to the main road with the enormous help of the police, army personnel including villagers who were on standby to assist in the transfer of the bodies," he said.

"It's not a job for the lighthearted, but I commend the team spirit among those that participated in the operation, especially the other members of the rescue teams and the civilians."

During the operation, Mr Lal said they had to be very careful keeping in mind the weight of the wreckage and the trees that supported it.

"Therefore, two senior officers Pauliasi Rokosoni and Norman Francis were chosen to accompany me down to the wreck," he said.

"They took turns working on the wreck as we tried to minimise weight interference while at the same time focus on removing the bodies.

"After three hours, we managed to retrieve the bodies and haul them up to the ledge to be transferred to the main road."

Mr Lal said the team was also in charge of securing the wreckage as it was transported off the crash area on Thursday this week.

Having received training in Osaka, Japan, Mr Lal said knowledge of such training paid off during emergencies like the crash.

Sharing his experience, Mr Rokosoni commended the team work at the site, adding that it took the effort of many to make the operation a successful one.

"We cannot work in isolation because we needed the police, the army and most importantly the members of the public's input," Mr Rokosoni said.

"Seeing the area of operation made my stomach weak, but I knew I had to toughen up because there was an important task to carry out.

"However, working the long hours paid off when the objective of the operation was achieved and for us it was the retrieval of the bodies and the wreckage."

Meanwhile, Mr Francis said: "One of the toughest tasks was trying to extract the bodies from the aircraft to get them on the structures before they were taken to the ledge."

"Seeing the bodies of the victims, I had moments when I thought of my family, but we had to control and keep our emotions in check," Mr Francis said.

"Once the bodies were on the stretchers, our work as rescuers was over."

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