Rooftops buried in mud, tearful survivors: RSAF team recall stories of hope amid destruction in Palu


SINGAPORE: In the clouds above the stricken city of Palu, all Military Expert 4 (ME4) Brian Rezel could see from his vantage point on board a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) C-130 transport aircraft were rooftops protruding from the mud.

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“Everything was buried, that whole area was buried,” recalled ME4 Rezel, a C-130 flight engineer.

“We could see the devastation around the airport areas and it was quite bad. There was one area just outside the airport where the liquefaction happened – the soil turned into mud and everything went in.”

C-130 lands in Paya Lebar Airbase after mission in Palu
A C-130 transport aircraft involved in humanitarian assistance efforts in Indonesia lands at Paya Lebar Airbase on Friday (Oct 26). (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Thousands have perished in the earthquake and tsunami that hit central Sulawesi on Sep 28, and thousands more remain missing. 

Much of Petobo, a cluster of villages in Palu, was sucked whole into the ground as the vibrations from the quake turned soil to quicksand in a process known as liquefaction.

READ: 5,000 believed missing in two hard-hit Indonesian quake zones

ME4 Rezel was part of the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) team which delivered supplies to Palu on Oct 2, before staying to support the Indonesian Armed Forces in relief efforts.

Two RSAF C-130 aircraft were involved in the operation, with one returning on Oct 17, while the second landed at Paya Lebar Air Base on Friday morning (Oct 26).

RSAF personnel disembarking from C-130
RSAF personnel being greeted after disembarking from a C-130 aircraft on Oct 26, 2018. (Photo: Jeremy Long)


The 26 returning personnel were received by Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General Melvyn Ong, and Chief of Air Force Major-General Mervyn Tan, among others.

READ: Play, sing and dance: A road to recovery for displaced children after Sulawesi quake

Flying an average of four to seven sorties a day, the aircraft and aircrew were involved in the ferrying of supplies and aid from Balikpapan to Palu, as well as transporting displaced civilians from Palu.

The RSAF flew more than 90 sorties, transporting close to 800 displaced persons out of the affected areas and ferried about 250 tonnes of supplies.

Speaking to reporters, ME4 Rezel, 56, who was also deployed in the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mission for the Aceh tsunami in 2004, said the level of devastation was “quite similar”.

RSAF personnel delivering supplies Palu
RSAF personnel delivered supplies as part of aid efforts in Indonesia. (Photo: Facebook/Ng Eng Hen)

“It’s the first time I’m seeing things like (the liquefaction), but in Aceh what we saw were houses being just flattened,” ME4 Rezel said. 

Despite being a veteran of at least eight humanitarian missions, ME4 Rezel was moved to tears as he recalled an incident where a local woman expressed her gratitude after being evacuated from Palu.

“There was this one time where an elderly lady approached me, held my hand and just said ‘terima kasih‘ (‘Thank you’ in Indonesian) … I choked up.”

Captain Elson Wong, a flight navigator from the 122 squadron, also recalled a similar incident after an evacuation.

Captain Elson Wong with his wife and daughter Amellia
Captain Elson Wong with his wife Lim Yi Jie and daughter Amellia (Photo: Jeremy Long)

“When we landed in Balikpapan, this family was thanking every crew member that was in my flight. When they reached me, the father shook my hand and said: ‘Thank you so much for your help. God will bless you.’ While he was saying that, there were tears rolling from his eyes,” said CPT Wong, 30.

“I was just glad that I was there and able to help.”

READ: At Sulawesi quake’s epicentre, survivors struggle to survive with limited aid

The deployment also meant that CPT Wong, whose wife recently gave birth, had to spend some time apart from his six-week-old daughter Amellia.

“There were a lot of mixed emotions but being one of the more senior navigators in the squadron, I had to set an exemplary role to the rest of the juniors … I did speak to my wife and she was supportive,” he said.

RSAF helping out civilians in Palu
An member of the RSAF helping out a civilian. (Photo: Facebook/Ng Eng Hen)

Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Oh Chun Keong, 39, national contingent commander of the mission, believes that the cooperation between the Indonesian National Armed Forces and foreign forces such as the RSAF was key to the relief effort.

“The initial situation has improved over time,” explained LTC Oh. “While I think there is still some effort required to recover and reconstruct Palu, Sigi and Donggala, I’m quite confident the Indonesians will be able to do the job.”

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