The story behind the Wuhan rescue: “We were just doing our job”
ECONOMYNEXT-After the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), in December 2019, Wuhan city the epicentre of the disease in China was locked down, isolating all 11.8 million citizens to control the spread of the virus.
Among them were 33 students from Sri Lanka.
After the lockdown anxious family members approached the government and various agencies including the United Nations office in Colombo to bring their children home.
By January 25, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa instructed the Ministry of Foreign Relations to do everything possible to get the students back.
By then airports in Wuhan had been shut down and all flights to the stricken city were cancelled. As frantic diplomatic efforts went on between Colombo and Beijing to get the required clearance the anxiety levels of the parents as well as other Sri Lankans rose.
While these negotiations went ahead SriLankan Airlines began preparing for what would end as a historic mercy mission.
First, they had to find a crew willing to enter the plague-stricken city where the novel coronavirus had killed dozens of people.
“The mission was planned in four days while there were untiring efforts to get the clearance” Sri Lankan Airlines, Chief Officer Service Delivery, Captain Rajind Ranatunga recalls. In an interview with EconomyNext he said: “We had to plan the flight differently because it was longer than a normal flight.”
Finally, the clearance came on January 31, and the ‘Mercy Mission’ was initiated. Within two hours UL 1423 flight took off from Katunayaka international airport with 16 crew members to assist them, to Wuhan City, China.
“We got the verbal clearance at around 12.30 in the noon and by 3.30 we took off,” he told reporters.
Captain Chaminda De Zoysa and Flight Safety Manager Captain Anushke Jeewandara were the chief pilots.
The remaining crew came from every community, in Sri Lanka, Licensed Aircraft Engineer Lilantha Pathberiya, Aircraft Technician Rumesh Pathirage, Purser Farhaan Haniffa, Cabin Services Supervisor Jenaly Jansz, First officer Shehan Senevirathna, First Officer Naveen Ranathunga, Saminda Perera, Amali Pathiranage, Kushan Kankanamge, Danidu Dunusinghe, Dinuk Madurapperuma, Wasim Mohamad, Darshana Disanayaka and, Malisha Prasad Manage were the brave crew.
The Sri Lanka Air Force’s No 49 Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear and Explosive Wing (CBRNE) commanded by Wing Commander Nilendra Perera, provided the Hazmat suits the crew had to wear for 12 hours and trained them how to handle the passengers.
The suits called “Ebola kits” after the infamous and deadly African virus was something entirely new for an Airline crew. “It was like a military operation,” Ranatunga said.
Due to the lack of ground support in Wuhan airport, SriLankan had to bring in the required crew for the maintenance of the airplane in Wuhan.
Normally a busy airport Wuhan was eerily deserted and the SriLankan aircraft was the only one to land at the time.
The maintenance staff had to leave the aircraft to do their work.”We were not afraid to get out of the aircraft” Engineer Lilantha Pathberiya said.
The crew said they are extremely satisfied with the precautions the Chinese authorities took before allowing any of the students to get on board. “It took us four hours to board the thirty-three Sri Lankans because of their checking process,” de Zoysa said
Cabin Services Supervisor Jenaly Jansz said Students were in great health and cooperated with the staff immediately.
Flight UL 1423 returned to the Mattala International airport in Sri Lanka on February 01, 2020 with the students much to the relief of the parents.
After arriving at the Mattala airport the passengers were checked by CBRNE of the Sri Lankan air force and took the steps to stop the virus from entering the country. The students are now quarantined at the Diyathalawa Army camp.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to spread and Al Jazeera reports that the total infected is nearly 55,000 and the death toll is over 700.
“At the end of the day, we just need to say we are no heroes. We were just doing our job ” Captain Zoysa said.
A grateful Sri Lanka begs to differ.
(Colombo/ Feb 08/ 2020)
Reported by Chanka Jayasinghe – edited by Arjuna Ranawana
Jehan Perera - Executive Director National Peace Council