Indonesian official battling cancer who calmed a nation hit by disasters dies at 49

Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia's national disaster mitigation agency, was one of four courageous men collectively labelled The First Responders who were honoured as The Straits Times Asians of the Year 2018.
Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia's national disaster mitigation agency, was one of four courageous men collectively labelled The First Responders who were honoured as The Straits Times Asians of the Year 2018.PHOTO: TATAN SYUFLANA

Indonesia's national disaster mitigation agency (BNPB) spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho - who shot to fame for keeping his brutal working hours through numerous natural disasters while battling terminal cancer - has died at the age of 49.

The BNPB announced on its official Twitter account that Dr Sutopo died at 2am yesterday at a hospital in Guangzhou, China, where he had been undergoing treatment for Stage 4B lung cancer since mid-June.

He was first diagnosed with cancer in January last year.

When Mount Agung erupted and brought Bali to a standstill, Dr Sutopo was hooked up to an intravenous line, breathing through one lung and issuing media statements to journalists. While fighting his own battle with cancer, he continued to calm a country being ravaged by wildfires, landslides, floods and earthquakes.

Dr Sutopo was one of the four courageous men collectively labelled The First Responders who were recognised as The Straits Times Asians of the Year 2018, at the ST Global Outlook Forum 2019.

The other winners included the late Mr Ng Kok Choong, the Singaporean paraglider who was celebrated for his rescue work in the aftermath of an earthquake in Central Sulawesi.

Dr Sutopo's son, Mr Muhammad Ivanka Rizaldy, said on his Instagram account: "We hope all friends and families forgive Pak Sutopo's entire mistakes done intentionally and unintentionally. Let's pray for the deceased so that God may accept him and his good deeds."

 
 
 

His father's condition improved early on Saturday and he had a video call with him, Mr Rizaldy told reporters yesterday at the family's home in Depok, outside Jakarta.

But later that night, his father had trouble falling asleep, partly because of the flu medication that gave him a boost and kept him awake.

Dr Sutopo had been at the forefront of Indonesia's effort to mitigate natural disasters, which could strike more than 2,000 times a year.

He regularly updated his Twitter and Instagram accounts, which had 200,000 and 70,000 followers, respectively.

Even from his hospital bed, he wrote media statements, answered telephone calls and responded to interviews.

Last year, he worked tirelessly as Indonesia, sitting in the Pacific Ring of Fire, struggled with landslides, floods, volcanic eruptions as well as earthquakes that hit Lombok and Bali in July and August, which were followed by the double whammy of a quake and tsunami in Central Sulawesi in September that killed thousands.

Dr Sutopo said he had more than 3,000 contacts in his mobile phone, while his social media feeds were filled with updates and dramatic images showing the aftermath of quakes, tsunamis, landslides and volcanic eruptions.

"Pak Topo worked extraordinarily with high spirits, serving the media and the public despite his health condition. He is a hero for humanity," BNPB head Doni Monardo told reporters yesterday at the family home of Dr Sutopo, also affectionately known as Pak Topo.

Dr Sutopo held a PhD in natural resources and the environment, with a special focus on hydrology and cloud-seeding.

His body was to be taken to Jakarta yesterday, while the burial would be at his home town in Boyolali, in Central Java province.

He leaves behind his wife and two children.

Dr Sutopo saw himself as a public servant to the end.

"It is not about how long your life is," he had said. "It is about what you do in your lifetime."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2019, with the headline 'Official battling cancer who calmed a nation hit by disasters dies at 49'. Print Edition | Subscribe