SINGAPORE – In the early hours of Feb 9, 2020, Scoot flight attendant Jimmy Pung wondered why the plane was still empty. Flight TR5120 had been scheduled to depart from Wuhan at midnight, more than four hours earlier, and there was still no sign of its passengers.
This was the second flight tasked to bring home more than 170 Singaporeans and their families stranded in the Chinese city, which had been in lockdown since Jan 23. The first Scoot rescue mission on Jan 30 had evacuated 92 Singaporeans.
“My cabin crew colleagues and I were sitting in the aircraft for a very long time. There was uncertainty about whether we would be able to even depart from Wuhan,” said Mr Pung, 39.
At that time, the new virus was still a mystery, and the Covid-19 outbreak had yet to become a pandemic. Those on the mission knew little of what was to come in the months ahead, or that they were among the first Singaporeans on the front lines in the battle against the coronavirus. All they knew was that they had a job to do.
About 30 people were involved in the two rescue flights, including the Scoot team, medical personnel from Raffles Medical Group and officers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who helped coordinate the evacuation efforts.
For their courage in setting off for the epicentre of the outbreak to evacuate more than 200 Singaporeans and their families, eligible individuals from the rescue group have been awarded the Medal of Valour (Covid-19).
The medal is one of nine special state awards that will be given to about 9,500 people for their outstanding contributions to the national fight against Covid-19. The awards will be presented in 2023.
While the cabin and flight crew awaited their passengers, Scoot station manager and Wuhan native Albee Yao was alone at the Wuhan airport, processing the passengers at the check-in counter, walking them through travel protocols before they entered the departure gate, and waiting for the remaining Singaporeans, who were stuck at immigration.
It was a chaotic scene, with long lines at the airport as people waited to flee the beleaguered city. The decision was made to hold Flight TR5120 until all its passengers were able to make it to the boarding gate.
The last passenger arrived at the airport slightly injured, said Ms Yao, 31, as she had been involved in a car accident while rushing to the airport.
Ms Yao, who still works for Scoot as a station manager, said the most difficult part of her job that day was having to turn away the few Singaporeans who were showing symptoms of the disease.
They were understandably upset, but all she could do was to process their ticket refunds and help arrange for transport back to their Wuhan homes, she said in an interview over a video call.
When all 174 passengers were in their seats and TR5120 finally took off some time before 5am, Mr Pung could sense the relief on board. “We had really made it out of Wuhan,” he said.
The four-hour journey to Singapore passed mostly in silence, as the exhausted passengers slept. Mr Pung and the cabin crew, all clad in personal protective equipment, had little more to do because most of the work, such as disinfecting the plane and placing meal packs on the seats, had been done beforehand.
Once TR5120 touched down, the passengers broke into applause.
Now that they were back in Singapore, the passengers began their 14-day quarantine, while the rescue team took a two-week leave of absence. None of the team members became infected.
Many of them had volunteered for the mission. Mr Pung, who has been a flight attendant for 15 years, readily stepped forward when Scoot called for crew members three days before the flight.
Raffles Medical manager Emiliah Hamzah, 46, responded to the call for on-board medical personnel because of her experience as a paramedic during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, outbreak. The trained nurse also attended to the injured passenger on board.
After the rescue flight, Mr Pung and Ms Emiliah continued to do their part for the country amid the pandemic.
When he was grounded for six months as most flights were suspended, Mr Pung worked at a community centre to help house-bound seniors with financial issues and grocery needs.
Ms Emiliah assisted doctors on their visits to migrant worker dormitories and helped manage a vaccination centre at Changi Airport Terminal 4. She is now handling operations at the Connect@Changi Covid-19 community care facility at Singapore Expo.
See the full list of National Awards (Covid-19) recipients at www.pmo.gov.sg/National-Awards.
This story has been edited for clarity.