Singapore teams face daunting task in Laos

(From left) Captain (Dr) Tan Yuan Zi; the Singapore Police Force contingent commander, Superintendent Sofian Salleh; and Major Seloterio Euan Izmal Ilyas of the Singapore Civil Defence Force. Upon arrival in Laos, Major Euan's team had to trudge thro
(From left) Captain (Dr) Tan Yuan Zi; the Singapore Police Force contingent commander, Superintendent Sofian Salleh; and Major Seloterio Euan Izmal Ilyas of the Singapore Civil Defence Force. Upon arrival in Laos, Major Euan's team had to trudge through mud in which sharp nails from damaged wooden houses were submerged. ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI

You just have to apply what's learnt in training, says SCDF officer of mission to flood-hit zone

He may be a member of the elite Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team, but when Major Seloterio Euan Izmal Ilyas arrived in Laos last month following devastating floods, the situation was like nothing he had anticipated.

In place of homes and farms were broken and flattened structures lying in mud.

Together with 16 Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officers, Major Euan, 35, had travelled to Laos for a search-and-rescue mission after the country's Attapeu province in the south-east was flooded from the collapse of a hydropower dam.

At least 31 people died, with more than 130 missing and over 7,000 residents displaced.

For Major Euan and most of his team, it was their first overseas humanitarian mission - and a daunting one at that.

"We can always train a lot to prepare for humanitarian missions, but every mission is different. Sometimes you just have to take what you learnt from training and try to apply it in real life," he said yesterday.

Upon arrival in Ban Mai village, the team had to trudge through waist-high mud, in which sharp nails from damaged wooden houses were submerged, to get to the homes.


Station Inspector Bernard Tan Jun Xian with a Laotian child. The Singapore search-and-rescue contingent distributed toy cars to children affected by the floods. PHOTO: SINGAPORE POLICE FORCE

"We had to be careful with our footing," said Major Euan. "Some officers were injured from stepping on the nails, but thankfully they were vaccinated before the mission and we had a paramedic among us."

The floods also left roads and pathways invisible, making it difficult to search for human remains.

By then, hopes of finding any survivors had dimmed, more than 10 days after the disaster. Survivors had been moved to rescue shelters, leaving behind a ghost town, Major Euan recalled.

For days, the team cut open wooden structures that used to be homes and debris using chainsaws, searching for remains. They found none, apart from carcasses of livestock including pigs and cows.

Twelve days later, 14 members of the SCDF team returned to Singapore, while Major Euan and two others stayed behind to hand over operations to a 32-member Home Team contingent.

The second team, led by Superintendent Sofian Salleh from the Singapore Police Force, comprised 14 SPF officers and three victim recovery dogs from the K-9 unit, as well as 18 SCDF officers.

When search operations were called off by the local authorities because of bad weather, the team decided to redirect its efforts to setting up a medical centre near a local hospital in Sanamxay district.

Led by Captain (Dr) Tan Yuan Zi, a full-time national serviceman, the team provided treatment to more than 60 patients each day, for ailments including influenza, food poisoning and lice infestations.

After a three-week mission in Laos, the team eventually returned to Singapore on Aug 25.

Yesterday, Major Euan said: "One rescue team isn't going to save the world, but we hoped to at least ease their burden, doing the best that we could to assist them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2018, with the headline 'S'pore teams face daunting task in Laos'. Print Edition | Subscribe