That was 30 years ago. 159 unfortunate people of 11 nationalities, including 2 Mauritians, lost their lives in that crash — By Dr Rajagopal Soondron
The last weekend of November 1987 was to be a 48-hour on call duty at Jeetoo hospital, and reserved for revision for a forthcoming acupuncture examination. But then God disposed of that plan with a swish of His hand.
Around 5 am on that Saturday 28 the hospital operator phoned to inform me about an air crash. I rushed to the hospital and reported to Dr Rajah, the Superintendent, who briefed us about the SAA crash that had occurred at sea during the early hours of the morning. My colleague Curpen was on duty on the eve up to 9 am, but since I was on call for the weekend I was asked to take over earlier. Finally I and other colleagues were rushed to the harbour by ambulance, where the Mauritius Naval Ship (MNS) Amar was about to leave with other medical and paramedical staff.
Deep Sea Experience
The weather was mildly overcast but cool for a summer; soon we had a last view of the harbour as our ship cruised out of the lagoon, bound for the high seas. Most of us were sure that there was no crash, that all this hullabaloo was just a drill; that, I thought, should mean about a 10-hour exercise at sea and I should be back home by evening.
Soon we had passed by Baie du Tombeau, and the Coin de Mire was quick to come into view; the sea was calm. Where were we heading to? The north east, we were told, where daylight was already breaking out. I noticed that a motorboat of the Coast Guard was trying to keep up with our ship on port side, bearing a lone pilot whom I knew to be a Mr Fulena; he was following us out into open sea. Long after the Round Island had disappeared behind us the sea was getting rougher; Mr Fulena was struggling in his small motor boat to face the bigger waves coming his way and started trailing behind to finally make a U-turn back to Port Louis.
A tragedy on such a fine November morning? Soon my colleague Ravi, the orthopaedic surgeon, and myself decided that we could make the best of the situation and relax. We sat on the upper deck and started commenting about our mission, and qualifying the wonderful Indian Ocean Sea with all sorts of superlatives. Did we talk about Raman Effect and the scientific reason for a blue sea? In fact, the water was crystal clear. I It had long lost its pristine pale green blue colour of the lagoon and had now assumed a deep, blackish blue hue, but still a wonderful sight to behold. As we progressed further out, we soon started to appreciate how huge the trough and crest of the waves were. We could feel our “Amar” ploughing into valleys and hills of water, heading to some predetermined latitude and longitude. So we gave ourselves to that occasion and, like children, enjoyed going up and down with the ship and sea. That went on for a few hours and even forgot about lunch.
But soon we woke up to an unforgettable experience. How were the colleagues, who had gone straight below deck since we left the harbour, faring? We did not know; but those on deck started to retch and vomit, and our turn was next. It was almost a chain reaction, and gradually all of us medical and paramedical staff were on all fours! Not a sight to behold – we who had gone out to bring succour to people in distress were ourselves in total disarray! One can vomit once and stay upright, but when we started to retch continuously and had to double up with pain in the abdomen we came to appreciate what our patients meant when they said they “vomi tripes”.
It was for most of us the worst experience. But every nightmarish episode would soon subside. I noticed some of the crew members going about in a light mood and wondered what was the secret of their not being sick? Then they told me that they had had their dose of medicine before departure! They had primperan tablets. They obliged us with some – perhaps after enjoying mockingly the fate of these sea faring neophytes! I and others took the primperan tablets, and gradually I felt that my intestines got connected anew to the old self. And what relief! That was when I came to appreciate the real efficacy of that drug.
Later we even ate chicken (‘la daube’) and bread. Night came, and on Sunday morning we were back on the deck.
The yellow toboggan
We started enquiring about our geographical position, which was about 100 miles to the north east of Mauritius we were told. Soon the responsible officers started to scan the sea for debris of the aircraft. Late Sunday afternoon we came across some remnants of yellow coloured toboggan. No bodies were seen till then, so the search went on for hours. Ravi and I had lost our Saturday good bonhomie; we were our serious professional self again, with long faces, almost stranded at sea far from home. But later our ship Amar itself suffered from a setback; it was immobilized as one of the floating yellow toboggans had enmeshed itself into the ship propeller, complicating our rescue task. We were stuck; that was when we realized there were other ships in our vicinity.
The “La Grandière”, from the French naval army based in Reunion, had joined the search for the missing plane. Soon, after an SOS, the French sailors came to our rescue, going bare-chested below the Amar to section the ill-fated toboggan. We were flabbergasted by all those professionals who dived in the fathomless blue sea; meanwhile our crew on board stood guard with their rifles. What for, we asked? Well they had to stand guard to fire at any dangerous fish monster that might try to attack our friends working under water at the propeller. The whole Sunday went by; sometime there was talk of floating bodies. Were they bitten by sharks? I do not remember whether any body was taken on board; we were sure there could not be any survivor after so long. But the search went on. Sunday night came and all flood lights were on again. We were getting exhausted. Finally in the early morning of Monday 30th the decision was taken that we had had enough of search, especially after the incident involving the propeller. And with relief we learned that the captain of the ship did get the green light to return to port. There was no survivor at sea.
As we disembarked from the Amar, we got the impression we were the survivors from a shipwreck; we picked up our car at the hospital after 42 hours on duty and hurried home for the most deserved sleep. Later during the day I learnt how my 18-month old son had been down with a 40 degree fever during my absence; fortunately my uncle took him along with my wife to the paediatrician. My wife was most stressed, for the friend whom I had delegated to inform her about my seafaring duty had forgotten to do so earlier. A family friend visiting her was the first one to tell her of the air crash; all phone calls to the hospital had remained busy until someone in the mess informed her of my departure for the high seas, which the superintendent confirmed later.
That was 30 years ago. 159 unfortunate people of 11 nationalities, including 2 Mauritians, lost their lives in that crash. A memorial in Belle Mare has been erected to their memory.
May their souls rest in peace.
* Published in print edition on 24 November 2017