KOTA KINABALU: Yusa Suyot, now 80, was one of the villagers who tried to rescue passengers in the 1976 plane crash that took all 11 lives, including that of Sabah chief minister Fuad Stephens here.
The villagers did not even have a clue who the passengers of the ill-fated plane were when they made the rescue attempt.
Still, they jumped into the rescue work fully aware they were putting their own lives in danger in case the plane exploded.
The tragedy was called “Double Six” because it happened on June 6 in Sembulan, about 2km from the city centre.
The plane was on its way from Labuan to the Kota Kinabalu airport when the GAF Nomad’s nose dropped in a one-and-a-half spiral, plummeting to the ground and landing in shallow waters.
Among those who died with Fuad were finance minister Salleh Sulong, finance ministry permanent secretary Wahid Peter Andu, local government and housing minister Peter Mojuntin, works and communications minister Chong Thien Vun and assistant minister to the chief minister Darius Binion.
Forty-one years on, Yusa, this writer’s father, a former bank manager and businessman, made his first-ever account of the tragedy to the media.
Yusa’s account of the day 41 years ago
I was taking a nap in the bedroom when I suddenly felt the earth shake noisily. Our stilt house was built under the flight path of planes making their takeoffs and landings every day. My first thought was: “A plane has crashed.”
I never thought about anything else. I jumped off the bed in the T-shirt and shorts I had on and rushed onto the wooden gangplanks that connected all the stilt houses in the Sembulan water village.
Many neighbours were scrambling out, too. The moment I saw the wreckage, I told myself: “No one could’ve survived this.”
All of us jumped into the water, knee deep, and waded to the plane, which was mangled badly, with its nose buried deep in the sands.
There was the smell of blood and oil leaking from the engine. A thought occurred to me that the plane might explode, but I brushed it aside thinking that whoever was inside needed to be taken out fast from the wreckage and water.
Who knows if there were survivors? From the look on their faces, I’m sure the other villagers had the same concern.
Most of the people in the water were just watching from afar. I didn’t blame them for not taking part in the rescue. What did we know about saving passengers from downed planes?
But a handful of us villagers began our work. We saw a body partly out of the fuselage. It was the first one we saw, and the easiest to work with our bare hands.
So, we began removing the passenger from the wreckage. He obviously hadn’t survived the crash. We couldn’t recognise who he was. We took him to a dry area where the other villagers tended to his body.
We returned to the wreckage and looked for the other passengers. But we couldn’t find any without prying open the badly dented body of the plane.
By then the Fire and Rescue Department, based nearby, arrived along with the police. I felt happy briefly because the experts had arrived with their much-needed equipment.
They told us villagers to stand aside and let them do the rescue work. I was hoping there would be survivors but a part of me knew this was unlikely.
The rescue workers took the rest of the bodies out one by one. It was long and arduous work using tools and definitely needed the expertise we common people didn’t have. And the pilot was the last person the rescuers reached, as the cockpit was buried.
We didn’t know who exactly it was on the plane, but some villagers were saying they were VIPs. Whoever they were, I whispered a prayer for God to bless their souls.
After all the victims had been taken by ambulance to hospital, the area was sealed off with police tape.
I went home and rigorously washed myself in the bathroom. The smell took a long time to wash off. My wife didn’t bother to wash the soiled clothes.
Many years later, my children would ask me: “Wasn’t I traumatised by the experience?”
Thank God, I didn’t get sick, like some neighbours did. Now they call it PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I guess I had a strong will, and my family often says I have a strong head.
I had served as a sergeant in the civil defence volunteer corps. And I saved someone from drowning in a river years ago. So I reckon I didn’t take the experience too badly.
That night, a few hours after the tragedy, we watched the news on the telly. Only then did we know the identity of those who lost their lives in that plane crash that day.
I was shocked. I couldn’t say anything. Speech just left me. My wife was watching, too, and she too was deep in her own thoughts.
I made a silent prayer for the victims and I asked God to give their loved ones strength in this most trying time.
I mentally recalled the rescue work we villagers and rescuers performed. There was nothing more we could have done. We did all we could.
And only now, after 41 years (when the writer told him about it), do I know that the full official report has been classified under the Official Secrets Act.
At that time, it was reported that there was human error and we heard the plane was overloaded.
If there was human error, we should know what it was. And if the plane was overloaded, why did it crash on landing instead of during takeoff or when climbing?
Sabah’s forefathers made great sacrifices for us. It’s only right that we know how they died.
Now, there’s a monument near the crash site to remember those who perished in the incident. And I agree that Sabah history would be incomplete if we don’t know the whole story.