Five alive on Kinabalu

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 March, 1994, 12:00am

TWO Hong Kong soldiers and a British officer were to be airlifted to safety this morning a day after a dramatic end to their four-week ordeal in the Malaysian jungle.

Their two companions, rescued yesterday afternoon, were recovering in hospital in Kota Kinabalu.

The five, who had not been seen since February 26, were spotted by a helicopter search team yesterday morning.

They had eaten nothing but a biscuit and a few Polo mints for the several days.

At 10.15 am, the Malaysian pilot of an Alouette helicopter touched down in a village playing-field deep in the jungle and ran across to Royal Air Force rescue commanders.

''We have spotted survivors,'' shouted Captain Michael Izhar. ''One, possibly two people.'' There was a short silence of disbelief and then exhilaration swept over everyone's faces. But it was not for another hour that all five were confirmed alive.

Last night, Hong Kong serviceman Victor Lam Ywai-ki was recovering in Sabah Medical Centre together with the expedition leader Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Neill.

The other three survivors, Major Ronald Foster, Chen Wai-keung and Cheung Yiu-keung, were forced to spend another cold night at 1,800 metres in the jungle because low cloud prevented their rescue.

But with three of the rescue team comforting them, including a medic, they were last night safe if not well.

''I am delighted to be alive'' shouted Colonel Neill as he slowly walked from the Sea King search and rescue helicopter brought in for the operation.

''I am on top of the world.'' Looking gaunt with a full beard and wearing a red anorak, he described the feeling of being found.

''It happened so quickly - five minutes from flash to bang. We are all so very grateful to be alive. Major Foster is in better condition than I am. He's much more burly.'' Then as he walked into a makeshift medical centre in the sports hall of a jungle village he announced: ''Hello everyone. Thank you very much.'' Private Lam, the first to walk, albeit with help from soldiers either side, to the centre, was not quite so spry.

He was only able to say that he had vomited the rations lowered to him and that the others were in better condition.

Later, he thanked the rescue team in an emotional ride to the hospital.

The discovery came as it was revealed that the rescue operation was days from being called off.

Officers had planned to pull the search teams out tomorrow or Monday, because they believed the men had died.

It appears the soldiers had been spotted on Thursday but were mistaken for Malaysian soldiers participating in the search. Then yesterday, the vital breakthrough came during the first flight of the day.

There, on a ledge, poking out from behind thick jungle into a narrow area of waterfalls were the letters ''SOS'' made from white rocks against a darker background.

Captain Izhar flashed his landing gear to indicate a positive identification. Then he, his crewman and the British soldier on board flew back to base to pick up food rations.

Minutes later, the helicopter was again airborne and lowered a supply of army rations to the starving men. Their first meal was a choice between chocolate, biscuits and soup.

Despite the men's condition, Major Foster managed to film the drop using the video camera he had kept during his ordeal.

Within the hour, the helicopter delivered a British medic to the scene who treated the men, two of whom had been spotted in a horizontal position and whose conditions were feared worse.

Eventually, after a 21/2-hour delay, the Malaysian Sea King helicopter arrived with the capability to winch the men out. It looked as if the encroaching clouds would force the rescue to be aborted.

But against all odds, two of the five men were lifted out.

The rescue team, including a number of crack SAS men, will attempt to rescue the remaining soldiers at first light today.

Malaysian doctor Samsadin Sairman said they were all very dehydrated.

''He [Lam] was almost on the edge of starvation,'' he said.

''He was at the point of total mental breakdown. When I was talking to him he was incoherent for a while. The delay of another two or three days might have been too much for him.'' Dr Tony Williams said that during the next few days they would gradually be fed on liquids to build up their strength.

The five men were part of a 10-man team which began a training expedition on Mount Kinabalu on February 22.

The team split into two groups after reaching Mount Kinabalu's peak to begin their dangerous descent into Low's Gully, which plunges from the peak to waterfalls and rapids.

The five members of the first team stumbled out of the jungle exhausted and malnourished on March 12, a week behind schedule.

Last night, Prime Minister John Major and Governor Chris Patten welcomed news of the discovery.

Mr Major wrote to Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad thanking him for co-operation and help from the Malaysian forces in the rescue, despite the row over the Pergau dam project.

''He expressed very warmly his appreciation for the help the Malaysians gave,'' said a Downing Street spokesman.

Mr Patten said: ''This is very good news indeed. I am delighted for the families of the five soldiers.'' The Commandant of the Hong Kong Military Services Corps, Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Southward, said the families of the three Hong Kong soldiers had only on Thursday been brought to the barracks to be briefed on latest developments in the search.

Along with other officers, he has visited the families at home. ''I want to pay my tribute to them for their courage and fortitude over what has been an extended ordeal,'' he said.

The Commander of the British Forces in Hong Kong, Major-General John Foley, said it was too early to determine whether restrictions should be placed on future exercises.

However, he said he was satisfied procedures were strict. He hoped further army expeditions could take place in the ''forbidding and unforgiving'' jungle near Low's Gully.