How Hong Kong’s best rescue divers are preparing for more troubled waters under Macau-Zhuhai bridge

More large-scale infrastructure plans over the sea have prompted the fire services department to revamp its water crew

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 May, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 May, 2017, 3:28pm

As Tsui Wai-fat descended into the murky waters off west Lantau for his umpteenth mission, he knew he could count on his training and 23 years of experience as a rescue diver to get the job done.

It was about 3pm on March 29. Three workers at the construction site of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge had plunged into the sea and gone missing after a platform they were working on under the viaduct collapsed.

“Visibility was low, the water was choppy,” Tsui, a member of the Fire Services Department’s elite diving unit, recalled about the moment he entered the water to search for the missing worker who was still hooked up to the submerged platform, 10 metres below the surface.

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“I couldn’t see anything so I literally had to feel around for a lead... it was only when I felt arms, legs and a life vest that I knew I had found [him].”

As Hong Kong sees more large-scale infrastructure developments over the open sea, the fire department is revamping its specialised diving unit in anticipation of similar emergency situations.

For example, a special team was formed to meet the challenges of rescue work during the construction of the Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok Link, and will be trained to use closed-circuit rebreathers, which enable them to dive for extended periods with recycled oxygen.

“The works will involve the construction of a 4.6 kilometre sub-sea tunnel. Because this tunnel is being built deep under the surface of the sea, the environment is subject to [ambient] pressure six times higher than normal,” said department assistant divisional officer Chan Man-fai.

About 115 divers and 50 firefighters now serve in the unit’s six teams. They are responsible for all underwater search and rescue operations within Hong Kong waters.

The unit is called on to assist in about 600 cases every year, ranging from drunkards falling into the sea to large-scale rescue missions, such as the 2012 Lamma ferry disaster. They are also on standby for major events, such as the Victoria Harbour fireworks for the upcoming 20th anniversary of the handover.

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Over the past decade, the unit’s Stonecutters’ Island diving base has been equipped with the latest training facilities. These include a rapids pool simulating post-rainstorm river rescues, a mock shipwreck and a deep dive simulator, which can replicate underwater ambient pressures of up to 10 bars or 100 metres in depth.

But the life of a frogman is no cakewalk. And that is something that senior fireman Hui Ka-chun can attest to after the tragic Lamma ferry disaster.

“We were anxious to bring everyone to safety. It was like a movie. There was debris everywhere ... children clinging to ropes,” he said.

“I spotted an old woman desperately hanging on to the railing. It was heart-wrenching to find out later that she had died.”

In the end, the construction worker that Tsui’s team tried to rescue in west Lantau also perished, along with one other. But dealing with the reality of death, despite all rescue efforts, is all part of the job.

“We don’t care how long you’ve been in the water, we will still try to rescue you out,” he said.