Crawling through cockroach-infested pipes in total darkness, meet the Hong Kong police team that gets up close to terror threat

The confined space search team – tasked with scouring the city’s hidden corners – will search for weapons, bombs and any signs of danger during events to mark July’s 20th anniversary of the handover

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 April, 2017, 12:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 April, 2017, 3:47pm

With terrorism a growing threat around the world, one specialist police squad in Hong Kong is focusing on the smallest security details to ensure nothing goes wrong when the city celebrates the 20th anniversary of its handover from Britain to China.

The confined space search team – tasked with scouring underground pipes, tunnels, wells and other hidden corners of all sorts – will be part of a 400-strong search team deployed in the search for weapons, bombs and any signs of danger during events to mark the occasion in July.

Watch: Underground with the Hong Kong police confined space search team

Veteran female member Ng Hiu-tung, who helped out during the fifth, 10th and 15th anniversary celebrations, expected the task this time would be more difficult than ever.

“We can see terrorist attacks happening overseas lately. These are scenarios our supervisor will take into account,” she said. “Our training has taken into account the trend that is unfolding abroad in order to keep ourselves up to date.”

Her colleague Wong King-man expected a hard time ahead. “With more places to be searched, it is going to take more time.”

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It is customary for the national leader to visit Hong Kong every five years to mark the handover ceremony and oversee the swearing-in of the new chief executive.

Former president Jiang Zemin visited in 2002, followed by Hu Jintao in 2007 and 2012. According to some reports, President Xi Jinping is likely to visit this time, but there has been no official announcement yet.

The general search team was established in 1992, followed by its two umbrella specialist squads – the confined space and high-rise search teams – five years later.

Members serve their teams as a secondary duty, turning up when needed. Twenty-six officers form the confined space squad.

“What we do is to carry out defensive searches during high-profile visits,” Superintendent Carson Chiu Ching-chiu said.

“The police cannot do without us,” Wong added, saying their team was the only one allowed to carry out missions in confined spaces.

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Officers hoping to join the search team must undergo a two-day selection process to prove they are physically up to the work and have the mental strength to handle such tasks as crawling through a pipe in total darkness.

They must pass a rigorous body check every year as their operations involve carrying heavy equipment – from oxygen tanks to abseiling vests – comparable to that of firefighters.

Working in cockroach-infested areas is all part of the job – in fact team members welcome their presence when scouring a confined place as it suggests the absence of dangerous gases such as hydrogen sulphide.

Human bodies are a more chilling prospect and something both Ng and Wong have encountered.

Ng retrieved bodies from a sand carrier that sank in 2003, while Wong was assigned to the recovery operation when a Ukrainian vessel sank in 2008 with the loss of 18 lives.

Ng recalled the shock when a woman’s hand came away from her body as she moved her. Nonetheless, she said: “It’s fortunate that we could retrieve the body for her family.”

Over the years, the team was deployed during significant events, including the Olympic and Paralympics equestrian event in 2008 and the East Asian Games in 2009.