Blaze survivors grow through the pain

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 February, 2006, 12:00am

'All of them had learned to stand on their feet and endeavoured to pursue their dreams'

Ten years after the tragic Pat Sin Leng hill fire that left two teachers and three pupils dead, the young survivors are now back on their feet.

One of the pupils who was scarred most by the trauma has emerged with a renewed sense of purpose in life.

Stanley Cheung Yun-hang, 22, was among dozens of schoolchildren who went on that fatal geography field trip on February 10, 1996, when a hill fire broke out and quickly surrounded them.

There were 50 pupils from the HKCWC Fung Yiu King Memorial Secondary School in Ma On Shan - 13 were injured, including six seriously.

Yun-hang, then 12, suffered severe burns on his hands and face. The facial burns impaired his eyesight. After undergoing more than 100 rounds of surgery for facial reconstruction and treatment, he still found time to write a book about his experience. Transition was published in 2004. He has a debut romance novel, to be published this summer.

He has also composed a song titled 'Wind breeze' to mark the 10th anniversary of the tragedy. 'I wasn't given any secret keys to unlock the past. Instead, I was taught how to face the future. The key is not to overcome the past, but to embrace the future. When you can face the future, you forget the sadness.

'What really had happened is rather blurred now. I am not saying I am not willing to talk about it. But what matters is the future,' he said in an interview with the South China Morning Post from San Francisco where he has been studying psychology at Peralta College since 2002.

Although he is in good health today, he felt he has not fully recovered. 'There must be something in mind or behaviour that I haven't detected. After all, the incident did have an impact on me,' he said.

Yesterday, he recalled the painful process of recovery.

The ordeal once drove him to thinking about suicide. But, he said, thanks to support from his parents, teachers, a senior official, his doctors and religious faith, Yun-hang, like the five other seriously injured pupils, has been able to rise above the gloom and stand on his feet.

Instead of being overcome by the past, in 2003 he revisited and conquered the hill with his old teacher and friend Ricky Li. 'I struggled over whether I should climb. In the end, I decided to go. But I regret that I did not take spray paint to leave some marks of my presence,' he joked.

Hui Wing-ho, the school's former principal, said the most challenging task over the past years was to ensure the survivors recovered both physically and psychologically.

Mr Hui, who stepped down as principal in 2002 after the last one of the affected pupils graduated, was impressed by Yun-hang's recovery. 'Perhaps he was still a little boy. When he was in hospital, he yelled at senior officials, visiting singers and the principal, saying people should get out of his ward and let him die,' he recalled.

Shelly Lee Lai-kuen, the former secretary for home affairs who has been described as a 'godmother' to the victims, yesterday said she could hardly believe it was 10 years since that tragic day. 'I have been meeting and keeping contact with the affected students throughout these years. All of them have learnt to stand on their feet and endeavoured to pursue their own dreams,' she said.

But she was most impressed by Yun-hang, with his aspiration to write a novel. 'I asked Yun-hang if his novel was going to have a sad or happy ending. I personally prefer a happy one ... but he told me: 'If the ending is not sad, what am I going to sell?'' she said, adding: 'It showed that they were all grown-ups now, having their own independent thinking.'

Dr Ko Wing-man, one of the skin doctors in charge of the severely burnt patients 10 years ago and who became their friends, said he had learned much from them.

'Sometimes I thought if I were them and went through the same trauma, I was not sure if I could handle it,' he said.

'But while I was facing the severest of tests two years ago, they showed their support to me, such as sending me encouragement cards.'

He was referring to his time as a top Hospital Authority executive during the Sars outbreak.