Captain Mike Ellis eased the Sikorsky Blackhawk in towards the beleaguered, 16-storey Garley Building, in the heart of densely packed Kowloon. Ahead of him, in what seemed to be the last corner of the roof untouched by fire, stood a group of four men. Behind them, the interior of an illegal structure was a hell like inferno of flame. The rest of the roof was lost in dense black smoke.
As Ellis moved in slowly, careful lest the rotor should smash into a thick tv aerial that might lurk in the smoke, winchman Ronald So Chi-yip stood at the helicopter’s open side door, a harness slung round beneath his arms.
Seeing the four men about ten feet below him, he made ready to drop down, and start bringing them to safety one by one. But the wind shifted, smoke enveloped the helicopter. Eyes smarting, unable to see any part of the roof to act as reference while hovering, Ellis was forced to abort. He climbed 200 to 300 feet vertically to escape the great plume of smoke, always mindful that should he veer to far sideways he might crash into one of the Garley’s taller neighbours in this dense part of Kowloon, or even blow off the journalists, police and others who were watching from rooftops.
It was sunset as Ellis swung the helicopter round to the south, and prepared for another attempt at rescuing the four men. With light fading fast, and the fire consuming ever more of the Garley’s upper floors, time was tight.
[Note: this is a proposal for a magazine story: true-life drama; sadly, while some editors liked it, it was rejected.]
“Pull back time” in story. Maybe something about Govt Flying Services. They carry out plenty of mundane tasks: escort VIPs, take dignataries on tours, take people up to see how various developments are progressing. Also fire bomb hill fires, evacuate casualties from remote locations such as hilltops and ships. Hit headlines with rescue work. Around five years ago, there was drama after a cargo boat sank southwest of Hong Kong, and helicopters out at the height of the storm, plucking survivors from the sea lashed by hurricane force winds. Mike Ellis, a 26 year veteran pilot with seven years in HK, was one of those involved. Last year, he flew another marine rescue mission, with Ronald So as winchman – So (born around the time Ellis started flying) stood on bow of a sinking cargo ship some 120 miles south of Hong Kong, attaching them to hoist and ensuring they left the ship, which was pitching and rolling in heavy seas, just as it momentarily stabilised before lurching again. Eleven people were rescued uninjured.
The flying services was first notified of the Garley Building fire at 5.17pm, on 20 November 1996; police headquarters said there was a stage three fire at the junction of Nathan and Jordan roads, there were reports of people trapped inside, but was no further information; they requested the flying services stand by for a rescue winching operation.
The operations unit called Ellis, and asked him to nominate a crew. He had been about to fly (training mission?), and walked from his office, collected co-pilot Johnny Lee and went to the operations room. From there, they could see the smoke over the Kowloon high-rises. At 5.23pm, there was another call from police headquarters (fire control): they requested a rescue helicopter; there were many people jumping down from the building. (“It turned out to be only one person who had jumped,” said Ellis, “but reports like that get you going.”) Immediately Ellis and Lee went to the helicopter. They were joined by winch operator Johnny Chan and by So, who had wanted to fly since he was a schoolboy and joined the Govt Flying Services three years earlier. Their helicopter, call sign Rescue 69, was airborne at 5.35pm.
Another crew stood by, awaiting Ellis’s report from the scene.
Normally with an urban fire, the helicopters are only asked to observe, or to use water bombs for high buildings. But with the Garley Building, every asset the rescue services had was already being used to combat the fire and save those trapped inside. The first signs of fire had been noticed around 4.15pm; the alarm was raised minutes after 4.30, but already the fire was out of control, leaping from stage 3 to full blown stage five blaze in minutes. It began on the ground or first floor, but surged as if shot from a flame thrower up lift shafts, and laid waste to the Garley’s top two floors – though it would burn for 21 hours, 21 people died within five minutes of the smoke reaching the 15th floor. Others made it to safety: four men tied their clothes together to make a rope, climbed down from a window, then dropped away from the fire (suffered injuries but survived). People climbed down fire ladders; one man was captured by tv cameras as he leapt around six feet from the top of an air conditioner to a ladder.
But the four men who had climbed to the roof on seeing the fire below them were too high to jump, above the reach of the ladders. As the smoke threatened to suffocate them, their only hope was rescue from the air.
Rescue 69’s initial mission was to assess the scene, and to report on whether a winch rescue would be possible, whether the second crew should bring equipment like a rescue basket or a fire bucket.
It took just two minutes for Ellis and his crew to reach the scene. A minute later, the second crew – Rescue 57 – was in the air: as Ellis had radioed back that no more equipment could be used, they would support 69, and perhaps also attempt a winch rescue.
They too were in a Blackhawk, a powerful helicopter used by the US military for transporting troops – its strength would be essential in the tough conditions (including air currents due to the fire).
Mike Ellis guided his Blackhawk in for another attempt at reaching the four men. He was approaching low above a side street, so avoiding buildings that towered up to 11 storeys over the Garley. The wind had stabilised again; Ellis could again see the corner of the building with the four men.
He was coming in from the side, barely above the height of the roof. Again, he could see only smoke and fire beyond the men; but once above the corner, he just wanted to see some part of the roof so he could keep the Blackhawk- which is 64 feet 10 inches from tail to rotor tip – in position. He could just make out a television aerial, beyond the tip of the rotor, and navigated in by this.
Ronald So dropped out of the door, and as Benny Chan operated the winch motor, he almost reached the watching men. But again the wind shifted, the rotors pulled in and began recirculating smoke, and Ellis again lost his reference; he could see nothing but smoke. He shifted the helicopter away from the roof and the smoke. Pulling So back on board, Chan said the smoke had been so bad that he’d lost sight of him – if he’d stretched out his arm, he wouldn’t have been able to see his fingers.
“Are you happy to have another go?” Ellis asked Lee, Chan and So. He would have understood if they had said no, if So had suggested just dropping the rope while he stayed on board – safer for him, though a slower operation. But they replied “Yes”.
With the corner clear once more, and Rescue 57 hovering overhead, reporting on conditions and Ellis’s positioning, they again crept in. Ellis watched the tv aerial. Once over the corner, he looked down and back to his right, to watch the tile sized patch of roof which was all that told him where the Garley Building was. Johnny Lee, seated to his left, had a very different view. He was looking down the side of the building, and could see sheets of flame shooting out of shattered windows, air conditioner vents just fifteen feet below. Even against the Blackhawk’s 40 knot downdraft, the flames were pushing upwards; Lee reported on them as Ellis focused on maintaining position. With 2000 pounds of aviation fuel on board, a fire on board could be devastating. Then, the fire had sapped oxygen from the air; the engine of a less powerful helicopter might have already seized. Ellis watched his reference.
So dropped the ten feet or so to the waiting men. Though he had no time to be scared himself, he had expected the men might be close to panic. Instead, they seemed scared but well controlled. He slung the harness round the nearest man to him; face to face, they were winched up to the helicopter. Chan unslung the harness from the man, sat him down, and winched So down for his second man.
The men said little but “Thank you” in the seconds it took for So to get them from rooftop to safety. But once on board, their faces shone with delight at being rescued.
Rescue 69 had been over the roof corner for seven minutes; with adrenaline flowing, Ellis had not felt on a high, more as if time had slowed, and it had really been 20 minutes. Moving away, So and Chan plied the men for information – was there anyone else up there? The men thought they had seen someone else on the other side of the roof, but that was some time ago, before the smoke had enveloped everything.
Both helicopters now swung round the building, looking for any other survivors on the roof. Rescue 57 used a powerful light to try to cut through the gloom; but they could see only smoke. Mike Ellis lifted the Blackhawk skywards, and took his charges to hospital.
The four men needed only treatment for smoke inhalation. Ellis found he could taste the smoke for days afterwards. But So, who had been in fresher air in the rotor’s downdraft, was okay after drinking a few glasses of water. Though admired by colleagues for his bravery – Barrie Collier, pilot of Rescue 57, said “It’s outrageous to go out on a wire like that. I’d say he did an exceptional job.” – So merely says he was doing his job. If the situation arose again, he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same again; “All the training here is aimed at doing rescues, helping other people, helping citizens,” he says.