MMEA to review SAR ops after rescue team missed survivors by ‘minutes’

MMEA Sabah and Labuan regional director First Admiral Mohd Zubil Mat Som speaking to reporters at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport today. ― Picture by Julia Chan
MMEA Sabah and Labuan regional director First Admiral Mohd Zubil Mat Som speaking to reporters at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport today. ― Picture by Julia Chan

KOTA KINABALU, May 13 ― Malaysian authorities will be reviewing their search-and-rescue (SAR) operations after failing to spot four people adrift at sea for 10 days.

Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) Sabah and Labuan regional director First Admiral Mohd Zubil Mat Som said preliminary findings showed some 10 patrol boats and air surveillance were on track in identifying the location the survivors the lost boat should have been in, but missed by scant minutes.

“We will be assessing our procedure to determine what happened. The four said they spotted a rescue boat approaching nearby on the first night of the SAR and screamed at us.

“But somehow we couldn’t see them in the darkness and probably missed them by a few minutes and sailed away.

“This could be due to the high waves and that we were not on a high boat. We just missed them by a few minutes,” he told reporters after greeting the foursome who were adrift in the South China Sea for 10 days.

A multi-agency SAR operation was launched on May 3, after the boat owner filed a report on the missing vessel and its four occupants who had left for a day trip to Balambangan island.

The island is ordinarily a two-hour boat-ride away from Tanjung Simpang Mengayau, better known as the tip of Borneo.

The search and rescue efforts yielded no results until six days later, when local fishermen found a boat engine caught in their nets, belonging to the missing boat. The boat sank into to the sea bed some 2.8 nautical miles from Balambangan island.

Yesterday, the four survivors ― Kudat resort owner Tommy Lam, 44, a Hong Konger; Spaniards David Hernandes Gasulla, 29 and Martha Miguel, 30; and Malaysian Armella Ali Hassan, 23 ― were found on two separate Vietnamese trawlers which were on the way back to Vietnam.

Two vessels from the MMEA and Navy were deployed to pick up the four from the trawlers in Amboyna Cay, at the Vietnamese’s territory of the disputed Spratly islands, and they were brought to Layang Layang island at 10pm.

“It is still unclear to us how long they had been adrift at sea and how or when the trawlers picked them up. We need to confirm the details with all four survivors before we can tell for sure,” said Zubil.

“What is important to note is that we had searched all over our territory, and the four were picked up by Vietnamese trawlers in our waters. We have to figure out what happened in between,” said Sabah Navy Region Two Commander Rear Admiral Datuk Khairul Anuar Yahya.

“But we are thankful they have been found safe and we officially called off the search yesterday at 4pm. I want to thank all the agencies involved for their cooperation and their unwavering effort during this trying period,” he added.

The four survivors landed in Kota Kinabalu International Airport at 9.20am after spending the night at Layang Layang island’s naval base and were whisked away to a hospital to receive medical attention after a short but cheerful reunion with their family.

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