Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My near-death experience

Yesterday, I almost died. I was literally a few seconds away from certain death. The fact that I'm now back in my house in Singapore and typing out this blog post with just my right hand (as my left shoulder's injured) still leaves me with this surreal sense of this thing called life. I probably should be sleeping now as I have an appointment with a specialist in the morning, but I need to get this out, while the memory's still fresh in my mind. Humans are creatures of habits and one can easily become comfortable once things start returning to the routine, which is why I need to write this now, so that this can serve as a clear reminder from myself that this miracle has happened to me; that I've been given this incredible gift of life; that I'd get to see Tammy and my family again; that I'll get to re-read 笑傲江湖 again; that I'll get to write another song; that I'll get to travel to new places with the love of my life; that I'll get to see Patrick and Nicholas again; that I'm given this second chance to "make a dent in the universe"...

It all started when we came to know of this Korean company that manufactures a fairly unique type of aircraft that supposedly utilize the principle of "wing in ground" (WIG) effect to achieve fuel efficiency by flying relatively close to the water surface. In a way, it's like a flying ship, such as the one below:

Turns out one of our sister companies was interested in this product and since we came to know the CEO of the Korean company through Robert, our Korean friend, we decided to arrange for Mr. Ahmed, the CEO of our sister company to check out the flight performance in Korea.

So yesterday, Robert, Ahmed and myself took an early domestic flight from Seoul to a small town called Sacheon which is a cluster of the aerospace industry in Korea where the Korean company's headquarters are located. When we arrived at the take-off site, the weather was perfect, there was barely any wind and the water was extremely calm. They first did the demo where they flew the plane around the bay so that we could observe the flight performance from the jetty.

Thereafter came our turn to experience how it feels as a passenger. Ahmed took the seat next to the pilot while Robert sat beside me at the back. It was a 5-seater so the cabin was relatively small. We put on our life jackets, buckled up the safety seat belt and put on some noise-canceling headphones so that we can communicate with each other during the flight. Everything went smoothly for the first 10-15 mins where we flew a good distance in both the WIG mode (around 5 meters above water surface) as well as actual flight mode where we climbed to an altitude of around 50 meters above water surface.

Towards the end, the pilot decided to give us one more demonstration of the plane's capability. I heard him mumbled something in Korean and then I heard Robert translating it, saying that the pilot wants to show us how it will feel when the plane hits the water surface while flying in WIG mode. He did it once and the plane bounced off rather violently. And then it happened.

I'm not sure if he attempted a second "touch-and-go" on the water surface or that he has lost control after the first bump. Regardless, the next thing I knew I was already drowning. It all happened so quickly, probably over a period of 10 seconds. Those 10 seconds felt like hours now that I'm reflecting on what happened.

In fact, I think it was quite likely that I was knocked out cold when the plane crashed but immediately came to as the water gushed in and I started drowning. It took me 1 or 2 seconds to realise what was happening. The first thought that came to my mind was that the plane was sinking into the ocean. I struggled to gasp for air for another 1 or 2 seconds and that was when it hit me: I was about to die. I thought about Tammy and realised I probably only had a few more seconds to do what I had to do in order to have any chance of survival.

As I calmed myself down, I realised that while the safety belt has prevented me from any major injuries, it was now dragging me in the water while my life jacket was pulling me up in the opposite direction. I reached for the release buckle of the safety belt and only managed to release it on my third attempt.

I still wasn't sure if I was going to live because I knew I was still stuck in the cabin and if the water had filled up the entire cabin, I'd still die from drowning in this enclosed space of water. And then the miracle happened! Turns out there was about 15-20 cm of air space trapped towards the roof of the cabin. As I took in my first breath of air, I told myself that I must live to see another day.

At that point, I still thought that the plane was sinking as it was almost pitch dark. It didn't help that I lost my glasses and everything was blurry. I started shouting for Robert as he was sitting right next to me before the crash. After a few seconds, Ahmed surfaced to the same trapped air that I was breathing in. I felt incredibly glad that someone else aside from me was alive. I started asking Ahmed if he was ok but before I could finish my question, he had disappeared into the water again and did not come back up. Then it dawned on me that he must have found an exit out of the aircraft and that the plane was not sinking but instead was probably still floating on the water surface. I made my way to where Ahmed had disappeared to and felt my way around using my hands. It was then I realised there was a big hole in the cabin wall, which I later found out was the entrance door that had come off during the collision. I used my hands to reach across the hole to feel what was on the other side and I felt air! We were indeed still on the sea surface!

I was still wearing my life jacket at this point and I remembered watching some Discovery channel program of how dangerous it is to be wearing a life jacket in a capsized ship. So I took it off, took a deep breath in and swam through the hole. When I came out from the other side, I saw, to my greatest relief, sunlight beaming against the body of the plane that was now capsized and I thought to myself, "Yes, I'm going to live! Yes, I'm going to live!"

After I caught my breath, I noticed that Ahmed had managed to climb up onto the aircraft body. I tried pulling myself up as well, which was when I realised I had badly injured my left shoulder. I was so focused on staying alive that I only realised my injury then. Fortunately, Ahmed was already on the plane and he helped to pull me up. We were both badly shaken and I saw that Ahmed's face was full of blood. I took a closer look at Ahmed's face and told him that he had cuts around his eyes and they were blood-red. I asked him to close either eye to make sure he could still see clearly from both eyes; thank God his eyesight was still intact.

Now that I was on top of the aircraft, I finally took stock of the scale of the damage. (Update: Below is a link to a news report that a korean friend forwarded to me a fews after:

The left wing had completely detached from the main frame while pieces of debris from various parts of the plane were floating around us. Then I noticed a body floating about 5 meters away from us. I couldn't make out who he was as I was without my glasses so I shouted across "Robert, is that you?" Then I heard him crying for help; "Help me Help me". It was Robert. I was so glad to know that he is still alive!

Both Ahmed and I thought he still had his life jacket on and that he would eventually swim back towards the aircraft. However, after about half a minute, Robert still kept crying for help; he was still not out of the woods yet. I really really wanted to jump in and pull him towards us but given that my left arm was useless now and without my life jacket, I just wasn't confident of doing that.

And then Ahmed did a very brave thing; he jumped back into the water, swam towards Robert and pulled him towards the aircraft. Fortunately, Ahmed still had his life jacket and the sea was extremely calm. Thinking back now, I think it would have been extremely difficult for us to save Robert if the sea was just a fair bit rougher and Ahmed also took off his life jacket like I did.

Robert was finally pulled to the edge of the aircraft and I held on to his arm while he tried to stay afloat holding on to the aircraft. He mumbled to me a few times "What happened? What happened?" but I was more concerned about whether he had sustained any major injuries. I asked him if he felt pain anywhere but he wasn't answering me. I saw some blood flowing from the back of his head and I knew he was still disoriented about what had just happened.

Ahmed managed to get himself up on the aircraft again while I tried to also pull Robert up. After a few tries, it was clear that I wasn't able to do it especially with my invalid left arm. For the next few minutes, I kept talking to Robert, telling him that he is going to live, that we will get through this together. I was very afraid that he might lose his consciousness and any fighting spirit left in him. After Ahmed regained his strength, he pulled Robert to the side of the aircraft where the entrance door was and asked Robert to step on the edge of the hole to push himself up to the aircraft while I crawled towards the other end of the remaining right wing so that we can maintain balance instead of all 3 of us crowding on one side of the aircraft.

After much effort, Ahmed finally managed to pull Robert up. While I told myself that the three of us will get to live, I couldn't find any sight of the pilot. I remember speaking with Ahmed about the pilot but we both knew that given our current physical state, we just didnt have the capacity to go back into the cabin to look for the pilot. So we sat there and waited. For the next 15 minutes, I tried to recollect myself and tried to make sense of what happened. I started praying, thanking God for giving me this precious second chance to live. This is the first time I've prayed in a long time. Frankly I was hoping for some religious enlightening moment but somehow I was too shaken to feel His presence.

I then started thinking about how I've always told myself that I need to be prepared about dying young, that I need to live my life to the fullest so that I'll have no regrets when the moment comes. But at this point when I had come so close to death, I realised I'd still be full of regrets if I were to leave this world. I asked myself if I could have been a better husband, a better son, a better brother, a better person who can contribute something really meaningful to this world.

As I was cuddling my left arm to ease the pain on my shoulder, I saw the 'Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish' tattoo on my left arm, I thought Yes, I might have this tatt on my arm and I always tell my friends about this inspirational speech by Steve Jobs, I even signed off my emails with this motto of mine to keep reminding myself, but it now dawned on me that despite all these superficial displays, I still wasn't following the true sense of the phrase. I then made a promise to myself that from this moment on, I really need to live my life to the fullest. Suddenly, I felt this strong determination to become better in everything that I do. I felt this strong desire to do the very best in my job as an investment manager, as a husband to Tammy, as a filial son to my parents and in laws and as a role model to my brothers and brother-in-laws....

In the midst of waiting, I kept talking to Robert to make sure that he stays conscious. Finally, after around 20 mins, the rescue boat from the Korean company finally found us. As they approached us, they saw only the three of us and two of the employees immediately jumped into the water to search for the pilot in the cabin. After a few minutes, they finally managed to pull his body out from the cabin and onto the rescue boat.

The boat was rather small and they lay the pilot body right in front of me as they tried frantically to resuscitate him. I really couldn't bear to look at him but when I took a glance, I noticed that his face had turned purple but he did not seem to be bleeding anywhere. I immediately thought that the person lying there now really could have been me as he probably died from drowning rather than from any injuries sustained from the crash. Suddenly this image of me lying in a coffin while Tammy cries over my dead body hurts me so much. While I was feeling much guilt that I couldn't save the pilot, I thank God again that Tammy didn't have to go through this trauma.

What happened in the next 12 hours or so went by in a blur. We were first brought to a small medical centre and later to a bigger hospital in Jinju. Upon arriving at the medical centre, I asked for a phone so that I could call Tammy. I was so glad to hear her sweet voice. I briefly explained what had happened but I assured her that I was okay and that I'll see her soon. Meanwhile, the doctors tried their best to revive the pilot but it was hopeless.

I had the least injuries out of the 3 survivors and was in a relatively clear state of mind. While Ahmed did not sustain any major injuries, Robert's case was a lot more serious as we found out later that he had fractured 4 ribs and his right shoulder was completely fractured. I spent the next few hours at the hospital in Jinju circling between the 2 beds where Ahmed and Robert were resting, reassuring them that they'd be alright. I was especially worried about Robert because of his transplanted kidney a few years back. Knowing that he requires daily medicine to sustain himself, I was worried about further complications that may jeopardize his condition. I started making calls to my colleagues in Abu Dhabi as well as seeking help from our good friends at SNUH. Eventually we managed to arrange for our transfer back to Seoul (after much delay though as we had to wait for the local police to take our statements) where I knew we would receive the best treatment from the medical team in SNUH.

As I sit here now, in the comfort of my home and in the company of my loves ones, I still found it hard to come to terms of what had happened. I think that now, I can finally understand how some people had described in novels/movies as seeing their whole life flashing by in front of them at the moment of their deaths. I suppose drowning, as opposed to say a fatal car accident, gave me more than the immediate instant to come to a conscious awareness that I was going to face death. 10 seconds, while trivial in normality, was an eternity for me when I was fighting between the fine line dividing life and death. I am very sure if I had not managed to release my safety buckle on my third attempt, I would not be writing this now.

In a way, this accident, while tragic given the pilot's death, is truly a God-blessed gift to me. Not only had I managed to escape the plane crash with relatively minor injuries, I had now experienced first-hand what it's like to really face certain death. I've always held to the belief that one should be prepared to die young and hence, all this talk about planning for the long term, "you-have-to-be-pateint-son-cos-you-are-still-too-young-and not-ready" are largely make-belief that gives one the illusion and a false sense of longevity. A long life expectancy of a particular country, say 80 years-old, doesn't actually mean you are likely to live past 80, it merely means, as stoic as any other statistical measures, that 50% of the population would be dead before they reach 80. Singapore's life expectancy at birth is 81, and I was close to dying at 32.

If your perspective of your own time horizon is just months, instead of decades, then you'd quickly realize what really needs to be done, and what are that meaningless stuff that you felt compelled to do, be it because of societal pressures or personal deception of who one really is.   

Again, I find much inspiration from this extract from Steve Jobs' speech at Stanford: 

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

Now that I've gone through this near-death experience, I can now say with a lot more certainty that indeed death is the most useful instrument to remind one of what is really important. Every breath I'm taking now is a precious gift, and I fully intend to make the most out of this second chance at life!

Before I end, I'd like to express my sincere gratitude to a few people who really helped me a great deal over the last 2 days; to KK and Jeehyae and my other colleagues back in Abu Dhabi, as well as the good people from the UAE Embassy, who assisted greatly with the various logistic arrangement; to Mr Moon, Grace and the team from SNUH who went to great lengths to ensure we were well taken care of and for accompanying me until 4am to complete my own treatment/diagnosis; to Chris from the Korean company for assisting with all the translation and coordinating with the various parties who constantly dialed in to receive updates on us; to Kenneth who waited until the wee hours to make sure I arrived to SNUH safely and accompanied me to the airport (it was great to finally see a close friend after the incident); to Sally who took us to Gleneagles and provided much comic to cheer the day; to Tammy's biaojie who got me an appointment with a great orthopaedic surgeon so quickly; to all my relatives from all over the world and the friends who have expressed their concern; I'd also like to thank Ahmed and Robert; seeing both of them alive had given me great strengths and hope to carry on despite our tragic circumstances. I certainly look forward to catching up with both of you after 3 of us have fully recovered from our injuries.

Finally, I need to thank my family, especially my dear wife, Tammy. It was because of them that gave me the fighting spirit to stay alive. And to God, as I know my survival is truly a miracle. He must have decided that I still have some use in life and gave me this second chance. I intend not to waste it again.


hautzeng said...
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hautzeng said...
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Anonymous said...

All glory to God!

Yunice said...

大难不死,必有后福。Staying alive is the best gift to your love ones. To the pilot who lost his life in this mishap, I hope your family stay strong.

jitsion said...

hey Mike.

Hope you have a full recovery soon. Thanks for the share, I always believe near-death experiences is given by God. Cherish it and remember your current state of mind !

Take care and hope to see you around.

jitsion (from garag3)

Anonymous said...

hey mike! glad to hear that everything is well now. I dont think one really recovered from an experience, but it moulds and shapes us!

thank you for sharing your experience. it does help keep things in perspective.


ervin said...

sorry - pardon the bad grammar. was typing it too fast.