Cham Fishermen the Unlikely Heroes of Helicopter Salvage

When a Chinese-built Z-9 helicopter plunged into the waters of a flooded sand quarry in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district on Monday morning with five military officers on board, an unlikely team was dispatched to help salvage the bodies of the four people who perished in the crash.

A call was made to officials in Chroy Changva commune—home to 64-year-old Cham Muslim fisherman Sary Romal.

Sary Romal, a 64-year-old Cham Muslim fisherman, led the team that pulled three of the four bodies from a military helicopter that crashed in Phnom Penh on Monday. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
Sary Romal, a 64-year-old Cham Muslim fisherman, led the team that pulled three of the four bodies from a military helicopter that crashed in Phnom Penh on Monday. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

Despite never having received training in salvage operations, Mr. Romal has plenty of practice in the retrieval of bodies.

“I have a lot of experience, because of all the people who jump from the Chroy Changva bridge,” he said at his riverside home Wednesday, referring to the nearby Japanese Friendship Bridge.

“Since Pol Pot times, I have pulled 161 people from the water after they jumped, but I can’t remember how many dead bodies,” Mr. Romal added.

It is this unusual by-product of his work both as a fisherman and ferryman on the Tonle Sap that put him on Defense Minister Tea Banh’s radar when he was alerted of the crash.

“We asked the Khmer Islam fishermen to help, because they are experts in diving and swimming to find bodies,” Gen. Banh said Wednesday.

General Soeng Samnang, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces air force commander, said that the effectiveness of the fishermen could be a lesson to his men.

“It is muddy water. Even though we have modern equipment to search, we also could not see the bodies,” he said.

“The Khmer Islams found those corpses because they used their own strategy that they used to find other people who jump in the water wishing to die,” he added. “In fact, we should use this good experience from our Khmer Islams.”

Gen. Samnang also said that the helicopter’s black box—which military officials say is the only way to find out what caused the crash—was retrieved on Tuesday.

“A joint committee will bring the equipment from China to read the data…and then we will send the data to China to review it,” he said.

In the hours after Monday’s crash, 15 Muslim fishermen from Chroy Changva and a further five from Chraing Chamreh II commune upriver grabbed their fishing rods and went to the site.

Mr. Romal said the flooded quarry was divided among his team, divers from the Cambodian Mine Action Center and RCAF’s elite 911 Brigade. But it was the fishermen with their rudimentary search tools who managed to pull all four bodies from the water.

The hooks were lowered from the lines and the men felt around until they caught on to one of the victims’ clothes. Then, a few of them dived in to pull the bodies to the surface. The men from Chroy Changva found three of the bodies, for which Gen. Banh gave them $2,000.

“I felt exhilarated when we found the bodies,” Mr. Romal said. “I feel the need to help and I’m happy when I can help recover people from the water.”

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