The Fire Services Department has denied it experienced communication problems during Sunday’s rescue missions on Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest peak.
A missing runner who joined the Hong Kong 100 Ultra Marathon race was announced safe by event organisers after it emerged that he had made the descent himself as the Fire Services Department were unable to locate him.
“We had no problems in obtaining information during the entire rescue mission,” Acting Division Commander (New Territories South) Wong Ka-wing said.
Wong said that information was shared with the race organisers. Multiple rescue requests were received at 7:06am, trucks were deployed at 7:25am and the victims were reached by 8:35am. In total, 111 people requested help and 62 race participants were hospitalised. Most were diagnosed with hypothermia – three were in critical condition.
More than 300 firefighters and paramedics were deployed along with seven fire trucks and four ambulances. The department made use of all 56 pairs of shoes with crampons it has in its warehouses. The action ended around 00:30am Monday.
When asked whether the firefighters were well prepared given the Hong Kong Observatory’s warnings, the Fire Services Department said it was aware of the situation. “As early as the 21st [of January], we informed our personnel that this situation would be happening in the coming days,” said Assistant Director (New Territories) Yau Wai-keung.
Yau said that fire engines were equipped with the necessary gear for mountain rescue, but more special equipment was required after first responders assessed the situation.
Yau said that the department will seek to improve after the Tai Mo Shan mission: “We do not think this incident has undermined our operational capability with any forthcoming incidents.”
Meanwhile, the Government Flying Service said its helicopters completed 16 missions between 9am and 10pm Sunday.
At one point, the surfaces of some helicopters became “frozen” due to strong winds, ice and rain. With the wind chill effect, pilots were operating in temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius.
“Our crew realised the problem very early, but the situation was worse than expected and it happened fast. Our rescue mission could only be completed in a short period of time…” said West Wu Wai-hung, Chief Pilot (Operations) of the service.
He said that the helicopters had to lower their altitudes during the mission to defrost, and then fly back up to continue.
“We will improve our internal training,” Wu said. He added the crews have had training in the North Sea in the UK so are able to perform such rescues safely. He said that there will soon be new helicopters in service, which can perform better in icy weather.