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Friday, May 13, 2016

Rousing welcome for four returned home

KOTA KINABALU - A crowd of some 100 people burst into rousing applause when the four people, lost at sea off Sabah’s northern district Kudat 10 days ago, returned home today.

Stepping off their plane and into the sunshine, the four survivors were greeted like celebrities. Each were gifted with a woven bead necklace before their family members swooped down on with hugs.

For Kudat resort owner Tommy Lam Wai Yin who is celebrating his 44th birthday, today was extra significant as the Hong Konger who has been living in Sabah for years, was back alove with his loved ones.

The welcome wagon included some 20 family members of the survivors, representatives from the Spanish embassy, Malaysian security and enforcement and members of the media who were allowed to wait on the tarmac as the plane taxied onto the runway at 9.20am.

The four appeared in good spirits, despite visible sunburn marks and were quickly ushered onto stretchers to be sent to a hospital for more medical attention.

Family members of the four survivors were also seen hugging each other in jubilation after the four were driven away to the hospital in separate ambulances.

Tommy’s brother, James Lam, said that it would be a memorable birthday as the family had lost contact with the former for 11 days.

“We are so relieved to have him back here. We were so thankful for the good news, just on his birthday, too,” said James, 44, who was at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport here to greet Lam upon arrival.

James said that the family had always held on to the hope that they were alive, but imagine many scenarios that the four could have been through.

Tommy, the owner of Tommy’s Place at Kudat’s Tanjung Simpang Mengayau ― known widely as the Tip of Borneo ― is married to a Chinese Sabahan and has two children. His family has been residing in Sabah for the past two decades. Tommy is well known to local tourism industry figures.

The four ― Tommy, Spaniards David Hernandes Gasulla, 29 and Martha Miguel, 30 and Malaysian Armella Ali Hassan, 23 ― arrived here via a Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency’s Bombadier aircraft.

They had spent the night at the Layang Layang island navy base where they reached at about 10pm yesterday after being picked up by Malaysian authorities near Amboyna Cay, at the border between Malaysia and Vietnam waters at about 6pm.

Gasulla waved and gave big smiles to his family and crowd upon stepping off the plane, repeatedly saying “thank you” and “terima kasih” but did not respond to questions about his adventure at sea.

Ali Hassan Mohd Dusi, father to Armella, the sole Malaysian on the trip, was near tears upon seeing his daughter after 10 days.

“I had prayed and kept my hopes up the entire time. I always thought my daughter would come back to me. Yesterday, I heard my cell phone ringing and saw that it was an unknown international number and I immediately picked up and asked ‘Ella, is it you?, and she answered, yes its me, “ he said, breaking down in tears.

Ali Hassan said she told him she was in good health, despite being sunburnt and was treated well, being fed fish.

The four went missing in the evening of May 2 after a day trip to the lesser known Balambangan island off the northern coast of Kudat. A massive multi-agency search-and-rescue operation kicked off Tuesday for the four which lasted till May 12, at 4pm.

Last Sunday, local fishermen found a 3HP speedboat engine belonging to Tommy’s boat trapped in their nets.

The boat, on the other hand, had sunk to the sea bed some 2.6 nautical miles from Pulau Balambangan.

Yesterday morning, MMEA officials apprehended a Vietnamese fishing trawler and was alerted to Armella’s presence by radio on another trawler that was part of the same fleet and was told that Armella and Tommy were safe on one boat, with Gasulla and Miguel on another boat within the fleet.

The boat was however, heading back towards Vietnam and had refused to turn back to Malaysian waters to hand over the survivors.

After negotiations, two vessels from MMEA and the navy travelled to Amboyna Cay, some 200 nautical miles north of Kota Kinabalu to pick up the four from the Vietnamese fishing trawlers and brought them back to Layang Layang island by 10pm.

It has yet to be determined how or when the four had ended up on the Vietnamese trawlers.

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