Helimission, based on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, played a big part in relief efforts following a natural disaster that occurred last year.
On 28 September 2018, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake and the subsequent tsunami set off a humanitarian disaster on the island of Sulawesi. The epicentre was located not far from the capital city of Palu. Miraculously, none of the Helimission employees, who are situated right in the centre of the affected area, were injured. Our hangar, helicopter and all our employees’ houses were not seriously damaged, even though countless cracks in the buildings provide a constant reminder of the quake. It was impossible for the authorities to issue a tsunami warning, as only five minutes after the earthquake, the first wave hit the town. This was followed by two more waves of up to 20-ft high, which struck hard and swept away houses, debris, cars and people in its wake.
Another terrible phenomenon was the liquefaction of the ground. The shaking and jolting of the earth caused the groundwater to mix with the soil, transforming the ground under the houses and streets into a swamp, which literally drained off along the slope of the land, taking everything with it. Matthias Geiger, our base manager, pilot and mechanic, had returned with his family from Germany just one day before the terrible earthquake. Not imagining what would happen on the evening of 28 September, he helped finish the annual inspection of the helicopter less than one hour before the earth started to shake.
Helimission immediately joined forces with two other relief organisations on site to provide disaster relief as quickly as possible. Mission Aviation Fellowship MAF Disaster Response Team, who have a lot of experience with events such as these, managed and co-ordinated the relief flights.
We were one of the first outsiders to reach Kulawi, an area just south of Palu. We have not seen any areas that were worse affected in this disaster. Needless to say, the people there were desperate for help when we came. Not only did we bring them food and medical supplies, along with a team of doctors, but we were also able to bring them some hope in their hopeless situation. Whole villages in that area were flattened by the earthquake and everyone was camping out in the open. Everyone was obviously traumatised, and as the men tried to build some structures to live in, the women tried to feed their families and comfort the kids with hardly any resources available.
Landing in Kulawi, the full extent of this disaster hit me. After we unloaded the supplies, the doctors went to see patients. Some of the villagers were so desperate that they just handed us their kids, so they would be free to receive supplies and medical help. While they were distributing everything amongst themselves, we tried to entertain the kids and help them escape their misery for just a few moments.
Making it personal
I couldn’t help but think about my own son, who was in Palu during the earthquake. It was very disturbing to experience the ground shaking so violently and loudly; having to sleep outside in fear of aftershocks and witness some of the damage. How much harder must it have been for these kids who didn’t only feel and witness the disaster, but lost everything in that moment and very likely lost loved ones too? Not having any resources available and being totally dependent on people from outside, they were hoping they wouldn’t be forgotten, having been told by their parents that they had run out of food. It was up to me to do whatever I could to make their misery a little easier to bear.
Thank God all children around the world, traumatised or not, find humour in the same things: funny faces and high fives made them smile, and as I pulled out a picture of my wife and family, they were all eager to see. They knew that the people who had come to help them had experienced the very same earthquake – they know, they understand, it was hard for them too; but they still came to help. It meant the world to them – and to us.
Over 2,000 dead bodies have been recovered since the devastating earthquake. Because of dozens of aftershocks and another forecasted earthquake, many of Palu’s 330,000 inhabitants have moved away. Rebuilding this city will be a massive undertaking.
Helimission's Bell 206L-3 Long Ranger transported 53 tons of material and approximately 700 people, flew 83 flights with teams of doctors, totalling 157 helicopter hours flown and 401 landings.
Who is Helimission?
Helimission was founded in 1971 as a non-profit organisation which is registered in Switzerland. It currently operates permanent bases in Indonesia (Papua and Sulawesi) and Madagascar. It flies medical personnel and supplies into remote areas, rescues emergency patients, supports the building and maintaining of bush hospitals, carries out survey flights and much more. It also provides SOS relief in areas affected by catastrophes in co-operation with international and national relief organisations such as the International Red Cross, The UN refugee Agency, Doctors Without Borders, Humedica, Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit, OXFAM, The German Agency for Technical Relief CARE, Tear Fund, Save the Children and Feed the Hungry.
To find out more about Helimission, visit https://www.helimission-en.org/