10 years ago in Cambodia, Channel NewsAsia’s Justin Ong was a member of the Singaporean national dragonboat crew struck by tragedy. He recalls that fateful Friday evening of November 23rd, 2007.
I am going to die.
The thought - at first far-off and quickly dismissed - floods into focus as the cold river water gushes into my mouth. It is pitch-black. I cannot see my hands and feet, as I scramble along the bottom of the pontoon I’m trapped under.
With each move, I’m increasingly helpless against undercurrents churning, surging, spitting me back at speeds of up to 8 knots - as fast as the most ferocious whitewater rapids around.
There’s no telling if I’m going straight or in circles. No telling if I’m anywhere near getting out from under this basketball court-sized contraption - much less reaching the surface of 10m-deep waters.
I try to relax by exhaling, but the pain is unavoidable: Crushing, barreling down on my chest in escalating intensity - a pain I’ve never felt before, a pain I’ve never felt since.
I am drowning, but I want to keep going. I’ve got this, I think, until a circular veil creeps in from the sides of my eyes, laying darkness upon darkness, and then, there is nothing.
Earlier that day, in the morning of Nov 23, 2007, the Singapore national dragonboat team arrived for the first time at the venue for the ASEAN-Cambodia Traditional Boat Race in Phnom Penh.
Racing boats for Southeast Asian countries, lined up near the launching and docking points.
The 23 of us, accompanied by a coach and an official, knew little about the inaugural competition, apart from a link to Cambodia’s annual Water Festival. And the Tonle Sap turned out to be like no race site we’d ever seen.
The name literally translates to “large river” - one that at its most immense, sprawls 100km wide and 250km long in connection to the larger and more famous Mekong. Lining the banks were massive crowds, both tourists and locals, engaging in a surreal mix of the mundane and the carnival.
Spectators on the Tonle Sap riverbank.
Near our rest area a topless toddler defecated into the river. A few metres downstream, a villager scooped up water to rinse clothes. Behind them on the riverfront, music and dance performances played their part in an ancient celebration signaling the start of Cambodia’s rice harvesting season, coinciding with the Tonle Sap reversing its flow - supposedly the only river in the world to do so.
The stars of the show were the boats: Hundreds and hundreds of them, some making for a remarkable sight with dozens of paddlers standing precariously perched on impossibly long, thin, wooden crafts. Others were more conventionally powered by about 20 seated individuals - but still not entirely stable given the conditions.
Cambodian teams heading out for a race.
While on land, some of us had already observed how fast-moving the brown-dyed river was - I remember likening it to the pace of a road-racing cyclist - and that suspicion was confirmed when we had to paddle against the current to reach the start line for our late-afternoon qualifier against hosts Cambodia.
That was a workout in itself, and the ensuing 1,700m race proved testing as well, with blustery gusts and choppy waves battering our boat throughout.
I am underwater, but can still hear the top of my head pounding against the floor of our upside-down boat - a dull, metallic soundtrack to the panicking voice in my head.
Why am I stuck? What’s happening? OK, we capsized and I’m under our boat - which in turn is probably under the pontoon - but why is it so hard to swim out?
Again and again, I reach for the side of the boat and try to pivot free, only to be tossed back ragdoll-like, inside a pocket of space designed for the lower bodies of two paddlers sitting side-by-side.
Someone else is there with me. Maybe more than one, but it’s impossible to tell in the flurry of hands thrashing wildly, blindly in the murkiness. We are close - a tuft of hair grasped, a jawline palmed away - and over the years I’ve never stopped wondering who it could have been.
Meanwhile, I detect a first pang of terror - but nope, I'm not going out like this, I reckon, and ball up what’s left of that inbuilt fight-or-flight response to attempt another heaving swing.
I spin out and away, my limbs scraping the rough, barnacled underside of the pontoon.
Just get out of this now, I tell myself confidently, a split-second before it dawns on me:
Where’s the other guy?
Dusk was approaching as we made the trip back to shore after our race, sitting on a safety vessel with our boat in tow.
The Singapore team being towed to shore after their race. Justin Ong is in the middle, seated and wearing sunglasses.
Some teams ahead of us were getting back inside their boats to paddle the rest of the way. We opted to do the same, agreeing it would be good to get more practice and a better feel of the water conditions.
Soon the two pontoons marking our boat launch and return area came into view - ugly grey, protruding monstrosities seemingly cleaved out of a navy vessel and plonked into the river.
The pontoon that became the site of the accident.
We went past one pontoon, cleared the 50m gap between the two, and halfway through the second began to angle the boat to turn into the docking point.
It was the slightest, subtlest shift in direction, but what followed was an unexpected, almost turbulent trembling from underneath. I was nearly thrown off my seat, my paddle slipped in my grip and in front of me Reuben chuckled nervously.
I glanced left at Jeremy - unflappable as always - but in the background, the pontoon appeared to be rushing towards us, looming larger and nearer at startling velocity. We barely had time to brace for impact before our boat slammed in sideways with a nauseating, quaking thud.
The entire craft sank into the water, and I popped back up with the back of my head lodged against the side of the pontoon. I tried to swim one stroke forward - and a swirling eddy immediately sucked me down and below.
On land nearby, our two reserves watched in horror as events unfolded. They later spoke of an inertia amongst officials and onlookers alike, until other paddlers, screaming and shouting, started flinging life vests into the river, only for these buoyancy devices to be swallowed by what looked like mini-whirlpools.
Out on the water, each of the 21 paddlers - and one coxswain - were subject to different but no less harrowing experiences: Some avoided being dragged below; some went under briefly but were quickly swept out; some clung on to a tugboat moored close by, others emerged at the end of the pontoon after navigating its entire 45m length.
Where most saw light and made for the surface, I never did. I’m not sure if I passed out, or worse, but Cambodian festival helpers later said I was the last to be picked up, with my teammate on a rescue boat grabbing me by the tights as I floated past lifelessly. I hazily recall choking on water as I came to, a local’s open mouth hovering over mine, his fist on my chest.
After being brought to shore what was crystal-clear then to me, and everyone else, was that five were still missing: Reuben, Jeremy, Wei Zheng, Boon San and Stephen.
We stood around soaked, shivering and in shock, anxious for them to be found, until night fell, garish fireworks exploded overhead and we were whisked off to the hospital.
The dragonboaters being attended to at Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh.
The night was spent sleepless and sick in between violent coughing fits dispatching green-black river sediment.
Saturday was no better: A blur of sporadic sobbing, lost appetites, frustration and fury aimed at photographers snapping away at our privacy, and most of all the gut-wrenching, worry-filled wait for news.
Huddled together in one hotel room, we would veer from fearing the worst to dreaming up all manner of optimistic scenarios. Those five men, brothers to us, were our fittest and most capable and surely would have swam to shore somewhere - perhaps they were stranded at a village along the snaking river, just waiting to be rescued ...
Then, word filtered through on Sunday morning that they had recovered the bodies.
I remember the moment, and the profound sense of loss and anguish harboured since. Ten years on, it still is the most wretched thing, to realise that out of 22 who fought the unassailable opponent that is nature, it was only by sheer chance that five lost.
So I am nothing but lucky to be alive. I don’t know if I deserve this second shot, but I must carry on, and make the most of my remaining years. It is the least I can do on my part, to give any meaning to their time in this world, their memory, their legacy, their lives.
Hours before the tragedy, the Singapore dragonboat team posed for this photo.
A decade later: Returning for the first time
At first, there was nothing. Except maybe disbelief. The pontoon looked smaller, less threatening than I’d come to imagine. Surely we could have held our breath for the length of that thing. Why couldn’t we have swum out from under it?
Then I looked at the river - still the massive, fast-moving force of nature I remember. A tiny bead of fear ran cold down my spine.
All around me, too, were the same scenes from 10 years ago. Kids mucking about, swimming and peeing into the water. Their parents making a living by selling local snacks or knick-knacks to tourists. Seniors parked on benches, watching the world pass by to the rhythm of the river.
Ebb and flow, push and pull, give and take, life and death. I felt relief.