Trekking to the Sukhoi crash site
I think this has been my hardest assignment to get photos since I began working for Reuters.
Wednesday afternoon at the office I received news that a Russian Sukhoi Superjet 100 passenger plane with 46 people on board had lost contact with air traffic control at Jakarta’s Halim Perdana Kusuma airport during their demonstration flight over Mount Salak. After more than four hours of no contact, it meant the aircraft was lost, crashed or had made an emergency landing. I decided to spend the night at the office to figure out the fastest options for covering the Sukhoi news, and to prepare all the camera equipment in the pictures vehicle. After a discussion with Heru Asprihanto from TV and Indonesia bureau chief Matthew Bigg, we decided to wait until morning to head to the the nearby location Mount Salak.
After taking photos in the morning of volunteers preparing to climb Salak Mountain, I received information that the Sukhoi aircraft had crashed after hitting a slope atop Mount Salak. For Indonesians, it is common for aircraft to hit the mountain. Since 2004, four aircraft have crashed there, the worst an Indonesian air force aircraft in 2008 that killed 18 soldiers on board.
After eating lunch, I joined the first rescue team heading to the crash site. The team said it would need two to three hours to climb to the crash site from our position. I thought I would need between four to six hours to climb up and walk back down, before managing to send pictures to the desk at around 6pm local time. I joined the team, deciding not to carry a laptop and sat phone in order to lighten the baggage that I was carrying while climbing. It would also prevent any damage to the equipment should I fall. I had five chocolate bars, 1.5 liters of water, two camera bodies and three lenses, alongside a pocket knife, headlamp and rain coat in my backpack.
The team had received coordinates for the crash site – around seven kilometers in a straight line from our position. In the beginning it was quite difficult to keep up with the fast pace of the rescue team members, made up of mainly Indonesian military soldiers. Mount Salak is a tropical rainforest; foggy but warm and wet, and with many insects and leeches. After walking for two hours I began to adapt to the situation. The wet path was almost like vertical stairs. I often needed to grip onto tree roots to help pull myself up.
Taking pictures? I had almost forgotten to because I was so busy trying to control my steps on the slippery wet ground and manage my breathing to keep up with the rescue team. After walking for more than five hours we still hadn’t reached the crash site. It was beginning to get dark as it approached 5pm local time. We walked over tree roots covered by green algae, growing on the ridge of the hill. On both the left and right side was a deep valley. The GPS indicated that it was just one more kilometer to the crash site, but after looking at a map, a team member said it wasn’t possible to cross the deep valley as it was too dangerous. We would have to walk around the mountain peaks to reach the crash site – another four hours from our current position! This was far longer than I had expected.
As I sat to take a break, I had to choose between two options. Firstly, follow the team to stay overnight on the ridge of the hill with temperatures dropping to 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) without a jacket or a tent and walk back the following morning. Or secondly, go back to the village and lose the opportunity to reach the crash site. Checking my supplies; I was down to my last two chocolate bars and 0.5 liters of water, no jacket and no tent. If I was to continue to follow the team I would need more supplies and water, along with a warm jacket.
So, I decided to walk back down to Cipelang village because I didn’t want to be another problem for a team still hoping to rescue from Sukhoi passengers alive. After a more than four-hour-long walk along a dark slippery track, and more than 12 falls, I reached the village at 9pm.
With the crash site found it had been confirmed that the plane had broken into small pieces after hitting the side of the mountain and there was no chance anyone had survived. After failing my first attempt to get to the crash site, I prepared my supplies, equipment, and enlisted a local as a guide for a second chance. During a long discussion with local villagers, they showed me another track to reach the crash site from Cidahu village. Residents said there was a climbing route to reach the top of Salak Mountain that required a 6–8 hour walk. Finally, I decided to leave for the crash site from Cidahu village.
Fully prepared with food, water, a small tent, mattress, jacket and a raincoat, I began walking at 9 am to reach the crash site along an ordinary track to the peak. Bang Maman (seen in the photo above), a local guide from Cidahu village, accompanied me on my second chance to reach the site. He also carried all my equipment, except for my camera gear. The track was not easy but not dangerous like the Cipelang trail. Just before 3pm, after a six hour walk, I reached base camp for the rescue volunteers, just 50 meters from the summit of Salak Mountain and the crash site. The view from the mountain was dominated by the green of temporary military tents. To collect the bodies of passengers, the volunteers used ropes to reach the crash site. It was heavy work as they collected the remains, dragging them to Salak Mount peak for evacuation by helicopter to a hospital in Jakarta.
Cold weather and a strong wind hampered the volunteers. “The hardest thing is not collecting the pieces of dead bodies but when the night comes. The wind is strong and the temperature reaches 4 degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit). Because of the cold, the night seems very long here and our dream is of when the sun comes up,” said young soldier Rohmat Sanjaya as he collected dead trees to burn at night. Shouts of joy could be heard everywhere early in the morning as the sun rose and the cold air disappeared. Like Rohmat said the rescuers needed three things; water, food, and sun.
In the morning I wanted to go down a 300 meter vertical wall into the valley to take pictures of the plane debris. But a volunteer stopped me as I didn’t have the necessary body harness, descending and ascending equipment. After trying to reach the crash site on two occasions by using different tracks, I still failed to get pictures. Was I disappointed? Yes and no. This is life; sometimes you get what you want, sometimes not. I was disappointed because I didn’t get any photos but at least I didn’t create another problem for the rescue team. At least six photographers and a reporter had to be evacuated by the rescue team during their assignment on Mount Salak.