The events of 21st April and a positive thought


About 12 years ago while the '30-year-war' was still ongoing, three individuals from the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka, (CAASL), addressed the Directors of Health in all areas of the country at National Blood Bank, Colombo 5.

The first speaker was the Acting Director General of Civil Aviation, who briefed all present of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirements and procedures to be adhered to in the event of an air crash within the airspace of Sri Lanka. Then a senior Sri Lanka Air Force doctor who was also a member of CAASL medical panel, spoke about the fallibility of the human being, accident causation and prevention, medical aspects of an air crash and why it is important to secure a crash site till the experts arrive. He also mentioned of how the dead could 'speak' to the accident investigators who amongst other things like the black boxes, would be able to analyse the direction of impact along with the other pathological evidence and scatter patterns of debris to arrive at a probable cause of the accident.

The third speaker was an airline pilot who brought to the attention of all present that year by year the aircraft operating into and overflying Sri Lanka were becoming larger and larger and that accidents did not always happen at airports and that an air disaster could easily involve over 400 victims.

His question was whether Sri Lankans in general and all the Directors of Health specifically, were prepared, trained and equipped to handle such a large number of victims. Were potential body storage areas (like large buildings) identified, were large amounts of body bags even available? Were the hospitals in the Island equipped to handle such a catastrophe?

Accidents, however unlikely, happen without warning. It was evident that at that time, that our health system was not quite ready to handle such large numbers of victims in case of such an unfortunate event 'at one go'. It was very worrying, to say the least. We could have a big air disaster anytime and at any place.

Yet, the events of the April 21st 2019, showed otherwise. The Health Department, the private hospitals and the general public rose up to the occasion under the most trying circumstances. There were a large number of ambulances available to carry the injured. All hospitals got into high gear, quickly. While there were isolated instances of bringing in the dead and body parts instead of giving priority to survivors who needed immediate attention after the event, in that short time period known in medical circles as the 'Golden Hour' where immediate surgical intervention after trauma could help save lives. The hospital entrances were crowded with kith and kin and impeded entry of the victims. In that sense, it was far from Formula 1 precision.

Many good Samaritans arrived at the Blood Bank to donate blood. A doctor was observed to use money from his own pocket to help 'local purchase' milk for the blood donors. We got our body count wrong. At least one victim at the Katuwapitiya church lost all his personal jewellery (bracelet, watch, ring etic) including his house keys. Was the looting of victims as bad as immediately after the Central Bank Bomb? I don't know, but I digress.

This must have been the first time we, in Sri Lanka had to deal with such a large number of victims in one event after the Tsunami. In that event we were all caught by surprise and were helpless for a while. All these occurrences should be treated as learning experiences where immediate action, security and preparedness is concerned. The bottom line was that we moved as one at the time of crisis. Yes, it brought out the best and the worst in us.

It is hoped that all the all the good, bad and ugly experiences of disaster management of 21st April, will be discussed by the authorities, documented and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP's) developed for the future and activities fine-tuned, based on our recent experiences. As we say in the aviation circles, we should be preventive, proactive and predictive.

Without keeping the information to themselves, let them disseminate to the general public the dos and don'ts and remind them of the Alternative Positive Behaviours (APB) after a catastrophe and how the public can help instead of hinder. That may be the 'silver lining' in the dark cloud we are currently under and people Churches and Hotels need not have died in vain.


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