Another new house
With the time judged to be about right, Jimmy approached the owner of the land behind our house, actually three land owners with all the acreage he wanted. The first small farm was up for sale, so that wasn't a problem, a quick sale and an extra one hundred and sixty acres acquired, Rolf extending the fence along a winding road that delineated the northern edge of the property. The third property would have been isolated if we could not acquire the middle property, so they were approached first. Their land consisted of almost fifty percent mixed woodland and backed onto the river, a valuable stretch for trout and salmon fishing. We sat and had a pleasant chat with the owners, asked if they want to sell "some" land, suggesting to them we wanted cottages for family and visitors. They made various non-committal noises, so we left them to it.
The area we had already purchased was cleared quickly, trees cut down, tarmac avenues laid. Those trees that remained had their branches below seven foot chopped down, many bonfires burning the debris of an afternoon. Jimmy had applied to the local council the day we had signed for the new property, a hefty planning petition to build "staff" houses in the grounds, the plans pre-prepared and professionally presented. Since they were for our staff, and internal - not on a public street or for public sale or use - only the construction needed planning permission. And, with the proposed houses hidden from view of the public road, there was little for any neighbours to object about.
Foundations were laid in anticipation, gas and electric extended to non-existent premises. When the permission arrived the builders were waiting, brought in the next day. Eight houses would now be built on an internal avenue, the tree-lined avenue leading to our house one way, to a distant gate the other way. Each new house would be two storey, four bedroom, but with high sloping roofs and loft conversions. Front grass would be communal, rear gardens segregated with six foot wooden fencing. We even put in street lighting.
When the neighbours in the middle saw the building work for the new houses they figured that we had given up on them, but gave an asking price anyway - only if it included their whole property. We waited a few weeks then made a low offer. The offer was accepted a week later, paid and signed in record time. That day we drove to the third property, whose owners wanted to retire abroad. We now had the three properties, the final property important for privacy, since its small rise would afford the press a view into the main central area, and one damp Monday afternoon Jimmy presented Rolf plans for the main house. Poor old Rolf asked Jimmy if he was crazy, making me laugh. So what if it was bigger than Buckingham Palace, the Palace was not that big. With his head spinning, Rolf headed up the estate to look over the topography.
As we had done on the first plot, we trimmed the trees, and all branches below seven feet, some left for ornate appreciation, a few left as a barrier to being viewed from the road. Internal avenues were laid across the land as per Jimmy's precise instructions, not least to give the builders unhindered access across sodden ground. The fence was quickly extended all the way around the estate, a second fence placed fifty yards inside. That was the special fence, to be fitted with sensors, the first was to keep out the public.
I got home one day to an empty house and decided to have a nose at the new foundations, finding five yellow portakabins belonging to the builders, a guard supplied by the builders looking after their huts. A second guard approached, a man that Jimmy had just employed, another mate of Big Paul's called Rob, the guy around forty. He greeted me with two fully-grown Alsatians, pointing at his temporary home just down slope. I wasn't happy at him living there, said so, and led him down to have a look. The cabin was like a caravan on the inside, quite cosy. And came complete with four Alsatian pups in a basket.
'For this place when it's ready.'
'Be eight then, ' I realised.
'Need it, it's fucking big place.'
'You happy with this caravan for six months?'
'Sure, I've lived in worse. And it saves coming back and forth. When I want a warm shower I use Ricky's place, Cookie spoils me, so no big deal. With my wages I'm saving money; there's no rent.'
'None of the above, ' he said with a grin.
We ambled back up, throwing tennis balls for the dogs, and stopping at the muddy foundations.
'What's that going to be?' he asked, pointing at a concrete section.
'Swimming pool. Rest will be a sort of basement office.'
'Very ... big place. You'll live in one the houses?'
'Nope, got a cottage down by the river. Jimmy offered it, to me so I took it. Isolation, river, woods – it'll do me fine. What you doing down river from it, those big holes?'
'Two fucking great ponds, linked to the river.'
'You must be psychic - fishing's my passion. You'll stock them?'
'No, they'll have special little tunnels to the river so that fish can get in at certain water heights.'
'You'll have trout in there, coming and going. Be interesting to see what else turns up. If you get Dace or Grayling in there they'll make a happy home and stay. What's the little wall for down there?'
'Flooding. Some years it comes a foot over the side. Your cottage at river level?'
'Nah, four or five feet above it.'
'Why aren't you in there now?' I puzzled.
'Being gutted and done out. Three months work.'
'Get some fly fishing rods, you can teach me. We'll have a go at the river.'
'Sunday I'll be down there, after 8am.'
'It's a date.'
Mickey and Yuri had been joined by two Russian pilots down on their luck and in need of some work – no matter how dangerous, both Mi24s now in use and attacking convoys or jeeps when they were spotted. Hardly a Somali gunmen would dare venture out in our area. And that area was creeping slowly towards Mogadishu; not on the ground, but in the air. North of Mogadishu, along the Ethiopian border, we extended our influence, easily taking land that was barren and mountainous, land that no one wanted.
When Jimmy considered the time was just about right we launched a large-scale attack at dawn, one day in June. The two Mi24s lifted off, followed by a line of six Cobras and four support Hueys, Hal and Hacker both in action. They flew directly to the important banana growing region north of Mogadishu, part controlled by Aideed, part controlled by his rivals, and the source of their rivalry; the banana sales propped up Aideed's militia. Ten small bridges over gullies were destroyed, two more significant bridges downed. Where the roads were good, half-decent tarmac surfaces, large holes were blown into them. The helicopters then set about the trucks used to move the bananas, finding them helpfully parked in neat rows. At the end of the operation, anyone wanting to move bananas to Mogadishu's port would have to first borrow a few trucks, and then divert a long way around the blown bridges.
Abdi had men working in the port, his spies, and no trucks came for a week. When the trucks re-appeared, Scorpion Base received a signal, the repaired bridges blown again, roads further potholed. The trickle of lorries slowed, hurting Aideed in the pocket. When Aideed, now struggling financially, met to discuss this common threat with the other warlords we were waiting, Jimmy having anticipated the meeting. Many of Abdi's men had been placed inside Aideed's militia, a small transmitter giving the helicopters a signal to close in on. With the sound of the helicopters scattering men at the meeting, the noose was tightened, the approaching Cobras making holes in the road as they approached. In an operation that lasted six hours, our helicopters returned time and again, strafing the jeeps and attacking buildings. At sundown the US Navy intercepted phone calls; Aideed, many of his lieutenants and two other warlords, were reported dead.
Abdi was now Colonel Abdi, and commanded over two thousand men, many having switched sides as a prudent move. They were well trained, well equipped, and – unlike those they fought against - well fed. The exiled government had returned, first to Baardheere, then to a coastal town, and gave our activities more credibility. We gave them money, Abdi gave them grudging respect, and they told the world's press that they had invited us in.
With the death of Aideed we did the unexpected, and pulled back. The regular Kenyan Army took responsibility for the border, the Kenyan Rifles massing in the southwest with the Somali Rifles under the young Colonel Abdi. The first small town on our list was surrounded, the armed men inside told to come out - or be slaughtered. They took the sensible option, not least because of fly-bys with everything we had that could stay airborne; the inhabitants must have thought we had a hundred aircraft. Abdi's men moved in and searched everyone, and every house and building, a few exchanges of gunfire. All weapons were collected in, the local leader allowed to keep a few for personal protection. Abdi left ten soldiers of the Kenyan Rifles and twenty Somali Rifles to police the small town.
The next town along the coast was larger, but the same fly-by left the residents fearing annihilation. Leaflets were dropped, armed men told to surrender – or else. Some surrendered, some threw their weapons into the harbour, and some hid their weapons. On the second day, the combined forces moved in before dawn, searching houses, setting up roadblocks. Abdi's men had already infiltrated the town, and now pointed out gunmen and warlords, the men taken away - never to be seen again. Houses and compounds belonging to the warlords were raided, weapons seized.
The third town was larger again, and again rude dawn fly-bys were duly organised. But this time Abdi's men had snuck into the town in reasonable numbers. At dawn on the prescribed day the combined forces moved in, Abdi's men hidden near the abodes of the identified, yet sleepy, warlords. When the men in question fled their rude awakening they were cut down, air strikes called in where pockets of gunmen grouped. Three towns had now been liberated, government officials moving in, along with the UN and other NGOs. To settle the populations, food trucks rumbled in from Kenya, wheat from the UN and the US. And that signalled a pause, and a consolidation, as Abdi's men spied on movements in Mogadishu.
1998. Calling International Rescue
June and July were typically very hot in Kenya, as well as in Hong Kong. With a combined training exercise well overdue, we organised an exercise with Dunnow's old mates in the Australian Army – they had read the books. June and July in Oz were typically cooler by a few degrees – it being their winter, but the scheduled exercise was being held in the tropical north. The majority of our experienced staff assembled in Nairobi on June 20th and a party of fifty-two departed by commercial airliner to Australia, heading for Cairns in the northeast. It was a long way to send our Hercules aircraft, so we simply hired three commercial Hercules, the Australian Army laying on two more for the exercise if we'd pay the fuel.
RF Hong Kong turned out in force for the exercise, sixty of them, our people billeted at a seldom used and remote Army base. The base consisted of a meandering spread of low huts, a large mess hall, and not much else. The ground was hard and parched, one small area of green grass in front of the mess being nurtured. Along roads with whitewashed curbs, we would walk or drive back and forth to the mess hall or the toilet blocks.
The first exercise involved long distance navigation in hired tourist jeeps, a four day jaunt of sleeping rough and camping along the roadside, "Roos" shot and cooked. That was followed by several days of survival training, courtesy of our Australian Army hosts, whilst Jimmy finished off a special training scenario. Po and Han came down to see how the HK teams were doing, and joined me and Jimmy as the special scenario was finished, the first mixed group of five rescuers being brought out to it, Dunnow and Ratchet amongst them. Forty miles from anywhere, in the middle of a flat expanse, our convoy of trucks disturbed the Roos and pulled up on the wreck of a large aircraft. I noticed immediately a camera fixed to a pole, trained on the wreck. With a hand over my eyes I took in the flat shimmering horizon, finding no features.
Jimmy called everyone together. 'Ratchet, you're nominated leader, Dunnow second in command for the next seven days. This ... is your scenario. That –' He pointed at the wreck with a mischievous smile. –' was your aircraft, which crashed here. Inside you'll find a map indicating where the pilot marked his last known position before dying. Inside the aircraft is everything you're allowed to have and to use for seven days. You may, if you wish, wait to be rescued. You may decide to walk out of here - it's only forty miles to the nearest farm. If you get lost, it's sixty or seventy miles. It's your call; we're not giving you any advice. Ratchet, take your people inside.'
As Ratchet led his perplexed team of unwilling volunteers inside, we drove off in a cloud of dust and left them to it.
'How much food?' I asked with a grin.
'Enough for three days.'
'Three days?' Po repeated. 'It small.'
'It ... is a test, ' Jimmy emphasised. 'There's fuel in the wings, water in the engines, local animals that could be trapped. They can make tools from the wrecked aircraft, and they have a satellite phone just in case. There're also two dummies in the pilot's seats; they have compasses and matches – assuming they're searched.'
Eight days later the weary group reached a farm; improvised headgear, improvised walking sticks, improvised sunglasses, cans of fuel for fires, other cans for water. Their lips were cracked, their feet raw, the local farmer shocked. Back at camp we greeted them with cold beers and quick medicals. And they were sworn to secrecy, the next group already debating whether to stay with the wreck or head out on foot.
Isolated from the rest, their feet soaking in water, I asked the first group of victims, 'Did you find the compass?'
'No, ' they puzzled.
'It was in the dead pilot's flight suit.'
'Nope.' They exchanged looks.
'Water in the engines?' I probed.
'Yep, got that out and cleaned it up.'
'Catch any animals?'
'Killed a small kangaroo, ' they admitted.
'Made nice light tents from the parachutes?' I teased.
'Nope, ' they groaned, looks again exchanged. 'And fucking Wombat Fly Boy was with us!'
They got a full debrief from the Australian Army on what else they could have done, or done safer and better, two day's rest earned, blisters tended.
The second group used the parachutes, and the water in the engine. They found the flares, the matches and the compass, then right royally screwed up the navigation and marched a hundred miles, right into a town. While that was going on our main body launched airborne rescues in isolated areas: an hour's flight, a day's march – camping out at night, a rescue in a collapsed building – an old mine building, followed by a march back out and a flight back.
The third group at the plane wreck were led by a HK doctor. He organised everything very well, but caught so much food they decided to stay, eventually relieved by the next team. There was no rule against waiting to be rescued, it was a test of survival skills, and the camels and kangaroos would not be missed, the team actually putting on weight.
On July the 15th we deliberately gave them a two day break in Cairns town; shopping, swimming, exploring. Everyone was refreshed when they returned on the 17th. That evening, with everyone sat eating in the large mess hall, we got a call from Hancock in Hong Kong: there'd been an earthquake in Papua New Guinea and could we help, the call no surprise to us.
With everyone conveniently gathered in one place, Jimmy stood on a chair and called for silence. 'Listen up! There's been an earthquake in Papua New Guinea, a bad one. It's not far, so we're attending. You've got ten minutes to pack your kit. Move it, people!'
A thunderous scrapping of chairs preceded a mass exodus. We called the airfield and asked for the Hercules to be made ready, and could the Australian Army loan us theirs as well – we'd pay the fuel. Our hosts rallied every mode of transport they could find and we headed out to the airfield. Assembled at the airfield, national teams were made up, sub-teams grouped. I patrolled the lines, giving out Australian dollars, indicating that they should be used to buy local food and shelter in Papua.
With Hancock getting us permissions for the operation we took off for Papua New Guinea, Jimmy telling the pilots to head to the northern coast, explaining that we had UN permission, which we didn't. Ear defenders were handed out and checked, the inside of Hercules a good environment for high-tone deafness for unprotected ears. Dunnow and two others rigged hammocks, people found comfortable places to lie down, the basic seating along the insides of the fuselage unsuitable for long flights.
In little under an hour we approached the Southern Coast of Papua New Guinea, the pilots relaying to the local air traffic controllers that we were a UN emergency flight. No objections came back for a lack of a flight plan. Jimmy and I heated water, every Hercules having a small water heater, and we made tea whilst trying to remain upright in the turbulence. Teas and coffees were distributed, performed with some difficulty in the darkened hold.
Just over three hours after taking off we landed at Vanimo's small airfield, the tower not expecting us, but not surprised either; the north coast was a disaster zone. The first thing I spotted after landing was a bright red Huey sat on the apron. With the Hercules powering down, the trailing Hercules coming into land with their lights blazing, I walked into the small tower building and found the pilot's lounge, a few people milling around.
'Whose helicopter is that?' I shouted.
A man with a heavy frown stepped in, looking me over. 'Mine. Why?' The pilot, obviously an Australian, squinted out the window at the Hercules.
'You want a week's work at a thousand dollars a day?' I waved a wad of Australian dollars.
'I run Rescue Force, and those are my UN medics. We want to get where the damage is.'
'Oh, right. You ... er ... pay fuel?'
'And your lunch, and a bonus for good work.' I gave him five thousand dollars.
'OK, ' he said, making a face.
I stepped closer. 'Fuel it, get it ready.' He stepped out, and I joined the rescuers forming into groups, stood under the airport's bright lights. 'I've hired that Huey, so teams of six will go out. That's teams of six, some of you ... get into teams of six!'
Ten minutes later the Huey lifted off into the black night sky, Jimmy and I grabbing a man with a car, Australian dollars thrust into his hand. He took us the short distance south to a logging company, tooting as we entered. We found another Australian.
'We're UN, we've got medics at the airport, ' I shouted.
'That's who landed.'
'We'd like to hire some jeeps, or trucks, anything you got, ' Jimmy told him.
'Oh, well ... I got two open top trucks.'
'Thousand Australian dollars a day each, ' I told him, waving the money.
'The drivers are asleep inside, mate. You can have the drivers, but I want them to stay with their trucks.' He pointed out the two trucks, so I handed over four thousand dollars, Jimmy and I soon waking up the local men, who smelt as if they had made a home in the truck cabins.
Back at the airport, we loaded as many people as we could onto the backs of the trucks, the small airfield now appearing cramped with the Hercules. We set-off into the dark, Jimmy knowing exactly where he was headed.
We pulled up first at a small hospital, Jimmy climbing out the truck and shouting, 'Four doctors, four nurses!' Eight people jumped down with their packs. 'Do what you can here, meet back at the airport if there's a problem – that's the command centre.'
Knowing exactly where he was going, Jimmy drove on into the night, occasionally passing local people walking both ways, some appearing dazed. And the wet road was becoming a slalom course of debris. At the next junction we could go no further, Jimmy knocking off his engine and jumping down, signalling everyone to de-bus.
With the gang assembled, he addressed the group in the light from my truck's beams, more than sixty people. 'I cannot brief you well, because we don't know what's out there. This road goes on another thirty miles down the coast towards Aitape, and it looks blocked, so you're on foot. If you can find local transport then hire it - or steal it. There's been an earthquake here, and a tidal wave apparently. In your teams, follow the coast road, but don't go far inland because it's uninhabited jungle. I don't want any team smaller than four people at any one time.' The Huey flew over us, back towards the airport. 'We'll be here with the trucks, so try and bring the injured here and we'll ferry them back. If we're not here, we'll be at that small hospital, or the airfield. I want three teams searching this small village, the rest of you head up the coast road in your teams, and stick to the road till it's light. And good luck.'
They marched off through in the dark, over the junction and around fallen trees, some checking nearby houses. We soon had ten dead bodies, many children, but no one alive who was injured and in need of our attention; whatever had happened here, it left healthy people or dead people, none in between. I stood at the darkened crossroads and watched the Huey head down the coast, figuring I should be up there at the controls. With the sounds of the wind reclaiming the night, I stood and stared at distant dark shadows. The white uniforms helped, but there was no illumination at all here. A cry caught my attention, but I couldn't figure out where it was coming from. There it was again, off to the right.
'Over here!' I called out, the sound of boots on the road signalling the approach of a team of four. 'Stop and listen. Quiet!'
We listened, catching another cry. 'It's coming from that tree, ' someone said. And there were lots of trees. 'Go towards the sound.'
The man did so, and we followed him, soon a splash as he waded through water and into a field. 'Hello?' he called, getting back a cry. 'Here, ' he called, and we followed his dark outline. Turning on a small torch, he illuminated two children up a tree, their mother close by and obviously dead, hanged by a branch. 'Get below them, I'll go up.'
Holding the torch in his mouth, he began climbing as we stood up to our ankles in mud and water. The kids began screaming, so he simply grabbed them and unceremoniously dropped them to us, one aged around six, the other around four. The women in the group grabbed the naked kids, soothing them as we squelched back to the road. As we reached the junction a car approached from the inland direction, waved down. Peering inside, we could see only the driver.
'You go hospital?' I asked.
The man nodded, the kids loaded with the two women medics, the vehicle heading back the way we had come.
A few hours later, with the dawn half-light illuminating the bodies, Jimmy headed back to organise things. Two of our groups, those that had been searching the immediate area, approached the crossroads.
'Mount up, ' I said. 'We'll try and drive up that road.'
I woke up the driver, who seemed none too concerned about the carnage, and we set off down a road of grey pre-dawn images, soon swerving around fallen tress. In front of one large tree we had to stop. I had noticed chains in the rear and so grabbed them, soon tying off the tree and dragging it as the lorry reversed. It was enough of a gap, so we pressed forwards as the sun threw light over the devastated coastal area, noting numerous bodies face down in water as we progressed. We slowed as a group of locals approached. Since they displayed bright white bandages on various wounds we figured they had been seen.
A mile further along we spotted a group of four of ours tending a family, tooting and waving as we passed. Another tree was dragged with the chain, allowing us to progress further, the morning now bright and warming up. Two miles around a headland we found a small village and another crossroads, and what looked like two or three teams. I tooted as we approached, halting near them.
'That road clear now?' they asked, getting back a thumbs-up from me. 'Load these people.'
I indicated for the driver to do a three-point turn, facing us the opposite way, then jumped down with the others to load the injured. One child, still conscious and wide eyed, displayed a long piece of wood right through her abdomen, the remainder injured by floating debris; twelve were loaded up. I sent a team back with them, telling the driver to come back to this spot – and wondering all the while if he would.
The truck disappeared around the headland, leaving me with a very muddy group of medics, a wide variety of nationalities. 'Take five, ' I told them. 'When then truck gets back we'll try the road again, clearing as we go.'
I closed in on Dunnow when I recognised him. 'How're the feet?'
'Still damn sore, now sopping wet.'
Ten minutes later the sound of a helicopter caught our attention, the red Huey coming into land when it saw us. As it touched down Jimmy stepped out of the rear, quickly unloaded several cardboard boxes. With a thumbs-up he closed he door and it lifted off. Closing in on the boxes I could see water bottles, chocolate and apples.
'Grub's up!' I shouted. Everyone received a much-needed chocolate bar, an apple and a small bottle of water.
A long twenty minutes later the truck returned, our medics still aboard. We mounted up and pressed on, twenty medics in white aboard a dirty and dilapidated old truck; an odd sight for roadside pedestrians. Around the next headland we approached a small town, part of which included a shanty town built into a hillside; people must have survived the tidal wave up there, I considered. I directed the driver towards the main square, driving through drifts of sand, soon finding other teams treating dozens of injured.
'Unload!' I shouted to the gang in the back, directing the driver to turn around again. I soon realised there were more injured than we had space on the truck. 'Dunnow, grab two men, come here.'
In a ditch we yanked, pulled and pushed a trailer up onto the road and hitched it to the back of the lorry, space for ten kids in the trailer after we scooped out the sand. We put two mildly injured locals in the cab, the rest in the back and sat upright shoulder to shoulder, the kids in the trailer with one medic, the smallest lady we could find. With all the injured loaded, room for only one medic in the back, I told the driver to go slow, giving him a few dollars before sending him off.
Ratchet approached. 'Everyone down here is dead, those up the hill are injured. Tidal wave smashed into them, so the houses below rammed into the houses above.'
'Houses, they're just shacks, ' I noted. 'Many more injured up there?'
'Fucking loads of them. We'll need that truck back.'
'Bring them down, it'll take half an hour minimum for the truck.'
Tooting caught our attention, a bright yellow bus coming around the far headland. When it neared I could see Hildy driving. Stepping aboard I scanned the bus, finding a handful of injured.
'We need the bus, we've got a lot of injured here.' Everyone else could now see the bus; they could hardly miss it. 'Drive up that hill and turn around if you can, the injured are up there.'
She turned the bus and headed up the hill as I hopped off, remaining at the crossroads. By time she returned to the crossroads the truck was back.
I said to her, 'Keep this bus, it's ours now, bring it back.'
She eased around the truck and headed off down the road as I called to the teams. 'Many more up there?' The answer was no. 'On me, everyone!' I waved them towards me, directing them onto the truck, just squeezing them all on. Stood at the rear of the truck I said, 'Is that all of ours, no one missing?' They checked off their teams, finally satisfied, and we pushed on around the next headland. As we trundled slowly along we passed people on the roadside, able-bodied locals walking along, and covered a good four miles through lush green vegetation before the next village.
Alongside a team of ours I stopped the truck. 'What's here? Anything?'
'Mostly dead, a few minor wounds. We got two cars working.'
'Take your team back to that hospital, it's probably a bit swamped by now.'
With our driver finding the right gear, eventually, we pulled forwards. Around the next bend we happened across a small industrial complex, a team visible inside; white jackets on the top, muddied trousers on the bottom. Stopping, I tooted, a rescuer running towards us.
'What's in there?' I asked him from the truck cabin.
'We just found a large number of injured at the rear, the company nurse looking after them.'
'Hop on, show us.' I directed the driver inside.
The truck bounced along uneven surfaces, past rusted metal frames and damaged buildings, and wooden huts that would have stood no chance against a tidal wave. We climbed a gentle rise and stopped, many men now visible sat against a hut that had survived.
'All out!' I cried.
With everyone down, the driver turned in a wide circle and halted ready. Inside the hut I could see twenty injured, many serious, the doctors taking charge and shouting various medical conditions to each other, ranking their priorities. I fetched a water bottle, little else I could do, and offered sips to the men outside. The last man was a white, not a local. 'Here, ' I said, giving him a sip.
'Where did ... you come from?' he gasped.
'We're Rescue Force, we flew up from Australia, but we're normally based in Kenya.'
'Kenya?' He reached around behind himself, dragging forwards a jacket. 'Nothing to do ... in the evenings here, ' he struggled to get out. 'We read ... a lot.'
He handed me a sodden paperback, making me laugh. 'That's us.' I opened the wet pages, finding the centre almost dry. Selecting my black and white image, I held the page next to my face and raised my eyebrows.
'Fuck me, ' he whispered. 'Of all the places, and all the fucking people to meet.' He coughed again, now a trickle of blood down his chin.
I stopped smiling. 'You ... OK?'
'Don't think so.' He coughed up more blood.
'Medic!' I called. 'Get me a doctor!'
A HK doctor knelt beside me. 'Internal bleeding, maybe a punctured lung.' He hurriedly placed on his stethoscope and listened to the man's breathing for a minute. 'Fluid in both lungs.' He felt the man's chest, making the man wince. 'Ribs cracked both sides, lungs punctured.'
He stood, so I followed him up. 'Should we get him straight to that hospital.'
The doctor led me away. 'He doesn't have the time. We'd need a full surgical ward right here, and then it would be touch and go.' The doctor walked off, leaving me feeling like yanking him back. I knelt again, not knowing what to say or do.
The man stared up at me, his eyelids heavy. 'I have ... a daughter ... in Taunton, Somerset. Tell her ... I'm sorry.' He coughed up bright red frothy blood, his chin now covered. 'Liked the book... '
Nothing more came from. I didn't know at what point he died, he just stopped; there was no last gasp, no slumping or falling over, he just stopped whilst still staring at me. I stood up. This was all a bit too real. The rest of the injured men were being tended by our medics as I just stood there holding the damp book. Tossing the book into the bushes, I knelt down again and eased him over onto his side, checking his back pockets and pulling out his wallet. Inside I found a driver's license, enough to identify him from. I pocketed the license, placing the wallet back.
Back at the truck, a doctor announced that they had twelve injured to move straight away. I nodded absently, helping to load them onto the back of the truck. Leaving the teams behind, I jumped into the cabin and directed the driver back to the hospital, a glance back at a line of feet sticking out of a sheet.
It was noon by time we reached the hospital. I sent the truck back without me, catching a lift along the coast and to the airport, figuring I'd should probably be organising things there. Hungry and thirsty, I jumped out at the airfield's busy gate and thanked the driver. Ambling in, feeling in no particular hurry, I noticed a number of tents, figuring they were ours. Chinese medics jogged past as I closed in on the tower, but a call caused me to turn. Jimmy waved me over to a tent, disappearing back inside. I ducked into the tent, finding Hancock from Hong Kong, plus many of our senior staff, Doc Graham and Doc Hoskins attending a map spread over a table. Jimmy thrust two tins of meat and a spoon into my hand.
'You look knackered. Get some food in you.'
Doc Graham lifted his head. 'Anymore injured at that mine?'
'Just ... minor injuries, rest I ferried to the hospital, ' I reported in a low voice, feeling drained.
'How many walking wounded there?' Graham pressed.
A senior Chinese medic approached me, but not a HK medic, it was the same guy I'd met in Kigoma all those years ago; the People's Republic were here. 'You do not look well, Mister Holton.' He lifted a coffee mug, the contents downed quickly.
'I found a man, a British worker at the mine ... he ... died in front of me. Nothing I could do.'
People raised their heads and glanced towards me. Jimmy gestured me to a chair. Sitting, I tackled the meat, accepting more coffee. With the food in me I felt better, the tent bustling with command staff coming and going. Standing and stretching, I stepped outside, now noticing function labels on the various tents. As I stood there, the red commercial Huey came in to land on the apron, four injured disgorged before it lifted off again. And the pilot was wearing white, one of ours. Ducking back into the tent I downed a bottle of water, eat a chocolate bar, and sipped a coffee. 'OK, where'd you need me?'
Jimmy said, 'When the Huey gets back, go left seat. Make up a bag; a small medical kit, water, chocolate, tinned meat.'
With a renewed determination I set about my assigned task, soon left seat to Dunnow for a run twenty miles down the coast. With Dunnow appearing tired I took over, running back and forth till the sun disappeared below the hills. With a fuel truck attending the Huey, I ducked into the command tent. 'Where we at?'
Doc Graham stretched his aching back and sighed. 'All the urgent cases have been attended to, as far as we can reach. It's now minor wounds and dead bodies.'
Jimmy stepped in. 'Be out of here tomorrow, boys and girls, our planes will be coming back. I'm going to leave eight doctors and ten nurses, and the People's medics will stay a day or two more.'
Hancock ducked in with an Australian Army officer. Hancock reported, 'The Australian Army is trying to reach outlying areas, islands and far of off spots. And the UN is here.'
A toot caught my attention, the yellow bus. I stepped out and looked up, a grubby-faced Hildy still driving. Thirty of our lot, sodden and dirty, stepped down. They followed me to the mess tent, all in need of a warm meal, the People's medics running the spacious canteen. Our medics had been downbeat as they stepped off the bus, but spoonful by spoonful the mood improved, even the odd joke cracked. I made teas and coffees for ten minutes, distributing them, fetching a large plastic block of water bottles. Forty minutes later everyone looked better, and sounded better, heading off to the accommodation tents for some well-earned rest as the sun set behind the hills.
From the command tent I grabbed a list of personnel and totalled our inventory of warm bodies; whether they were eating, sleeping or on the toilet. Matching Doc Graham's dispersal list I tallied the numbers; twenty of ours left at the hospital, twelve still in the field at a small town up the coast. We were not missing anyone. A Hercules coming in to land signalled the arrival of the world's press, but I had no intention of talking to anyone. At the back of the command tent I lay down next to a snoring Doc Hoskins and closed my eyes.
At 5am I lifted up and yawned, the tent quiet, a few of the People's medics attending the map. Scratching and yawning, I noticed Jimmy sat in a corner. Plonking down next to him, he poured me a coffee. 'I slept well, for a change.'
Jimmy nodded. 'Thirty-six hours straight, burning the adrenaline. You need to remember to keep stuffing the meat down to keep going.'
'You get any kip?' I asked, yawning again.
'Hour or so.'
'All OK out there?'
'Yeah, we done what we could, a good first test. They performed well.'
'Did I hear that it was a plane full of reporters?'
'Yeah, they're here. We gave a few interviews last night, and they've filmed at the hospital and along the road.'
'I feel a book coming on.' As soon as I uttered the words I regretted it, remembering the Brit who died in front of me. 'When I was at the mine, yesterday, this English guy died right in front of me. Before he died he pulled out a soggy copy of the first book, he'd just read it.' I took a reflective breath. 'Small world, eh?'
'You'll get used to the death and destruction.'
'I did, eventually. But, once you get beyond it, you start to take more pleasure in saving lives.' I showed Jimmy the man's ID, Jimmy adding, 'He hasn't seen his daughter for four years. He came out here to avoid the child support payments, not very honourable.'
'Some day, you'll have to explain to me how you do that.'
'I will. And don't contact his family.'
After a final look, a little hesitation, I tossed the ID away. Twelve hours later we landed back at Cairns, driven to the camp.