Search and Rescue

Mekong Mission: Impossible

From our archive: After 2013's fatal Lao Airlines crash, a hastily assembled local dive team was scrambled. Their story is a remarkable feat of human endurance and teamwork

Jennifer Meszaros
March 7, 2014
Mekong Mission: Impossible
Good find: the chief flight inspector, Saykam Xayavong, triumphantly holds up the salvaged cockpit voice recorder. Photo: Gabriele Stoia

Editor’s note: On this day in 2013, Lao Airlines Flight 301 from Vientiane to Pakse crashed into the Mekong River, killing all 49 people on board in the nation’s worst aeroplane accident. In the days after the crash, a ragtag mix of electricians, mechanics and local divers joined forces in a desperate struggle to retrieve the bodies of those who’d died in the crash – and find answers for why this tragedy had happened.

Photos by Gabriele Stoia

Bounmixay Khanthayonngthong has led a relatively peaceful life. The 45-year-old husband and father of two is a devout Buddhist hailing from Vientiane, where he is an engineer at a hydroelectric dam on the Nam Ngum river. His life took a dramatic turn on October 16 last year when an ATR-72-600 turbojet crashed off Don Phaling island in Laos and plunged into the swirling Mekong River, killing all 49 people on board.

“We are not salvage divers,” Bounmixay says in broken English. “We are electricians, mechanics and welders. We dive at the dam, never the Mekong. We had no experience.”

Although Bounmixay and his team received on-the-job dive training, it hardly prepared them for what lay ahead. The Mekong is far from a diver’s paradise. Sustained by snowmelt and precipitation, the river cuts a muddy course from China and winds through six countries. During the dry season whole islands emerge, some of them covered in dense woodland.

Recovering the bodies and salvaging the aircraft meant navigating a submerged forest in zero visibility, battling a five-knot river current and contending with an excessive amount of sediment, commercial waste and the detritus of riparian life.

“We risked our lives,” Bounmixay reflects. “We are the only dive team in Laos, it was up to us. There is no visibility. If you get [trapped] you die. The Mekong is very dangerous. I called my wife and sons every day.”

The international diving community failed to respond to the government’s pleas for support, deeming the salvage too risky. French and Singaporean investigators were on hand to supply sonar equipment to locate the flight recorders, although no solutions could reasonably be offered in good faith. In fact, the perilous salvage mission was a notable first for the country and foreign investigators alike.

“This was our first salvage. We had no training and only 30 days to [recover the] recorders [before] the batteries expired. We needed to bring answers to the victims’ families,” says Bounmixay.

Operating from a barge in the middle of the Mekong, the divers, Lao Airlines representatives and Laotian officials laboured painstakingly for two consecutive weeks to recover bodies and retrieve the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, also known as black boxes. Without prior experience, the team managed to conceptualise a search plan despite facing multiple setbacks. 

“We had [very] little equipment and no money. We had to share [our diving] equipment and filled [our] tanks on shore. We dived in pairs. The days were slow. Our search grid broke. We lost the signal many times,” explains Bounmixay, referring to the underwater location beacon that becomes activated when flight recorders are submerged.

In the absence of equipment, the crew used rocks for anchors, buckets for buoys and utilised worn ropes to measure the wreckage, while a crane was the only mechanical device on deck.

However, their perseverance was rewarded. After narrowing down the search radius to 25 metres, Bounmixay and fellow diver Sisavath Phoungmanivanh discovered a ten-metre section of the fuselage submerged in a relatively flat area, eight metres down and free from obstructions. The landing gear proved to be an excellent hold for Bounmixay and Sisavath to tether to the wreckage. Without incident, a crane and the crew, who manually manoeuvred the wreckage on board, raised the fuselage. “It was incredible,” remembers Sisavath. “It was the will of Buddha.”

The raised wreckage revealed itself to be a lengthwise cross section of the fuselage: a powerful testament to the sheer force of the crash. Wires and jagged metal protruded dangerously from the wreckage and the airframe was stripped and exposed.

“We thought we found the flight recorders but we were wrong. We had to search again,” Bounmixay says.

The divers scoured the area and pulled dozens of bodies from the Mekong, a harrowing task fraught with exhaustion. Yet they clung to their faith. Their search efforts lasted from morning until night, with brief interludes for prayers and offerings of incense at the bow. As each day ground into the next, the salvage crew stuck to their beliefs to guide them safely as they descended into the gloom below.

“Every day we prayed to Buddha,” says Bounmixay. “We were tired, but we had no choice. We needed to search. This was our job.”

The team received help from Peun, a 50-year-old fisherman called in from Pakse. Having grown up on the banks of the Mekong as his forefathers did, he developed the ability to dive to a depth of 15 metres and hold his breath for up to three minutes.

“I was raised like a fish. I am better living in the Mekong than on land,” Peun says. “Not many men can dive this river. It is too difficult. But I can.”

Peun’s ability to locate parts of the submerged wreckage astonished everyone. His strength sent men reeling in disbelief. Peun, together with the divers, successfully recovered multiple pieces of the aircraft, which had fractured upon impact.

On October 31, Bounmixay and fellow diver Bounpone Keokhamphanh made a significant discovery. The duo had located the empennage – the tail end of the aircraft – which housed the two flight recorders.

“I [retrieved] one recorder by hand,” says Bounmixay. “The other was in the wreckage, [which] needed to be raised. This was difficult. Every time we tied the aircraft, the ropes slipped. We were afraid the tail would break and the recorder would be lost in the [shifting] sands.”

“It took a long time, but we didn’t give up,” the team leader adds proudly, recalling the celebratory moment when the empennage was finally raised.

Looking back, the divers say they regard their  first salvage mission as a pivotal point in their lives.

“Every day we knew the risks, but we were strong. We had courage. I hope never to do this again,” Bounmixay says.

The crew has since returned to Vientiane, pleased with their achievements, but eager to return to their peaceful lives.

“When you work in dangerous [conditions] you try not to think about it, you just do the job. But afterwards, you celebrate,” says Bounmixay. “My children are very proud of me.”

Read more articles