Standing in the line of fire
"When we first arrived at the scene, we had to wait because the adjacent building was threatening to collapse, and people from the Buildings Department had to do some stabilisation work before we could continue with the search," says Chak, a senior station officer with the Fire Services Department and the Usar team's instructor.
The rescue work continued overnight until about 6am when a woman was found. The team cleared away the surrounding rubble and dug her out by hand but, sadly, she was not one of the lucky ones.
"The woman had been on the staircase and carrying her handbag," Chak says. "We believe she was trying to run out of the building; unfortunately she couldn't make it."
The Usar team was officially set up last year, but some of the members had already gained experience of this kind of work by taking part in the rescue efforts after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.
"At that time, we were assigned to the largest factory in Mianzhu City where many people were trapped under the rubble," Chak says. "I remember one day when we were digging, there was another powerful aftershock. We had to run out of the building as fast as we could. But once it stopped, we went back to work right away. In the end, we found 20 bodies and, although it was a sad time for everyone, families still came to thank us for finding their loved ones because many more were still buried under the rubble elsewhere."
Chak doesn't hide the fact that such work is tough both physically and mentally. Dealing with scenes of devastation and the anguish people are suffering is always taxing, no matter what rescuers have seen previously.
"That's why we need to pay close attention to our teammates," he says. "When someone has been quiet for some time, it can be a sign they are having trouble. In rescue situations, I always tell myself I must just keep doing my best. Then, I shouldn't feel too bad whatever the outcome."
Chak has been working for the Fire Services Department for about 12 years. Before joining, he had been with another branch of the disciplined services - the Hong Kong Police. He started out there as a 19-year-old cadet and, as a young officer, did stints with both the Police Tactical Unit and the Special Duty Unit (SDU). Among other duties, this saw him deal with riots at the Vietnamese refugee camp at Tai A Chau in 1989, and he helped to track down notorious criminals - Yip Kai-foon and Cheung Chi-keung.
"Every day was busy and exciting, and I do miss those times in the SDU," he says. "One case I handled in Tsim Sha Tsui involved capturing a suspect who had a gun and a grenade. I had to move extremely quietly and, in the heat of the moment, the only thing I could hear was my own heartbeat."
What prompted him to change career was seeing what happened at several serious fires, including the destructive blaze at the Garley Building in 1996. He concluded that police work was mainly about law enforcement, while firemen had the chance to actually save lives. So, when he saw an opening for a fire station officer, he applied.
After working in the frontline for about nine years, Chak transferred to the Training School in Pat Heung in 2006 as an instructor. Since then, he has helped to train 47 firemen and 32 officers, including the heroic Chan Siu-lung, who died in the Cornwall Court fire in Mong Kok two years ago.
"Chan was very smart, and a very polite and nice person. I miss him a lot," Chak says.
As an instructor, Chak takes special satisfaction in seeing young people go from knowing "nothing" to being disciplined professional fire fighters.
"On the first day, I tell all the students that my standards are higher than the training school's official standards," he says. "I'm very strict with them because discipline is the number one rule in our profession. When you are at the scene of a fire, you can't do things twice. It is all about life and death decisions."
Also, training the Usar team means Chak can be on 24-hour call, but takes that in his stride. He encourages young people to join the department, but insists that they must be well prepared for the physical tests and interviews, and demonstrate the right attitude.
- How to change careers Be willing to accept more challenges
- How to plan Do a lot of background research on the job and the organisation
- How to make sure it works out well Equip yourself with new skills
- Good advice Get yourself 200 per cent ready for the interview