Major Nguyen Chi Thanh works as a rescue soldier in Ho Chi Minh City, but he is also the go-to consultant for rescue teams all over Vietnam because of his success in some of the most peculiar missions in the country.
Thanh is the deputy chief of the Fire Fighting and Rescue Unit under the Fire Prevention and Fighting Police Department of the southern metropolis.
Born in 1981, he has served for 19 years and has been lauded as a model public servant.
In late February 2020, Thanh was helping his daughter with her school assignments when he was called to provide support for a rescue team in the northern province of Ha Giang.
He responded to his wife’s queries about the mission with a cheeky grin on his face, saying he was also kept in the dark about its nature.
This circumstance is all too familiar to Thanh and his family.
In Dong Van District of Ha Giang Province, a cave runs about 280 meters deep into the earth, but no one has ever discovered its deepest end or known of the availability of air in the abyss, including even the most experienced locals.
The only thing certain about the cave was the presence of the body of a person who fell down there 10 days back.
The downward path was steep, narrow, and dark and could only fit one person, with risks of oxygen deficiency and the accumulation of poisonous fumes.
This ominous terrain did not make Thanh waver; he volunteered to be the first to enter the cave.
Descending to the end of the cave, the smell of the corpse became stronger.
Taking account of the situation, Thanh returned to the ground level for directions from the mission chief, then came back to the cave floor with the equipment necessary to retrieve the corpse.
As he went down the cramped path, things took a turn for the worse: a sudden rain flushed an overflow of rocks and dirt down, causing the failure of his walkie-talkie, and then the pulley malfunctioned, leaving him dangling in mid-air for an hour.
“I thought I was in danger. The oxygen was running out while the smell of the rotten corpse mingled with the raindrops,” Thanh recounted.
As the rain abated, he got the walkie-talkie working again, helping him get through to the ground team and having himself pulled down to the cave floor using a fixed pulley system.
After he collected the remains in a bag and safely brought them to the ground, the mission was successfully completed.
This morbid affair is not new to Thanh.
In November 2019, he joined an effort to retrieve a body from a cave in Cao Bang, another northern province.
As the local rescue team was not capable of descending to the cave end, Thanh volunteered to take the job and was able to fetch the body remains.
|The scene of a rescue mission in Ha Giang in February 2020. Photo: Van Ha|
Sticking with career for life
After serving three years in military service, Thanh found himself trying to decide between three career paths: joining the mobile plice, the guard force or the fire prevention and fighting department.
The idea of being a firefighter called to him.
During his time at the fire brigade, he volunteered to be part of the rescue squad.
Knowing this is a risky position to take up, he had to conceal this choice from his parents to evade their disapproval.
Thanh was able to learn swimming and climbing from his childhood years in the outlying pastoral district of Cu Chi despite being a native of urban Ho Chi Minh City.
He grew up seeing people around him, including two of his cousins, drowning in the past.
“Bodies of drowned victims take a few days to emerge from the water. By that time, the bodies are already bloated and deformed, even chipped away at by fish, causing tremendous suffering for the living. This is why rescue jobs exist and I want to do them, simply as a way to save lives or at least help bereaved families ease their suffering,” Thanh confided.
Being a rescue soldier, Thanh has to maintain a rigorous stamina training regime on a daily basis, including running, stair climbing, pull-ups, push-ups, rope ladder climbing, swimming, and diving.
Newbies and apprentices in his department are put through some realistic training, including lifting stretchers and even working with corpses to get a glimpse of the job, according to Thanh.
Only those who develop both the skills and mentality can work on real rescue cases.
The precarious nature of the job calls for split-second decisions: "Should I stay or move? Should I return or continue?"
The ultimate choices depend on the evaluation of the lone rescuer on the mission, but for Thanh, giving up means the victims may stay forever in the dark, making it difficult for their loved ones to heal from the pain.
In his successful mission in Cao Bang, the family of the victim showered Thanh with gratitude, bowing in front of him.
It is these invaluable moments that give Thanh the strength and courage to continue his job.
In roughly 20 years serving on the force, Thanh has been a part of some grandiose feats, including his rescue work during the ITC Building fire in 2002 or the deadly sinking of the Din Ky floating restaurant in 2011.
But he is more proud of his participation in training new soldiers.
During his lessons, Thanh barely mentions his personal struggles or accomplishments.
“I believe that a person with a chivalrous heart, one that was chosen by the rescue career would be ‘stuck’ to it for the rest of their life," Thanh said as he broke into a smile, one that his comrades always get from him even in the darkest of circumstances.
"Take me as an example, despite all the danger and struggle faced, I would not choose anything else.”