PALU, Indonesia: He was a hero who helped to save two earthquake victims — a mother and her young daughter — in Indonesia last September. And the mother remembers the Singaporean vividly. He is an “angel” to her.
But Ms Iriani will not get to meet her rescuer again. Mr Ng Kok Choong, 53, died barely three weeks after the 7.5-magnitude quake and a subsequent tsunami hit the island of Sulawesi.
When she was told about his death, she was “very sad”. Looking back at what he did for them, she said, “There was no blood relation between us, yet he was willing to sacrifice himself for others.”
It was a paragliding competition that brought him to the city of Palu on the island. And it was his passion for flying that next took him to one of the most beautiful aero-sport sites in the world: Bir, India.
There, he met Mr Upendra Pande, who became his flying buddy — the man with whom he spent his last days on earth, and in the air.
“KC (as Mr Ng was nicknamed) told me about his attraction to paragliding: ‘I want to fly … I want to experience how birds feel,’” recounted Mr Pande, the last person to speak to him.
From Indonesia to India, and from the perspectives of those who had never before retold his story, the programme On The Red Dot pieces together the final journeys of a grand adventurer who often said the world was his oyster. (Watch the episode here.)
HAPPINESS IN THE AIR
Mr Ng, a retired property agent who was married with two sons and a daughter, was “full of life” and “very energetic”.
“As a father, he was very committed,” said his wife Sharon, 53. “All the fun things that he thought children should be doing, he’d make sure that he did with them and that our kids enjoyed their childhood.”
As an ex-commando, one of the things he “loved most” was free fall.
So after one son got married, and he said it was time for him to “relax and do something that he liked”, it was little wonder that he decided to pick up paragliding.
Mrs Ng’s first thought was that it was a “quite dangerous” sport. But she saw that “he was very happy when he was flying”.
His friend Christopher Hsieh also observed that he was picking it up “very fast” since he started in 2016. “He graduated very quickly to flying solo,” noted the Air Sports Federation of Singapore honorary secretary.
You could see the happiness in his eyes when he was at a site, when he achieved new goals.
After he obtained his licence and had gone paragliding “so often” — and to “many countries” — Mrs Ng “wasn’t so worried”.
“He did his homework. He’d look at the geographical layout of the place before he’d start flying,” she said. “Whenever he completed his paragliding, he’d tell me that he was done, so that I didn’t have to worry.”
He would also send her photographs, especially of himself with children. “We loved kids. Every time he went paragliding, half his luggage would be filled chocolates and sweets for the children,” she added.
'THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THING'
To the paragliding community, Mr Ng was a pilot who “always looked out for other people, putting safety as a priority to ensure that we were having fun (with) no accidents during flying”, said his friend Francois de Neuville.
The two were in Palu for its paragliding competition when the Sept 28 earthquake struck. They had just left the Mercure hotel, where they were staying, and saw “the whole hotel collapsing”.
“I was, at that moment, unable to stand up. KC was next to me, trying to stand,” the Belgian paraglider described. “One second later, KC was one metre above me … A second after that, it was the other way round.”
Inside the hotel was Ms Iriani. “I was on the floor with (my daughter) Zahrah. Suddenly, all the things in front of us fell off. The television hit my face,” she recounted.
Amidst the rubble, cries for help and all the dust, the two friends spotted the little girl first. “She was bleeding from her face, bleeding from her arms,” said Mr de Neuville.
READ: Indonesians seek talismans of former lives in quake rubble
They managed to free her, but the mother was trapped under a concrete slab. So Mr Ng stayed behind as his friend took Zahrah to safety. Ms Iriani said: “He tried his best to help me, but he was unable to do it alone.”
Then the tsunami came, and Mr de Neuville, who was in a tree with the girl, feared the worst for his friend.
He recalled: “The wave was crashing into the hotel, and I was thinking … ‘He’s probably not going to make it. There’s no escape.’”
WATCH: The last adventures of a quake hero (Dur 6:46)
The Belgian later arrived at an emergency camp where, to his amazement, he saw his friend. “I put the girl down. I ran to him and was like, ‘You made it!’ And we hugged,” he said.
I had no words because I thought he’d died. And the most beautiful thing ever: He kneeled down, and he told the little girl, ‘Your mother’s alive.’
As it turned out, he had shouted for help “for about two hours or more until someone finally came”, said Ms Iriani. “He (also) told me my daughter was alive. And that gave me the strength to live.”
FINAL FLIGHTS IN DREAM DESTINATION
The others may not have known it then, but Mr Ng was “shaken” by the incident.
His wife, who picked him up at the airport, recounted: “When I gave him a hug, he asked me, ‘Darling, is it me or is the earth still shaking?’”
It was not going to stop him, however, from travelling to Bir, in Himachal Pradesh state, as scheduled: About two weeks after he had returned home.
“Bir is one of his dream destinations because it’s a beautiful place,” said his wife — or as Mr Hsieh put it, a paragliding mecca. And Mr Ng had signed up for the Paragliding World Cup Championship held there.
It was his first visit to the Himalayan hamlet, but it did not take long before “everyone knew KC in Bir”, noted his room-mate Mr Pande.
“When I met him for the first time, he looked like a tough guy. But when you start (talking) to him, you’d find that he’s a very nice guy, very down-to-earth … He’d speak to everybody,” said the 31-year-old.
“He asked me: ‘I’m flying here alone, I don’t know anything about the topography — can we fly together?’”
And so they did for around four to five days. On their last flight together, like other paragliders, Mr Pande noticed dark clouds forming behind the mountains before take-off.
“It didn’t look (worrying). But it was the Himalayan weather, (which) we can’t predict,” he said. They took off together, but he cut short his flight as he tried to move away from the dark bank of cloud.
He radioed Mr Ng once he landed, but his friend “wasn’t connected”. “I didn’t know whether he was coming back to the landing area, or if something had gone wrong,” he recalled.
“I was worried. I kept messaging him, but I wasn’t getting any reply … Finally, I received his message on my WhatsApp: ‘I’ve landed safely. Luckily, nothing happened to me. But I hit a downdraught.'"
When they met later, Mr Pande thought his friend “looked scared”. “When he saw me, he hugged me,” added the Indian. But as they talked, Mr Ng felt better. And he started preparing for the next day’s flight.
On the day of the accident, Mr Pande was preparing some competition documents, so he did not fly. His last words to his friend were: “Have a safe flight. Enjoy, and see you at the landing.”
Back in Singapore, Mrs Ng sensed something “was a bit unusual” that Monday, Oct 22, as her husband had not texted her to greet her good morning.
“I was waiting for him to call me,” she said, getting teary. “Finally, his friend called to say that he wasn’t back from his paragliding. So they’d search for him the next morning.”
The next day, one of her sons received the call saying that “he didn’t make it”, she wept.
Based on his flight instrument, he was flying normally “till about two seconds before impact”, said his friend and fellow paraglider Sumit Nurpuri.
What might’ve happened was that he was quite close to a mountain, and because of turbulence, the wing could’ve collapsed.
“The doctor (who conducted the post-mortem) told us the degree of the head injury was such that death must’ve been instantaneous,” he added.
It was a difficult time for his family and the paragliding community. “This guy was strong, this guy was brave,” said Mr de Neuville “He’d put his life in danger to help someone else. This news just broke my heart.”
Mr Pande, who knew of his friend’s bravery in Palu, said: “There’s a saying in aviation: Every pilot is hero. To me, if you saved two lives in a tsunami, you’re a superhero, and KC was the superhero.”
The woman and daughter Mr Ng rescued cannot meet him again, but the On The Red Dot team arranged for them to meet his wife. And it was an emotional exchange between the two mothers.
“He was very kind, willing to sacrifice his life for others,” Ms Iriani told Mrs Ng. “He stayed and took care of me for many hours. He didn’t want to leave.”
Mrs Ng, who expressed happiness that Ms Iriani has survived, told her: “He was like that. He didn’t have the heart to leave you because you’re also a mother. ‘A child can’t live without a mother,’ he said.”
As Zahrah joined them in an embrace, Ms Iriani sobbed: “Thank you, Mr Ng. You were a husband but also like an angel.” She later said she felt “at peace” seeing his photo that his wife showed.
For her part, Mrs Ng said that seeing “mother and child alive and well and happy” was the “best consolation”.
She and her husband had talked about death, and he had said that should anything happen during paragliding, “he’d die without regrets because it was something that he was happy doing”. She added: “He really lived life to the fullest.”
Watch this episode here. On The Red Dot airs on Mediacorp Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.