Gili island quake: The Singaporean girl who stayed put to help

Gili island quake: The Singaporean girl who stayed put to help

Ignoring the dangers, dive instructor Tay Suyi and other foreigners helped the injured and stayed behind to clean up and rebuild, even as terrified tourists fled the disaster zone.

After the devastating Aug 5, 2018 earthquake in Lombok, Indonesia, terrified tourists fled en masse. But not Singaporean instructor Tay Suyi and some 30 other foreigners on the island of Gili Trawangan, who treated the injured and stayed behind to deal with the damage. Read more here. 

GILI TRAWANGAN, Indonesia: As dawn broke over the holiday island of Gili Trawangan, terrified and bloodied tourists as well as locals flooded the harbour beach, desperate to be anywhere but here.

The 6.9-magnitude earthquake had struck in the night, destroying homes and the picture of an idyllic paradise. Now, the first boats were setting out bringing the injured off the remote island to safety, and panicked holidaymakers were doing everything they could to get on the few available vessels.

“It was absolutely frantic. Imagine a beach filled with people with backpacks freaking out. Everyone wanted out,” said Singaporean Ms Tay Suyi, 26. “As people were carrying the injured, some would jump in and pretend to carry them so that they could get on the boat. 

It was insane.

Hundreds of people crowded the beaches of Gili Trawangan, a small island off Lombok, on Monday
Hundreds of people crowded the beaches of Gili Trawangan, a small island off Lombok, awaiting evacuation after the quake. (Photo: AFP/Handout)

But, while many fled, a group of foreigners including Ms Tay risked their own safety and stayed behind to help.

Following the devastating quake of Aug 5, which left more than 500 dead and thousands injured on the larger nearby island of Lombok, staff of Gili Trawangan’s various dive operations stepped into the role of impromptu rescuers, lifesavers, rubble clearers and fixer-uppers for days after.

They refused to get on the last boat out that the Indonesian authorities could guarantee them, despite the threat of further tremors.

“The reason you have a business here is because you love the island - and you want to see it come back to the way it was,” said Ms Tay, speaking to CNA Insider. “For me, it’s one of those places where it’s home, you know. You don’t leave home if shit goes down.”

Foreigners clean up the damaged parts of their restaurant after  Sunday's earthquake on Gili T
Foreigners clean up the damaged parts of their restaurant after the earthquake on Gili Trawangan. (Antara Foto via REUTERS)


With its pristine turquoise water, soft white sand beaches and waters teeming with biodiversity, Gili Trawangan was perfect for Ms Tay, a professional dive instructor who had been working there for six months.

The largest of the three Gili islands, it is small enough to walk around in an hour and a half. There are no cars, buses or motorbikes, only bicycles and horse-drawn carts; and with many visitors heading here for the diving, there are over two dozen dive shops.

At around 7.30pm on the cloudless night of Aug 5, Ms Tay had just gotten home from work and had put on some loud music.

“And then, I thought the music got louder. I looked around, and everything was shaking.”

gili Singaporean Suyi intv shot
Ms Tay, a professional dive instructor with Blue Marlin Gili Trawangan.

Earthquake, she realised. She’d felt tremors on the island before, the most recent fortnight ago, but nothing of this magnitude. Walls crumbled; glass shattered. 

“It couldn’t be more than seven seconds, but after three seconds, all the power shut off on the whole island. It was pitch black.”

She ran outside. “I remember sitting there, and thinking the stars were very pretty…  and then there were locals and tourists running by, crying. You could hear screaming everywhere."

People were yelling about a possible tsunami, and rushing for the safety of the hills. But Ms Tay’s instinct was to head in a different direction: The dive shops at the harbour where she works, to check on her friends.

“I was terrified, I was alone. The first thing I wanted was to make sure that everyone was okay,” she said. “I figured that there would be some people around who needed help. 

Sitting on a hill wasn’t going to do anything.

At the dive shop, she grabbed a friend and began patrolling the streets to assess the damage and look out for the injured. “You know that when you stop, you’d just panic. So I just needed to do stuff.”

They found familiar village roads blocked off by the rubble of collapsed buildings. “A big mosque that was right in the centre of the island had just dropped completely,” she recalled. “You look at the hotels, hostels and places you know where people were – they were gone, it was crazy.”

gili Singaporean damages 1
The quake damage in the light of day. (Photo: Alfred Minnaar)


At the main harbour, a makeshift medical centre had been set up. There would be no boats until morning.

So for those critical next few hours of darkness, it was all up to the few doctors and nurses – both locals and foreigners on holiday – and dive instructors, who were all trained in Emergency First Response (EFR), to treat the injured and try to keep the severely wounded alive.

“By the time we got there, there were about 15 injured lying on the sunbeds and sunchairs,” said Ms Tay, whose EFR training kicked in as she set about helping to bandaging those who were bleeding, setting up drips, and fetching supplies for the medical personnel.

“Every dive shop has medical supplies, so we brought it all there – oxygen kits, bandages, stuff like that.”

gili Singaporean makeshift medical centre
The makeshift medical centre at the harbour. (Photo: Alfred Minnaar)

They worked overnight. Most of the wounded were locals, probably because their houses were less stable, Ms Tay guessed. The team couldn’t save everyone.

“We lost two during the night. 

One of the guys I remember because I was doing CPR on him when he passed. The lower half of his body had been completely crushed.

“We were just trying to keep everyone stable, you know, until they could get to the hospital in Lombok. We couldn't get any boats out, we were waiting for the boats to come.”

During the night, people kept coming in and asking “what can I do?” A core group that included a divemaster trainee and a dive instructor took to delegating tasks, while one local girl acted as the sole translator.

“It’s amazing how people band together when something’s wrong,” said Ms Tay. “What was cool was that every dive instructor was trained in EFR, so the island was filled with people who knew what to do.”


Sunrise brought a flood of people looking for a way off the island.

“At about 6am they started pouring down to the harbour,” said Ms Tay. “Then we had to build a makeshift morgue, because there were tourists sitting next to dead bodies.”

A number of boats had been scheduled to arrive from Lombok in the morning. But given the devastation over on the bigger island, they didn’t appear.

gili Singaporean waiting for boats
Tourists waiting for the boats which were few and far between. (Photo: Alfred Minnaar)

In the north of Lombok, the earthquake’s epicentre, thousands of buildings had collapsed and most of the region was in ruins. 

The Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency later said that one of the difficulties they faced on Aug 5 was having to evacuate more than 8,000 people from the three Gili islands that same day. (For more on Lombok’s crisis, catch Insight: Earthquake in Paradise on Sept 6 at 8pm SG/HK.)

READ: Why multiple earthquakes are rattling one Indonesian island

Meanwhile back on Gili Trawangan, dive shops were doing what they could to get people a ride, including locals who were desperate to find loved ones living on Lombok.

“Everyone who had a connection to a boat was calling… we had private fast boats, we had slow boats, just any boat really,” said Ms Tay.

“We formed a human chain and built a ramp sort of thing with bricks to get the injured on the boats. There were a lot of spinal injuries, perforated fractures, that needed serious medical attention and there was nothing we could do on a beach, you know.”

They eventually sent them off – after having to physically hold back able-bodied, panicked tourists who wanted to get on the first few boats.

“Then I slept for 13 hours straight,” said Ms Tay.

Lombok earthquake 5
A foreign tourist (middle) is given assistance as evacuated tourists arrive from nearby Gili Trawangan island at the port at Bangsal in northern Lombok. (Photo: AFP/Adek Berry)


By day 3 the exodus had petered out. Some 30 foreigners, including dive professionals, stayed behind to help with the aftermath, along with the locals.

According to Ms Tay, one government official told them that one last evacuation boat was leaving, and warned that if they stayed, there would be no supplies of food or water coming in (the island ships in most of its essentials).

But the group wasn’t too worried as businesses had been preparing for the high tourist season with ample stocks of food and drinks.

“Everyone was bringing stuff in from their houses, their shops, their restaurants. Everyone was just being really generous, and it was really nice to see that,” she said. One dive shop with its own generator welcomed the volunteers to stay in its facilities.

gili Singaporean fixing electricity
(Photo: Alfred Minnaar)

The group decided to divide up the work that needed to be done. “The 30 of us gathered and we said, okay, who’s good at what?” They formed teams to deal with plumbing issues, electricity supply, fixing things, and hygiene.

As part of the hygiene squad, Ms Tay and friends went around to every restaurant and empty home to clear away rotting food, to prevent pests like rats, cockroaches and maggots.

“Everyone was being really positive, we played music and made a game of it,” she said.

The group also set about making sure buildings that remained standing were safe, and took their sledgehammers to demolish any structures that weren’t. The rubble was cleared with horse-carts and wheelbarrows.

WATCH: Fear and determination in the quake's aftermath (3:51)

Ms Tay said that just before she left for Singapore nearly two weeks ago to renew her visa, security forces had stepped in with heavy machinery to clear the debris, and they are slowly helping to rebuild the place. 


People have also been returning to Gili Trawangan, including some of Ms Tay’s dive friends who had earlier ended up in Bali coordinating relief efforts with non-governmental groups to get supplies to Lombok.

Ms Tay recalled: “On the fifth day after the earthquake, we had two tourists arrive on the island. We were like ‘what? How did you even get here?’ They just wanted to see the island, like a weird ‘dark tourism’ thing.”

But the fact that visitors are returning is encouraging. “The more people come back, the quicker they do, the quicker we can rebuild and bring things back to how it was,” said the Singaporean, who has since returned to work on the island.

READ: Lombok quake sends shudders through tourist industry

She noted that the island should be back up and running by this month, and that some restaurants and dive shops have already reopened.

gili Singaporean army 1
(Photo: Alfred Minnaar)

The future could remain an uncertain one for tourism in Lombok and the Gili islands. On Aug 31, a 4.8-magnitude quake hit Lombok, yet another of a series that have hammered the region. Four quakes in the span of three weeks have measured greater than 6.0 in magnitude – an unusual pattern which seismologists say is significant.

READ: Commentary: Lombok's earthquakes reveal urgent need to prepare for the next shock

For now, the denizens of Gili Trawangan can depend on their community spirit to pull together and rebuild.

“No one is being paid to do any of this… they’re doing so much there just to get the island back to normal,” said Ms Tay. “It shows you the good in people.”

Catch the Insight episode about the earthquake In Lombok and its aftermath, in ‘Earthquake in Paradise’, on Sept 6 at 8pm SG/HK.

gili Singaporean 1
(Photo: Tay Suyi)

Source: CNA/yv