It was a sad day. On May 8, the body of a 12-year-old Singapore boy was found in the waters off Bedok Jetty. He and 6 of his friends had gone for a relaxing swim after his exams. Fate, however, had something else in store...
There was a silver lining to the whole tragedy though. It came to light later that a mum who was relaxing on the beach with her daughter had saved the lives of 3 boys in the group. If it were not for this mum, more lives may have been lost...
And now, in recognition of her selfless and brave act that day, she has just been presented the Community Lifesaver Award by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).
Here, Romanian born, Australian citizen Silvia Hajas, who has been residing in Singapore for the last 6 years recounts what exactly happened that day. This mummy of 1 also gives some valuable advice and tips on swimming and water safety skills, that she feels, must be instilled in children and adults as a way of life.
That fateful day
On that fateful day, Silvia and her 8-year-old daughter Trinity decided to take a walk on East Coast Park to collect some rocks to study. Silvia, who homeschools Trinity, recalls, "We arrived at around 12.10pm and climbed up a sand dune (about 3 m tall) that was nearby one of the coastlines water breakers. I was taking a panoramic photo and was aware that there were teenage boys below about to the enter the sea."
"Shortly after I took the photo, I heard the first call for help and looked out at the boys who were in the water in the distance. I wasn't sure if they were in trouble but I did a quick head count to keep an eye on them. There were 7 boys in total."
"However, the second call for help was immediate at which point I ran down the sand dune, dropped all my gear (bag, sports belt, phone) and called out to Trinity to look after our gear."
"I ran into the water from the right side of the water breaker to waist height and asked "Are you in trouble?". When there was no immediate response I said, "You have to tell me yes or no!" at which they called out "yes"."
Boys in trouble
Silvia continues, "The three boys that were nearer to me were able to make their way out on their own. I made my way towards the first boy in trouble and pulled him out. When I returned for the second boy, I started instructing for all of them to get on their back and float but I could see they were either not registering my words, or didn't know what I meant."
"By the time I reached the second boy, I was getting fatigued and had a bit more difficulty pulling him out. Occasionally I had to let go of him to adjust myself and he'd submerge. As I'd pull him back up, panic would set in the boy and he would started flailing his arms trying to latch on to me."
"Unfortunately, this is quite dangerous, as he could push me down and essentially get both of us in trouble. I kept having to instruct him to stop, but I understood that he was scared and just doing what was natural in a situation like this. Eventually we made it out and by this stage a small number of people were reaching the shoreline not sure of what was happening."
"The first person I saw, I asked if he could swim and he said no, then another couple arrived and I asked again, to which the man said yes. I said, please help me to get the two boys left behind because I can't go back in by myself again. By this stage I had covered about 200m of open water swimming with strong currents beneath, and I was physically exhausted."
"This was Mr Tan, (Tan Kian Choon, who was also presented the Community LifeSaver Award), who had the presence of mind to obtain the nearest life saving buoy and once untied, together we re-entered the sea and swam for the third boy."
"The third boy eventually turned on his back and was floating which helped in conserving his energy, and waited for us to reach him. We turned him over onto the buoy and slowly made our way out. Sadly by this stage the fourth boy had submerged and never resurfaced."
"While Mrs Tan was contacting the emergency services, I checked in on the boys to make sure they were ok, and gave them some comfort, as we all had realised by then, that one boy had drowned. Shortly after Mrs Tan's call, the Police and Singapore Civil Defence Force arrived on the scene and took over. That was the last time I saw and spoke with the boys."
"I can't imagine how the boys were feeling throughout the ordeal. It was not clear whether they were able to swim. Though I had acted on instinct, I was very scared. Scared if I could make the distance over and over again, as there were so many of them in the water."
"I was scared that their panic would cause them to reach out to grab hold of me and push me under. Scared knowing that my daughter was left on the shore, and I had to make sure I got out alive. A myriad of thoughts were flying through my head, while on the surface, I was acting to the best of my ability."
Rescuing twin girls in the mid-80s
We salute the brave woman that Silvia is. This however, was not her first stint at rescue from the sea. She once helped twin sisters out of the treacherous waters of the back beach of Portsea in Australia, when she was around 15 years old!
She tells us, "This particular beach faces the open ocean and it is hindered by rocks and feisty waves. During a school excursion in the mid-80s, the two girls got caught out in the rocky area with crashing waves. Neither of them could swim so on instinct I made my way to them, to help them out. Perhaps not the best decision since I wasn't a very good swimmer at the time."
Swimming pool vs. Open waters
We asked Silvia how swimming in the swimming pool was different from swimming in the open waters, and what should precautions should be taken. Silvia, who takes part in triathlons and running races, and looks at it as a way to keep fit, had this to say, "I am certainly not an expert swimmer and do not have any lifeguarding skills. However, I am proficient in both open water and pool swimming."
"Here is a comparison between open water and pool swimming:
- Limited underwater visibility
- Currents, rips, waves and choppiness
- Inconsistent seabed (it may be shallow and then the seabed can have a sudden drop), corals, rocks
- Sea life depending where one is located (For example, sharks near beaches)
- Sighting skill a necessity
- Greater physical and mental endurance required
- Underwater visibility
- Controlled area where condition of water is always still
- Marked pool depths
- No need to sight as you can just follow the black line on the floor of pool
- Many of the newer pools are only 1.2 m deep which allows even a non-swimmer to enter and rescue a victim (For example, domestic helpers in charge of children)."
She elaborates, "As you can see, there are many things to be aware of, in open water. Weather, condition of currents, can one touch the seabed, can they swim in an unsteady body of water like the ocean."
"In swimming pools, one needs to be aware of depth, their physical condition, are there people around to help if they get in trouble, or is the pool too busy and boisterous, where accidents can happen."
"Again, I am not a lifeguard and my suggestions are personal to me, however, if you are in trouble call out for help, put your hand up and signal, tread water, try to swim towards shore but if you can't do any of these or are tired, get on your back and float, rest, stay calm and wait for help." It is an advice she often finds herself giving daughter Trinity as well.
"If you are a witness, call the emergency number, get instructions, look for a floating device and try to pass it on without entering the water. If you are capable of swimming, then go out to the victim with the floating device. Under no circumstances should you enter the water if you cannot swim, or have limited swimming skills."
Message to parents on kid safety
We also asked Silvia what advice she had for parents on how to make sure their kids were safe near water. She was kind enough to share these extremely helpful tips:
- Teach your children swimming and water safety skills not just as a sport but as life saving skills. One day, they may need to save themselves, a loved one or a stranger in danger.
- Teach your children not that the ocean is bad but that the ocean must be respected and understood. Understand that the sea floor is uneven and especially with reclaimed land like in Singapore where a sudden drop in the seabed can occur. Teach them about currents, how to recognise a rip, and what to do if caught in one.
- Teach them to seek designated swimming areas, with lifeguard on duty and to only swim within the flags, so they remain within the view of the lifeguard.
- If you are struggling in the water, stay calm, look for a way out and start swimming towards the shore. If tired, roll over on your back and float. If you can't swim, call for help if able, roll on your back to float, stay calm and wait for help.
Silvia also opines, "Parents need a complete change of mindset in relation to swimming. Forbidding children from entering open water does not alleviate potential dangers like falling off a boat or ferry, falling off a jetty, being swept away by currents or rips or being on a plane that needs to do an emergency landing in water."
And finally for those who don't know swimming, there is still hope, "It is never too late to learn how to swim well. I was 44 years old when I learnt how to swim properly. Learning how to swim is not a short term exercise that can be taught in a term or two. It takes weekly sessions of at least an hour over many years to build up the competence for swimming skills. It needs to be seen as a lifelong life saving skill."
And how beautifully she sums up when she says, "As a community on a small island we need to have civic mindedness and look out for one another, regardless of our background or belief system."
"If we have the ability to take action, we have the responsibility to take action. Just remember that there is a hero inside all of us."
Also READ: Swim schools for kids in Singapore
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