A total of 647 Indians, as well 7 Maldivians, were evacuated from the Chinese city at the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic.
“What are the chances of us getting infected?”, “What will happen to our families?”. These were among the queries that greeted Air India’s Captain Amitabh Singh as he put together a 19-member crew to bring back hundreds of Indians stranded in coronavirus-hit Wuhan. Singh, who is the national carrier’s Director of Operations, flew as an executive commander in the double-decker Boeing 747 aircraft that operated two rescue flights to Wuhan on January 31 and February 1. A total of 647 Indians, as well 7 Maldivians, were evacuated from the Chinese city at the epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic.
An “eerie feeling” crept into him when the first flight was landing, Singh recalled, as all the roads and buildings were well lit but it looked like a “dead city” as no human beings were around. Disinvestment-bound Air India might have done many evacuations before, but the Wuhan flights were the first of their kind in terms of evacuating people in a medical emergency.
“We conquered our fears” as we did not know what to expect, an Air India personnel, who was onboard both the flights, said. He was also all praise for the people who were evacuated from Wuhan, saying none of them misbehaved. Back to work this week after a seven-day isolation period, Singh told PTI that the heartening thing about the flights was that no crew member refused to fly, rather they were more than willing to do it. Talking about preparations at a short notice for the rescue flights, he said there were questions and apprehensions from the crew members, which were answered satisfactorily.
“What are the risks involved, what are the chances of us getting infected, what will happen to us after the flight, what will happen to our families?” were among the questions, Singh said. They spoke to doctors about precautions to be taken and all their queries were answered, he added. “This is a humanitarian flight. We are here to help in this hour of need and take you back to India… Keep your movement to the minimum and crew will come only if someone is unwell.”
These were among the announcements on board before the flight took off for Delhi. A total of 34 people, including 20-member Air India crew, doctors and support staff, were there in each flight. The carrier had 15 cabin crew and five cockpit crew, including Singh. Doctors, cabin crew and others were in the upper deck. The first flight had doctors from RML Hospital and the second one had doctors from Safdarjung Hospital. Recalling his experience, Singh said it was a “dead city” when they reached there.
“It was an eerie feeling. When we were landing, all roads and buildings were well lit. Everything was normal but there was no human being around,” he said.
While noting that the only thing “alive” was the chat with the Air Traffic Controller there, Singh said the plane had to wait for more than six hours the first time before taking off from Wuhan due to the procedures involved. On the second occasion, the wait was more than eight hours, he noted. On Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appreciated the high-level commitment to duty showcased by the officials of Air India and the Ministry of Health who conducted evacuation operation of the stranded Indians in Wuhan, according to an official release. Wuhan is the epicentre of the novel coronavirus, which has spread to many other countries, including India. When asked whether another flight to Wuhan might be in the offing, Singh said, “I have not heard of… but we are ready”.