by Gamini Seneviratne
Form-mates, classmates perhaps in Mr. J E V Pieris’s IA, I seem to recall also the ‘J’ in J Godwin Perera. His reminiscences of those times past are indeed welcome. What follows here are some additions / amendments.
Given the heading used by Godwin and repeated here, the first of them must surely be the third option that completes that quote: Caedi (be caned). Looking back from present times, a very mild option, one would say. I was caned only once, by Mr. Bob Edwards: he had forgotten what my supposed misdemeanor was and I couldn’t tell him why I was there as I had ceased to know what it was.
Godwin’s mentioned the Senior Lit. and the Best Speaker’s prize. I was never involved in the first and had a spectacular spell at the second. I forget what the subject was but the Principal’s hand had been hovering over the bell as I passed the time limit. The judge was A B Perera, a Barrister who had served as Principal of Ananda and was to serve as our Ambassador to China. In his summing up he said that I had made a very interesting speech – but rules must be observed. He awarded the prize to Mark (L J M) Cooray who had elocuted his forgettable words finishing on the dot. (He went on to obtain all the postgraduate degrees required for a career as an academic. A high point in that was his attempt to prove that the indigenous people Down Under who had built their culture through some 40,000 years “had no right to the land”. There would have been some applause in academe.)
L H Meegama had a bicycle and some days when I didn’t join another gang up Buller’s road to Galle road I went with Meeya to his place on Vajira road. Our Mahappa’s place on Janaki Lane was almost directly across Galle road from there. His senior sister would sometimes be in the kitchen cooking – scraping coconut and such – while her fiancée chatted with her. He took up engineering and I last heard was working in the Port when he died relatively young.
And so did Tyrell Muttiah, superlative scrum-half, who lived on Galle road just by Bin Ahmed’s studio at the top of Janaki Lane. He seemed to have been born smiling and bred in courtesy. He was the most pleasant of friends.
K. Manickavasagar, Manicks, and I were immediate, next-door neighbors but we were not together in Form I A. He went into the pharmaceutical industry and headed Pfizer here before retiring to Canada.
Am sure have missed many in that class. I have asked as many of that Group of ‘Forty Nine as I could locate here: their memory, alas, is as bad as mine.
May we all make a good ending!
In that class chaired by Mr. Nathanielsz, aka “Naetta”, Mr Pieris, aka “Bada” was the presiding deity. His approval took the form of “Mr. Mendis, you are a little gentleman.” Surprising as it may be and far less often than “Mr. Mendis” though it was, he is known to have waved the wand over “Mr. Seneviratne”.
“Mr. Mendis” was Lalith, one in the cluster a few of us occupied. Among the others in it were Chulani Wickremasinghe, Laki Senanayake and Punyadasa Edussuriya. Perhaps Tyrell Mutthiah was in it too.
Of those in the periphery, a failing memory prompts the names – Nimal Fonseka, Wonkie de Silva, P S C Goonatileke, L H Meegama and H C Wickremesinghe.
I present a few notes on that lot.
Lalith was an artist and he sketched a good bit of the time. As a medical doctor he took to the study of filaria and headed that field of research. When he became Director of Medical Services and I saw him there it struck me that he was in the wrong place: he was not built to deal with politicians especially not those in the Department of Health. I suggested that he gets back to his research in an area in which he had already distinguished himself but he passed that with the sweet smile that characterized him.
Laki too did pencil sketches but they were mostly copies of figures, including horses, from the ‘western comics’. Among his skills was the pea shooter and we had exhibitions when Naetta chose to lay his head on his arm and say, “Read”! One after the other we ‘read’ and Naetta awarded marks with his free hand. There were quite a number of zeros and he couldn’t signal any more than five. Laki took aim and sent a spit-ball straight as an arrow to the bald spot on Naetta’s crown.
He took his artistic skills to Dambulla where he sold his drawings, signed kali, to tourists. Laki was and is casual about things. When, on my way to Jaffna, I dropped by to see him at Diyabubula, he had a high fever and looked quite ill. He had obtained medication from the Dambulla Hospital, he said, as he coughed out a typically c & b story – and was sharing the pills with workers who showed the same or similar symptoms. He had been ordered bed-rest and he had complied, he said, by lying flat in his jeep as it juddered around the jungle. A mutual friend, Chandra Subasinghe, lived not many miles away by the Dambulu Oya and managed to get the patient to the Matale Hospital ‘just-in-time’. (Chandra was quite as inventive as Laki and had informed the water-tax collectors from the Mahaweli that for many years his pumps had been accustomed to pumping water from the Dambulu Oya and would continue to do so. If those gentlemen had sent down water there from the Mahaweli and the Sudu Ganga, his pumps knew nothing about that).
Two desks away was Chulani who had the most inclusive collection of westerns – the Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Lone Ranger, Tom Mix & co. freely available to us all. Such knowledge was not prescribed for us at school and Chula suffered a ‘take down’. He made up for it by topping the City & Guilds exams , migrating out there and on to the USA and thence to South America where, by his account, he out-samba’d all the experts that Rio could gather.
Punya Edussuriya’s father and mine had been at Ananda around the same time; Punya claimed that his father would have taught mine. That is unlikely – (I didn’t know it at the time, but my father had won the Senior English Essay prize in 1923 and his father could not have been that much his senior). They sat together in the pavilion at the Royal Thomian. In our first year we were among dozens of boys who encroached into the Oval grounds as the match neared its end. The boundary rope moved up or down and when Bradman Weerakoon was given out caught, Wignarajah the fielder was behind us and well behind the boundary line. We were right there and yelled that it was a six. Nobody listened. Years later when I mentioned it to Bradman he was unaware that he and St. Thomas’ had so been denied a right royal victory. Not the first time it happened and won’t be the last: the evidence of eyewitnesses is swept under, justice given no opening at all. Happens all the time.
Not many years later Punya and big brother Piyasiri were moved across to Ananda – a school that figured prominently in our family. Beginning with mother’s maternal uncle D B Jayatilaka’s contributions at the start, all our male relatives ‘on both sides’ as they say had been at Ananda: my father and his brothers, mother’s brothers, all our cousins. I was the ‘out’ chap and it happened like this. At the same time as I qualified to enter Royal I had been awarded the ‘Entrance Scholarship’ for Ananda – creating sort of competing claims. Regardless of having served on the academic staff at Ananda in the early 1900s father’s eldest brother had said, “Royal”! – after all he lived in Bambalapitiya and could keep an eye on me. That was convenient, a convenient story, but as the old man had told me the previous year (when I was a little over 9) he was disappointed in his sons.
That was the product of another pressure point. Our paternal grandmother had a cousin called Arthur Wijewardena; we had nothing to do with him but Mahappa had been in touch. All I remember is that he was an unsmiling kind of man who lived down Vajira Road next to Visakha; it had a nice garden and there was a son who sort of floated in and out of the verandah and drawing room offering biscuits. What was pertinent at the time was that he had been our Chief Justice and Mahappa had expected his sons to take to the law likewise as he himself had done. But what did they go and do? – One became an engineer on diesel locomotives and went on to become a chemical engineer (he built and ran Kelani Valley Canneries our best fruit processing factory) and the other an architect who also played piano, painted, sculpted and would you believe it? did ballet dancing. I was sort of the last chance to get the law back into his half of the family. I was to prove a disappointment too, but no one suspected it at the time.
In later years, though not for long, I made my peace with Ananda when Principal S A Wijetilleke recruited me as an English teacher. There I was to establish a friendship with V Thanabalasingham, the senior in that field, that continued as circumstances permitted through the rest of his life. Mr. Thanabalasingham’s intellectual acumen was quite on par with that of B St. E de Bruin or S Constantine at Royal. I had come to know of him earlier when, following the communal riots of 1958, my cousin, Asoka Gunasekara, wrote a short story around Thane’s experiences of those days; titled vibhagaya it was one of the best bodies of writing in Sinhala. In later years, when I mentioned vibhagaya those who had read the Kelani University literary magazine, Vimansa, assumed I was referring to a short story of mine in it that had the same title [that had to do with an actual vibhagaya, the government’s ‘efficiency bar’ exams.]
Before I continue, a brief note on the Royal Post Primary to which boys who failed to go over from Royal Prep were sent. There they were expected to adjust their focus more towards studies and away from, say, sports. One of them that year was Brindley Perera, generally regarded as the most gifted 10 year old batsman in our schools. (His nephew, Brendon Kuruppu, gave hints of how strong the genes were). Most of those who slipped at that point showed their caliber in later life. Those I recall include Susantha Samaranayake, the first Lankan to be appointed a Director / Manager at IBM; Dharmasiri Pieris, who had a distinguished career in the public sector including that of Secretary to the Prime Minister; and Sarath Weerasooria, Chairman of FINCO. My brother had moved there from Ananda and had the distinction, besides scoring a near-double century versus Carey, of being the first (only) – student to pass the SSC in the first year that Thurstan students were presented for that exam. He moved back to De Mazenod where he ended with a flourish as Senior Champion at athletics, Captain of cricket and winner of the General Proficiency prize. The police grabbed him then – and a young lawyer grabbed his girlfriend, much the prettiest schoolgirl seen at our railway station. I had written poems to her on his behalf and delivered them as she took a detour down Janaki lane where I lived on her way from the HFC to the railway station.
In the lot who got to Royal College that year (1949), 35, fully one-third, were from schools other than Royal Prep. Perhaps that accounts for the special distinction which seems to have marked that batch.
Even among 10 year-olds, Nimal / Nimma stood out for being pugnacious but was never a bully. He turned his hands to several part-time occupations at one of which, the Hotel De Universe’ he employed school friend Raja (Rahula) Silva when the then government failed to do him justice. When Raja fell asleep at wrong time of night Nimma functioned as bouncer at his hotel bar. An expatriate in England of long standing Nimma became a teetotaler I presume in mid-life: when he took leave of his business and related activities he was in great demand at parties – for drive-home services. “They get cocked and talk cock” he said, “so I stopped going for parties”. He continues his interest in topology and is last known to have remained more or less certifiably sane.
W K N Silva was a Proprietary Planter with tea and rubber in the Ratnapura district. I believe that two of his sisters married a pair of brothers. In his latter days he took exception to being called “Wonkie”; he said it should have been applied to Nalin (WNK) Fernando, journalist, because the name fitted him, initials and all. He had a sufficient number of siblings to retain the bulk of their estate after Land Reform.
Occasionally initials provided a convenient name – say, Jabba for JB. Susantha Goonatileke’s PSC was tempting and tempted. He chose engineering as did his cousin C L V Jayatileke (who proceeded all the way in mechanical engineering) but he took his BSc (Eng) and changed course towards the social sciences. It was a move that opened a range of intellectual challenges for him and brought his academic work into discussion at fora around the world. His son is perhaps way and away the wealthiest among us in the next generation.
H C (Channa) Wickremasinghe was one of the brightest among us but health-related hiccups prevented his full development as a scholar. Turner, his architect brother was a left arm spinner of a most mean disposition who played for Royal. Channa was content to send down mostly friendly off breaks of which he had a good opinion.
Godwin relates an incident concerning our ruggerites et al and he attributes the report on it to Mr. Orloff, Principal of Trinity College. As I recall, the Trinity Principal at the time was a Mr Walters and the incident had occurred not in a room at the Trinity hostel but on the train down from Kandy. However that may have been punishment was meted out as Godwin says. I was co-editor with Nihal Jayawickrema of the school magazine and inserted some quotes in the space for footnotes: one and all pointed towards the merits of forgiveness.
The Principal, Mr. Dudley K G de Silva, sent for me. I was met at his door by Mr. Elmo de Bruin who served as Manager of the Magazine. When the Principal saw that I was not without back-up he asked Mr. Bruin whether he had approved the insertions and he replied, “I have the fullest confidence in their judgment, Sir” spreading the blame.
Principal de Silva tended to take the word of fellow Principals a bit uncritically. I noticed that the Thomian magazine that year had carried a poem published some years previously in ours and wrote a little note to the Thomian editor, Ranjith Wijewardena, ribbing him about it. Instead of writing back in similar vein Ranjith had taken my note to his Warden – who had promptly phoned our Principal. Predictably I was sent for. As the fates decreed, I ran into Bruno on my way there. He heard me out and strolled into the Principal’s office ahead of me. He asked me to show the evidence to the Principal and suggested that “if ‘these Thomians’ had any sense they could have said they don’t retain past copies of our Magazine”! Writing from Jamaica a life-time later, Bruno recalled such and other ‘happenings’ of his years at Royal. There must be hundreds still around who miss him.
Scholar, Advisor, Innovator and Great Friend
by AUSTIN FERNANDO
Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria, son of Queen’s Counsel NE Weerasooria, studied at Royal College, and entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, and won Harvard Memorial Prize and the Governor General’s Prize. He graduated in Law from Peradeniya, with First-Class Honours, and was later called to the Bar, as an Advocate.
I have known and associated with Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria in different capacities. First, I knew him as a pioneer Law Educator at Vidyodaya University. His students at Vidyodaya, and later even at the Post-Graduate Institute of Management, recall how he lectured, without even a short note in hand, attracting students’ attention, and enthusiasm. Additionally, he focused on teaching Commercial, Administrative, and Constitutional laws, and published texts in Sinhala, one on the Law of Contracts, another on Commercial Law.
His vast knowledge as an author was exhibited, mostly in Banking Law. Some of his publications were on Australian banking systems. Later, he delved into Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law, which produced a monumental work and a Treatise on Sri Lankan Statute Law and Judicial Decisions on Buddhist Temples and Temporalities.
His book ‘The Law Governing Public Administration in Sri Lanka,’ is a text that must be read by all public administrators and politicians. Whilst at Monash University, he wrote ‘Links between Sri Lanka and Australia: A Book about Sri Lankans (Ceylonese) in Australia’, dealing with Sri Lanka- Australia links.
With President JR Jayewardene in Office, Wickrema was appointed as the Secretary to the Ministry of Plan Implementation– a completely different role for him in public service. Working with him was also a novel experience and challenge for officers too, since he pushed them to the deep end to make quick, practical, non-traditional, sometimes unsavoury decisions for the benefit of the public.
He was the innovator of Integrated Rural Development Projects, for which he harnessed foreign assistance, and a performer, evaluator, programmer, and institution builder, proven by the establishment of Secretariats for Women, Children, Fertilizer, Nutrition, Population under his Ministry.
Sri Lanka Planning Service was made a professional service in 1985, for which the initiatives and support given by Wickrema were substantial. Accordingly, planners were made responsible for planning to achieve the goals of the respective institutions, formulate policies, strategies, and evaluate the development projects and programmes.
Wickrema was responsible for enhancing human resources among cadres through foreign exposures, which culminated with some officers obtaining post-graduate degrees, some even PhDs, and reaching apex ranks in public services, i.e. Secretaries of Ministries.
Specifically, his contribution to my work when I served as Government Agent, Nuwara Eliya was substantial. He was the guide, mentor, and sometimes savior. His involvement was on behalf of his brother-in-law Minister Gamini Dissanayake. Wickrema was instrumental in planning Nuwara Eliya through the establishment of Nuwara- Eliya Development Commissioners Committee, where I served as Chairman, with professionals as Commissioners. The initial planning was done by the Urban Development Authority.
He was the key organizer of the Spring Festival in Nuwara-Eliya. I remember how he planned the city and revived the Car Racing event, after a lapse of some years. I remember Upali Wijewardena taking part in the first motor car road race. The new Motor-Cross racing event on the newly constructed track was added to the Mahagastota Hill Climb for motor racers. Motor-Cross racing spread to other areas later. He attended these events and enjoyed the great company.
A little-known fact about Wickrema is that the Sri Lanka Council for the Blind (as President) and Sri Lanka Federation of the Blind (as Advisor) still appreciate his services rendered to the blind community, especially in resource mobilization and housing.
He was a person with subtle wit and humour. While teaching, he used this talent, as a student has reminisced, for “easing the pressure and stress of learning.” His lighter vein utterances and behaviour in groups made him a more sought-after teacher, friend, relative, colleague, and boss. His wit and humour depicted by cartoons in political campaigning, (i.e. The Family Tree), left an indelible mark in canvassing votes at the 1977 Elections. It is recycled even today, making Wickrema’s talent eternal.
I am reminded that even regarding efficiency creation he had humorous comments. I remember his “evaluation of the efficiency” of public officers. He used to quip that when asked to produce relevant documentation within two days to send an officer on a foreign scholarship, knowing it would take weeks, he would swear with utmost certainty that the officer would fulfill the requirement within two days. The best litmus test of the efficiency of an officer is the offer of a foreign scholarship! He lamented that such efficiency is lacking to serve the people.
I have a personal regret. Just before I left for India as High Commissioner, he promised to visit me in Delhi with his dear wife Rohini, which he could not fulfill, bidding adieu in weeks. Hence, I missed his company, advice, wit, and humor before departure.
I may say, he was a great student, scholar, academic, educator, public officer, diplomat, social worker, an advisor, innovator, and above all a great friendly human being, who enjoyed life and made others enjoy too, with his friendship, and camaraderie. Sadly, we will miss him forever.
May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!
Ethiopia: War in Tigray
By Gwynne Dyer
“Love always wins. Killing others is a defeat,” said Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in June 2018, shortly after surviving a grenade attack at a rally in Meskel Square in the capital, Addis Ababa. How was he to know that just thirty months after saying that he would have to stop loving and start killing?
That’s the problem with being a reforming zealot who becomes Prime Minister: you have to deal with some really stubborn people, and sometimes it’s hard to shift them without a resort to force. That’s why Abiy launched an invasion of Tigray state on 4 November, and so far it’s been doing very well.
“The next phases are the decisive part of the operation, which is to encircle Mekelle using tanks, finishing the battle in the mountainous areas, and advancing to the fields,” Col. Dejene Tsegaye told the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation on 22 November.
Here we are only less than two weeks later, and the federal government’s troops have already captured Mekelle, a city of half a million people that is Tigray’s capital. It’s not clear how many people were hurt or killed in the fighting, but it went so fast that the butcher’s bill can’t be all that high.
In fact, it has all gone so well that Abiy Ahmed’s soldiers are probably thinking they might be home in time for Christmas. When Col. Dejene talked about “finishing the battle in the mountainous areas and advancing to the fields,” however, he was talking about the nine-tenths of Tigray that has seen no federal government troops at all, or at most a brief glimpse as they passed through.
Tigray is exactly the size of Switzerland, with about the same ratio of mountains to fields (although the mountains are somewhat lower). In other words, it is ideal guerilla territory, and a high proportion of the seven million Tigrayans are rural people who know the land. Moreover, they have long experience in fighting the central government’s troops.
That was the old central government, of course: the Communist dictatorship called the Derg, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, that murdered the emperor and ruled the country with an iron fist from 1977 to 1991.
Tigrayans were the first ethnic group to rebel against Mengistu’s rule. They are only 6% of Ethiopia’s population, but the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the most effective of the ethnically-based rebel groups that finally defeated the Derg.
The federal government that took over afterwards, called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), was formally a multi-ethnic alliance. In practice, however, TPLF cadres controlled most senior posts and prospered greatly as a result – a situation that continued until the EPRDF appointed Abiy Ahmed prime minister in 2018.
It was a non-violent revolution, conducted not in the streets but in ranks of the federal bureaucracy. Abiy was the ideal candidate: in religion and ethnicity he is Ethiopian everyman, with a Muslim Oromo father and a Christian Amhara mother. (In person he is Pentecostal Christian, and very devout.)
As a young man Abiy fought in the war against Eritrea; he has served as a senior intelligence official and knows where the bodies are buried; he is well educated and speaks Amharic, Afaan Oromo, Tigrinya and English fluently. His first and most important job was to prise the fingers of the Tigrayan elite off the levers of government without a civil war.
Unfortunately, Abiy’s approach – merging all the parties based on the various ethnic militias into a single ‘Prosperity Party’ – didn’t work. The resentful TPLF cadres refused to join, and gradually withdrew to their heartland in Tigray. They don’t yet openly advocate secession, but they do point out that they have that right under the current federal constitution.
Whether or not the shooting war began with an unprovoked attack by the Tigrayan militia on the federal army’s base in Mekelle at the start of last month, as Abiy’s spokesmen claim, it was bound to end up here. All Tigray’s cities have now been taken by federal troops, but almost none of the rural areas.
This could be a brilliant victory for the federal troops that puts a swift end to the fighting. It’s more likely to be the result of a decision by the TPLF leadership to skip the conventional battles they were almost bound to lose, and go straight to the long and bloody guerilla war that they might eventually win.
That would mean secession, in the end, for they can never win power back in Addis Ababa. The risk is that if the war goes on long enough, other major ethnic groups may break away from Ethiopia as well. Abiy’s loosening of the tight centralised control that prevailed under the emperor, the Derg and the TPLF has already unleashed ethnic and sectarian violence that has rendered 2 million Ethiopians homeless.
Abiy recently got a PhD in peace and security studies from Addis Ababa University, but he’ll be concentrating on the ‘security’ part for the foreseeable future.
Safety Equipment and Procedures and Exploding Fire Extinguishes
by Capt. G A Fernando MBA
RCyAF, SLAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, SIA, SriLankan Airlines
Former SEP instructor/ Examiner Air Lanka
By law the Regulator Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL) requires all Airline Crew to annually undergo continuous training and achieving proficiency in Safety Equipment and Procedures (SEP). At the end of the training, also answer a written examination to prove to all and sundry that the particular Flight Crew Member has sufficient SEP knowledge to continue serving in the Cabin or Flight Deck of that Airline, for another year. The SEP questions were relatively easy (no tricks) but each crew member had to score over 80% and carry out mandatory, practical proficiency tests such as operation of aircraft doors and Emergency exits, conduct evacuations, Life Raft operations (in the swimming pool), know the location and use of emergency equipment such as megaphones, Crash Axes, Asbestos Gloves, Emergency Locater Transmitters (ELT’s), the administration of Oxygen, First Aid and use of equipment such as smoke hoods and fire extinguishers to combat Cabin smoke and Fires, The airline is usually delegated to carry out these duties and functions at the behest of the Civil Aviation Authority.
The first year after Air Lanka was established (September 1979), crew members had to go to Singapore Airlines or get the instructors across to Colombo to carry out these checks on behalf of Air Lanka. After about the second year of existence, it was decided that a team SEP instructors/ examiners would be appointed ‘in house’ to carry out this training and mandatory checks. Three of us from the ‘Flight Deck’ crew were appointed to the team. They were First Officer Elmo Jayawardene, Flight Engineer Gerrard Jansz and yours truly. We had, had some experience in crew SEP training in Air Ceylon.
We were sent to the British Airways (BA) Flight Training (Cranebank), UK, during our regular stay overs in London, to undergo refresher training, so that we could incorporate some of the BA curricula in our own (Air Lanka) programs. The then Air Lanka Manager Operations had been an ex BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) Captain. As a direct result of our visit to BA, the then airline doctor (Dr Mrs Sherene Wilathgamuwa) was inducted to the SEP team to lecture the ‘troops’ on not only First Aid but also on delivering babies, with limited facilities on board! I believe that this information has been extremely useful many times during the last 40 years of Air Lanka. This was not taught to us in Air Ceylon. The training curriculum was developed by the SEP team.
The early days of Air Lanka wasn’t easy. While an operational profit was made, the ‘debt servicing’ put an unbearable strain on the overall profitability. We had neither a designated training department nor proper equipment. Our ‘wet drill’ constituted jumping into the pool in shirts and trousers for the boys and ‘made up’ Sarees without the ‘fall’ for the Girls, wearing life jackets of course. Initially the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Katunayake pool was used and subsequently the pools of the two hotels down Katunayake airport road were used till Air Lanka got its own pool. We didn’t even have a permanently deployed Slide/ Raft either for teaching purposes. It all cost money. I was the Instructor in charge of the ‘wet drill’. In contrast SIA I worked for subsequently, had a pool with a ‘wave maker’ to give a realistic experience. There was no doubt Air Lanka at that point of time was ‘pinching pennies’ where crew SEP training was concerned.
To provide fire fighting experience to the Flight Crews we were forced to use regular Industrial Fire Extinguishing equipment to keep the costs down. That was acceptable since the basic fire fighting principles were the same. The fire fighting part of the training was carried out by the Ground Safety Section Instructors who were mainly ex SLAF types. A few months before, Lalantha one of the Chief Stewards was practicing the use of a Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extinguisher on a fire and the extinguisher exploded and flew off his hand, narrowly missing Leone who was just behind him. The on-board extinguishers were much smaller, lighter and more manageable than the industrial ones. A complaint was filed by me, but treated by the ‘Management’ as a one off case! It seemed as if one swallow doesn’t make a summer! The extinguisher had been certified as serviced. The Administrative Executive in charge of SEP those days was a young man who had a degree in Marine Biology and perhaps was clueless on safety issues and couldn’t champion our cause. We were all part time Instructors.
The annual recurrent training programme took two days. On one particular day, Chief Stewardess Jayantha and I were the instructors in charge. When it came to the Fire Fighting exercise, we handed over students of our class to the Air Lanka Ground Instructors and proceeded to the parking apron (opposite the Terminal Building), to check out a Lockheed L1011 ‘Tri-Star’ aircraft which was newly leased, by Air Lanka. It was a pre-owned, aircraft that had arrived the day before. Unfortunately, the locations of and the make of emergency equipment in the same type of aircraft (L-1011) differed from airline to airline. Therefore in the name of air safety and standardisation, it was important to resolve matters before the said aircraft saw service on the line on regular revenue flight services. It was a big deal as all Flight Crew had to know by memory as to where the specific locations of safety equipment were, so that when a ‘push’ came to a ‘shove’, no time would be wasted by the crew members involved, looking for these essential items. It could be a matter of life and death.
I was not too happy sending the participant boys and girls by themselves for fire fighting and had an uneasy feeling. On other hand, our task too was also extremely important. So it was a case of ‘risk management’ and gave in.
While we were checking out the new addition to our L 1011 Tri-Star fleet, we received a frantic message saying that another water type extinguisher had exploded and the injured had been removed to the Air Force Hospital across the runway to the Northern side.
Jayantha and I rushed to the SLAF Base Hospital in her ‘Mini -moke’ the long way around, up the Airport Road and via the 20th milepost main entrance along the Negombo road and found two crew members injured and in shock. Steward Senaka who had got the wheel shaped handle smack on his face, had injuries in the same shape and Naomal too had some minor injuries. We were assured by the Air Force doctor, Dr Narmasena Wickremasinghe that injuries were not too serious. We stayed there till the arrival of the next of kin who had been informed and went back to Office to meet Mr Wilmot Jayewardena, the Air Lanka Senior Manager Inflight Services.
When Jayantha and I sheepishly walked into his office he gave us the silent treatment initially and then softly declared that being responsible for the wellbeing of the participants, at least one of us Instructors should have been present when fire fighting was going on, even under the supervision of the Ground Safety Instructors. We accepted our mistake and defused the situation. When I look back now I am amazed as to how we coped with such limited resources to keep the National Carrier going. Safety Experts today, recommend that during risky activity, we should trust our ‘gut feeling’. It is usually correct as there is a connection between the brain and the gut resulting in feelings like ‘butterflies’ in the stomach. Needless to say the lesson was learnt.
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