Heroic doctor leads rescue after Singapore Airlines emergency

Photo courtesy of Thai PBS World

Thailand has been lauded for its rapid and efficient response to an emergency when a Singapore Airlines flight encountered severe turbulence over Myanmar on May 21.

Heading the emergency operation after Flight SQ321 diverted to Suvarnabhumi Airport was Dr Wichanya Burirak, a dedicated physician and aviation enthusiast.

Chiang Mai University, where Wichanya graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, expressed pride in her leadership during the crisis.

Wichanya described the scene as the drama unfolded at Thailand’s main airport.

“There was a commotion with people walking and running everywhere.”

En route from London to Singapore, Singapore Airlines Flight SQ321 hit severe turbulence.

Emergency landing

Upon receiving reports of injuries among passengers and crew, the pilots diverted to Bangkok for an emergency landing.

“Initially, our team was told the aircraft would arrive around 4pm, but it landed early at 3.51pm. That meant we had just 20 minutes to prepare.”

The Boeing 777-300ER was carrying 229 people, including crew, at the time of the incident. Just before boarding, Wichanya received a report that one passenger had died. Inside the aircraft, the severity of the turbulence was clear from the number of injured passengers, many with severe injuries.

“After assessing the situation, I contacted Suvarnabhumi Airport’s director, Kittipong Kittikachorn, and requested approval to implement the mass casualty incident plan.”

Upon receiving approval, Wichanya mobilised her medical team, paramedics from Samitivej Hospital, rescuers, and a transport team.

“We quickly identified passengers with serious injuries for emergency transfer to the hospital.”

Injured passengers

The operation proceeded swiftly, with police clearing the way for ambulances to transport the injured to Samitivej Srinakarin Hospital, 19 kilometres away, in just 15 minutes – half the usual time.

“Our plan called for the transfer of all injured passengers to hospital within two hours of landing.”

Passengers on SQ321, which suddenly plummeted from 37,000 feet, included nationals from 16 countries. The largest groups were Australians (56), followed by Britons (47) and Singaporeans (41).

As of Sunday evening, Singapore Airlines reported that 40 passengers and one crew member were still receiving treatment at the hospital in Bangkok. Many were suffering from life-changing injuries, including spinal, skull, and brain injuries. The single fatality was identified as Geoff Kitchen, a 73 year old Briton.

Wichanya, reflecting on her 12-year career at Suvarnabhumi, said she had never encountered an incident of this scale. She credits her career in airport-based medicine to a childhood passion for aeroplanes, sparked by her mother’s flight descriptions, reported Thai PBS World.

“I have enjoyed watching planes since childhood.”

Her love for aviation even led her to win the title of True Fan of Airlines on the television game show Fan Pan Tae in 2005.

Aviation NewsBangkok NewsThailand News

Puntid Tantivangphaisal

Originally from Hong Kong, Puntid moved to Bangkok in 2020 to pursue further studies in translation. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong. Puntid spent 8 years living in Manchester, UK. Before joining The Thaiger, Puntid has been a freelance translator for 2 years. In her free time, she enjoys swimming and listening to music, as well as writing short fiction and poetry.

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