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Pangkalan Bun: A small town with a big heart

On a hot morning last Sunday, Ms. Saptuyah, 37, bought 200 packets of nasi bungkus ― takeaway rice meal ― and set out on a delivery.

With the help of two friends, she took 150 packets to the military air base at Pangkalan Bun and another 50 to the port in the nearby town of Kumai, to help feed the hundreds of officials and uniformed personnel helping in the search for the crashed Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501.

A day earlier, she and her friends had gone door-to-door in Kumai ― where smaller search boats depart from ― to seek donations.

The trio went to shops and homes and in a day, they collected more than 3 million rupiah (S$330), which paid for the packets of rice with vegetables and fish.

“People come from so far ― Singapore, Australia, Malaysia ― to help search for the plane,” Saptuyah says.

“How can we not do our part when we’re so near?”

Pangkalan Bun is actually some 550km from Surabaya, where the flight originated and where many of the passengers lived or worked. It was picked as the main center for the search and recovery operation as it is the closest major town to the site of the Dec. 28 crash, which most likely killed all 162 on board.
Businessman Ferry Alfiand serves food, which he brought from his restaurant, to the search personnel at the operations center. (Straits Times)
Businessman Ferry Alfiand serves food, which he brought from his restaurant, to the search personnel at the operations center. (Straits Times)

Many of the small town’s folks have shown deep sympathy for the tragedy and felt a desire ― even responsibility ― to rally and assist.

The local government canceled the annual New Year’s Eve celebrations and replaced it with a two-hour prayer session which saw some residents getting teary-eyed.

“No fireworks in Pangkalan Bun,” wrote a banner in town. “Pray for QZ8501.”

The local authorities also set aside 2 billion rupiah as emergency funds to help with the search operations.

“It is the culture of Indonesians to help,” says senior local government official Suyanto. “We’re one big family. We’re here for one another when there’s a disaster.”

The Central Kalimantan town on the southwestern coast of Borneo island has a population of more than 200,000, and many people here work in fishing, zircon mining or tourism. Saptuyah, for instance, is a cook on tourist boats in its biggest tourist draw, Tanjung Puting National Park, where one can see orangutans roam wild.

In a sign of how closely it is associated with the great ape, a statue of an orangutan stands in the center of a roundabout that leads to Pangkalan Bun.

Before the ill-fated plane went missing, even fellow Indonesians ― such as Jakarta resident Surya Irawan ― did not know where it was.

“But now because of AirAsia, everyone knows Pangkalan Bun,” says the 25-year-old, who is here for a two-month internship at Bank Negara Indonesia.

Indeed, Pangkalan Bun is typical of a modest-sized town in Indonesia, with two-lane roads, single-story houses and lots of greenery. The swankiest mall in town consists of a hypermarket, a video arcade, two cafes and a few retail shops.

Mr. Surya and colleague Cut Roslina, 32, volunteer regularly at the operations center at the military airport, helping to prepare cup noodles and make coffee for search personnel and journalists.

They were joined almost every day last week by businessman Ferry Alfiand, 43, who gets the cooks at his restaurant to prepare extra food to bring to the operations center. He spends 2 million rupiah each time to prepare 200 portions of food.

Greeting everyone with a broad smile as he scoops vegetables and eggs onto rice, he says: “I’m just doing my bit.”

“I can’t go out to sea to help the recovery, but this much I can do,” says the father of two, who sometimes brings his young children along to “teach them the importance of helping others.”

Although they have their regular meals, search personnel are grateful for the extra food and dig in with gusto.

The goodwill, however, does not mask the somber task at hand: Looking for the people onboard the plane, two-thirds of whom are still missing, and the black box that is key to finding out why the plane crashed.

Helping out in a different manner is pastor Marten Tally, 52, who leads a Pentecostal congregation at Gereja Bethel Indonesia.

Together with other local Christian and Muslim leaders, he has visited the Sultan Imanuddin Hospital to help pray for the recovered victims taken there, before the coffins are sent to Surabaya.

It is a task that he handles with a heavy heart, he says, as Pangkalan Bun has never seen a tragedy on this scale before.

“I pray for the victims and I pray that they will have a safe journey to Surabaya,” he says. “I pray that God will give strength to their families. I pray that Basarnas will find the plane soon.”

By Teo Cheng Wee

(The Straits Times)