The men who conquered the Mekong

When a commercial plane crashed into a murky river, killing 49 people, Southeast Asia’s poorest nation had no salvage divers to recover their bodies and the black box. So they called in the next best thing: 11 mechanics, welders and electricians.

The men who conquered the Mekong


On the afternoon of Oct. 16, 2013, 49 passengers and crew boarded Lao Airlines Flight QV301. They left the capital Vientiane, traveled an hour south to the small town of Pakse, near the Thai border, then descended into stormy weather.

The pilot was a 58-year-old Cambodian who had been flying more than half his life, including for the Royal Cambodian Air Force. He had logged 5,200 flying hours, many of them at the controls of an ATR-72.

If you’ve flown a short-haul flight in Asia, chances are you’ve been inside an ATR-72. It doesn’t inspire confidence: Two six-blade propellers churn on wings balanced atop a slender cabin. But despite appearances, it’s a hardy aircraft, known for pulling off high-performance landings in poor visibility and on short runways.

This one was brand new; Lao Airlines purchased it just a few months before.

As it bounced in the choppy air over Pakse, air traffic controllers noticed the plane was flying too low. They radioed the captain to abort the landing and try again.

A typhoon had just hit Vietnam, and towering clouds blotted the sky. Navigating a mess of rain and wind, he aborted the landing but couldn’t gain altitude. A wing and both propellers clipped trees. The landing gear scored the muddy riverbank just before the plane slammed into the Mekong River. It shattered on impact, killing everyone instantly.

Then it was gone, like it was never there at all.

The black box is actually bright orange, and it refers to two boxes: the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. These are vital to crash investigators because they record things like conversations and stall warnings, airspeed and altitude. When immersed, a location beacon begins transmitting an ultrasonic pulse.

Salvaging is not usually a job for humans. Rather, surface crews send submersibles, known as ROVs, or remote-operated vehicles, capable of withstanding crushing water pressure and wriggling through tight wreckage. If an ROV gets tangled or knocked out or disoriented, no one dies. They have been deployed to find the Titanic, the Bismarck and the Air France Airbus A330 that crashed northeast of Brazil, four kilometers beneath the Atlantic Ocean.

Lao soldiers guard the spot where Flight QV301 crashed into the Mekong River.

By comparison the Lao Airlines plane was shallow, only about eight meters below. But this was tantalizing because ROVs only work in clear water. The Mekong is about as clear as chocolate milk. To search for corpses and data recorders, humans would have to go down there. It would mean crawling blind against a five-knot current — a mountain of water moving as fast as you can jog. It meant not knowing whether, say, a hunk of sharp metal dumped upstream would come charging along.

For Laos, this was especially a problem. Poor and landlocked, there is not a dive school in the entire country and certainly no one with any salvage experience. So the government put out an international call for help.

Four French investigators from the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses, or BEA, and two members of Singapore’s Air Accident Investigation Bureau, the AAIB, arrived promptly with sonar and acoustical gear. The Thai Navy showed up for the first few days and then left, saying the job was too risky. One of the Frenchmen, a diver, said they were right; it was risky.

Laos was on its own.

When the government called on Bounmixay Khanthayonngthong to join the salvage effort, his life was pretty good.

He was 45, lean with spiky black hair and large, meaty hands toned from decades of work as a mechanic. He identifies himself as a devout Buddhist and family man. He’d work during the day, come home to his wife, play with his boys and kick back with friends on the weekends. His house was modest, but modern, surrounded by lush tropical forest in Keo-oudom district, about 90 kilometers north of Vientiane.

(Adrian Dragne)

When the plane went down, he was at work at the Nam Ngum Dam. “Our job is to keep the dam running,” he says. It is the oldest hydroelectric power plant in Laos. It was completed during the early ’70s, even as the bombs of America’s Secret War — a devastating, hushed conflict on the sidelines of the Vietnam War — were still falling. It provides electricity to a country still only 83 percent powered, and good jobs where a third of the 6.5 million Laotians live on less than $1.25 a day.

Part of keeping the dam running involved going into the Nam Ngum River, which was crystal clear, a kiddie pool compared to the Mekong. Bounmixay and 10 of his colleagues — mechanics, machinists, welders and electricians, between the ages of 30 and 50 — had received on-the-job scuba training. That made these 11 men likely the only trained divers in Laos.

Bounmixay and the others took leave from their jobs, said goodbye to their wives and children and traveled 11 hours by bus to the port in Pakse. There was never talk of compensation, but they accepted the job anyway. Sisavath Phoungmanivanh, also a mechanic, “had to help,” he said. “We had to bring closure to the victims’ families.”

A rusty barge was the operation’s headquarters for two weeks.

In Pakse, the divers met with government officials, military police, representatives from Lao Airlines and a dozen or so local workers brought on as crew. Boats ferried them to a barge in the middle of the Mekong, about 300 meters from the crash site, which was to be their operating base for the next two weeks.

For his keen eye and quick mind, Bounmixay was the de facto team leader. He assessed the risks. This was not Nam Ngum River. “You can’t see anything underwater,” he said. “Not even your hand.” The current would be trouble, particularly if the wreckage shifted. Somebody could get trapped. Plus, most of the divers had never even seen a plane up close, just from the ground as they streaked overhead.

But most importantly, no one on the barge, including the French and Singapore authorities, was even remotely familiar with how to develop a search plan for the Mekong.

Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. From 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped more than 2 million tons of explosives, more than it dropped on Japan and Germany in World War II, in a failed attempt to sever North Vietnamese supply lines. Despite the bombardment, Laos retained its beauty. Buddhist temples, high-altitude peaks and untouched wilderness attract 3 million visitors each year.

The Mekong, Southeast Asia’s longest river, is beautiful, too, but it serves a purpose: fertilizer. Sustained by snowmelt and tropical rainfall, it serpentines for 4,000 kilometers through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and, finally, Vietnam. Along the way, it feeds ecosystems and farmland with rich sediment.

In Laos, the Mekong wends 500 kilometers from the temperate north to the tropical south. It swells in the wet season, and during the dry season, from November to May, islands and sometimes whole forests, with trees, rise up out of the water.

It was the end of October, and soon the river would recede. But by then it would be too late: Black box batteries last only 30 days.

There was no time — or money — to send the divers for training in Thailand or Indonesia, and the government was too poor to provide any extra equipment. The crew would have to make do with whatever was around them.

They started by sinking makeshift concrete anchors to lock the barge in place. They fastened buckets as buoys to mark the search area and would use frayed ropes to measure parts of the submerged aircraft. The divers shared their tanks, weights and regulators and took turns diving in pairs for 20 minutes. Four or five times a day, they had to travel back ashore to refill their tanks. Almost everything was done by hand — the only machine was the crane on the barge — and the days in 30 degrees Celsius heat were painstaking and long.

Diver Bounpone Keokhamphanh (left) and team leader Bounmixay Khanthayonngthong pose next to salvaged wreckage.

Officials from Lao Airlines made diagrams to show the divers the components of the ATR-72. Phonesuthat Thammachalurne, who learned to fly Airbus A320s in Australia, was the head of safety at Lao Airlines and spoke English, which made him the interpreter for the BEA. He was also the guy who drew up the initial plan of action — which was, in effect, just to find something.

For the first four days, French investigators cruised up and down, probing the surface with their electronics, while the divers poked with their hands and feet below.

They found many bodies, but often the violent crash left only severed remains. Some were easily discovered, floating slightly downstream. Others turned up as far as 40 kilometers away. They found a few victims still harnessed in their seats, ensnarled among the ghostly wreckage on the Mekong floor. Sometimes, after these dives, Sisavath would sit in the boat weeping.

They had a descent line to prevent getting disoriented. But otherwise, they plunged into the darkness without markers or chemical lights. They quickly abandoned their two headlamps, which did little but light up a narrow wall of sediment, debris and salt.

Each dive took a toll. “The Mekong has a fast current and can drag you under,” Bounmixay said. “You don’t know where you are, and you don’t know what’s coming down the river. It was scary, but you can’t think about that.”

Back in Keo-oudom, Bounmixay’s family came to expect a phone call every day from him. It was less for their benefit than for his own. “I needed to hear their voices,” he said.

Bounmixay prays for safety before a dive.

Meanwhile, the crash had captivated the nation. The press is tightly controlled in communist Laos, but reporters descended on the scene, and the nation’s Director of Civil Aviation fielded questions. This normally remote section of the river was abuzz with locals who motored their boats dangerously close to the search area. The military police barked orders through a megaphone to keep back.

When they weren’t diving, the anxious wait did not feel like rest. “All we could do was watch and pray for their safety,” Sisavath said.

Most Laotians are Buddhists, and the divers clung to their faith. “Everything is the will of Buddha,” Bounmixay said. The search lasted from morning to night with brief interludes for hasty prayers and offerings of incense at the bow of the barge.

On Oct. 20, four days after the crash, the divers homed in on the recorders’ signals and narrowed the search radius to 25 meters. The next day, Bounmixay and Sisavath found a 10-meter section of the fuselage, which had sunk in a charitably flat area covered mostly with rocks, sand and water plants.

Bounmixay and Sisavath thought they had located the empennage — the tail of the aircraft — that housed the black box. Until now they dove without much in the way of a plan. Phonesuthat, the Lao Airlines captain, figured they could recover the section with an industrial tether and some rope — one end fastened to the aircraft, the other hooked to the crane. The crew on the barge would work a second rope by hand to navigate the wreckage out of the fast-moving current.

With help from the crane, the crew raised a shattered cross-section of the fuselage.

The salvagers dove again and again, trying to locate a worthy spot to tie a rope. They found one: The landing gear was pointing skyward, like a sturdy handle on the fuselage.

In the late afternoon of Oct. 22, and with mounting anticipation, Bounmixay and Sisavath secured a tether around the landing gear’s struts. As the crane hoisted it to the surface, the crew lashed another tether and heaved the section toward the barge.

On deck, the dripping wreckage revealed itself as a lengthwise cross-section of the fuselage — a testament to the sheer force of the crash. The aircraft was made of alloy and carbon composite, but torn in half it looked more like cardboard. The skin was stripped, the honeycomb scaffolding ripped and exposed. Wires and jagged metal protruded dangerously.

A lone oxygen mask dangled, its bright yellow contrasting the dull interior.

The crew, however, was stunned. They thought they were bringing up the black box — yet there was no tail in sight. Did it fall off as they hoisted it from the depths? Or had they simply miscalculated their find? It didn’t matter. The search would continue tomorrow.

They examined the fuselage for bodies. But all they found were backpacks, condoms, passports, clothing and baby supplies.

The next day they returned to the river, hopeful about finding the tail. But when they arrived, nothing was where they’d left it.

The barge, anchored solely from the bow, had changed course in the shifting current. Meanwhile, the buoys — those buckets with hunks of concrete — had drifted in the sand. The search area was gone.

So they hatched a plan. They welded some rebar into a large grid, and the next day immersed it to section off the search area. It was their first systematic search procedure. And it failed. The welding job was hasty. By evening, the powerful river had broken the grid to pieces.

Each day the recorders’ sonar signals grew more faint. The black box was being buried under layers of sediment and sand.

As days passed without a breakthrough, somebody decided it was time to seek the assistance of Peun.

The manager of a Pakse hotel mentioned he had a brother out in the countryside who could swim the Mekong, and Lao Airlines tracked him down.

Keopraseth, or Peun, as he is affectionately called, is a 50-year-old fisherman. Like his forefathers, he has free dived the Mekong River his entire life. To look at him, it’s difficult to believe Peun can hold his breath for three minutes. He is squat and a little flabby at the waist, with the weathered face of a chain smoker. When he isn’t holding his breath, he’s usually holding a cigarette.

Peun, the free diver

But Peun is also strong, with beefy shoulder muscles. And as the other divers searched longingly in full gear with portable oxygen, Peun located an engine and singlehandedly retrieved an airplane seat containing the upper half of a victim.

His uncanny talent for locating airplane parts astonished people. Day after day, he disappeared into the river and then laid his treasures on the sandy riverbank. During one dive, from a depth of 12 meters, Peun lugged up a fractured section of the cockpit’s control panel by himself. The turboprop’s compass, eerily intact, was the only recognizable instrument. But still no black box.

One day, Peun breached excitedly. He said he’d felt the tail. The divers quickly pinpointed Peun’s discovery. When they finally brought it up from the darkness, they saw they’d mistaken the tail for the starboard wing.

The crew drags a section of the plane from the current. The only piece of machinery was the crane.

They built a new, stronger grid, deployed more buoys and dove systematically, with a search line. Someone brought a small compressor onto the barge, saving the time it took to refill tanks on shore. This was their big push. And it was rewarded: They found the empennage.

Elated, the divers measured it 10 meters long and eight meters beneath the surface. Sand and rocks had it partially buried, and it was resting on one side. There was a good chance the tail would fracture as they tried to lift it. So they needed to find the strongest point to secure it and then tug nice and slow.

“Every time we tied the aircraft, the ropes slipped,” Bounmixay said. They kept trying past dark. “We were afraid the tail would break and the recorder would be lost in the sand.” But they had to sleep.

First thing the next morning, the divers were escorted into a hangar at Pakse airport where the chief flight inspector for Lao Airlines showed the team how to find a small hatch on the belly of the plane. “Caution,” it says on the door. “Flight recorder here.” That’s the ATR-72’s black box compartment. If the tail wouldn’t come up, maybe they could at least make off with the data recorder.

The plan was promising. Bounmixay would try first, alongside a buff young diver named Bounphone who often wore dark aviator sunglasses. All eyes were on them as they splashed in.

Officials on the barge made nervous small talk. Seconds ticked by. Twenty minutes. Twenty-five. “It’s been a long time,” somebody remarked. Thirty-five minutes.

Bounmixay surfaced. Then Bounphone. The current swept them downriver toward a waiting surface team. Applause echoed off the barge as Bounmixay held, high in his hands, his bright-orange trophy.

The next day, they fixed industrial tethers to the empennage, fired up the crane and reeled in the line. The tail touched air for the first time in more than two weeks. The crane lowered it onto the barge.

Like the fuselage, the empennage was sheared lengthwise in half. A battered suitcase had a woman’s name scrawled onto the tag. A newspaper remained pinned between the toilet and the sink in the bathroom. The last two seats were still there, as though bolted to a precipice. If people had been sitting there, they were gone.

An airline official climbed into the black box compartment and pulled out the voice recorder. Just like that, the job was, for the most part, done.

The rusty barge grumbled to life and trudged to the bank. The crane hoisted pieces of the aircraft, one by one, onto a waiting truck bound for the airport’s military hangar. The recorders would be sent abroad for analysis.

The crew raises the empennage.

In May, with the river much lower, some of the divers came back to Pakse to search for two victims not yet accounted for. Investigators are determining whether the remains they found are those of the two victims. A formal investigation report on the crash has not yet been released. It’s still unclear whether the black box, for which these amateur divers risked their lives, will explain the mystery of why Flight QV301 went down.

Back in their hometowns, the men were welcomed as heroes. But on the barge that day, the celebration was short, almost understated.

There was a roasted pig, quickly devoured, and bottles of Beerlao. There were pictures and slaps on the back. It had been more than two weeks since the men had seen their families. They were proud, and they were tired. Sisavath, the one who came to bring closure for victims’ families, was grinning. “We brought closure,” he said.

Peun, the free diver, returned to the countryside, and the rest traveled north and went back to work, diving the clear waters of Nam Ngum River.

“We had no experience and no understanding of how to manage the operation,” Bounmixay said. “What could we do? We just had to have courage. We accomplished the impossible.”

Gabriele Stoia and Jennifer Meszaros form the perfect marriage as a photographer-writer duo. Based in Cambodia, the couple uses ethnography as a platform to give honor to the extraordinary lives of others.

Edited by Ben Wolford. Additional editing by Jackie Valley, Colin Morris and Jon O’Neill.