CityNews Article Archive:
Picking up the Pieces: an interview with the Chiang Mai Rescue Team

July 17, 2012 - James Austin Farrell

Expletive, that’s fast,” I told the driver when the acceleration pulled me back into the bucket seat of his rescue vehicle.

“It’s a modified engine,” he tells me, looking around to check if there are any pedestrians nearby so he might see speed-up again.

“So you get to accidents pretty quickly I guess?”

“Anywhere around Chiang Mai within a few minutes,” he replies.

“Does it bother you, seeing the things you have to see…is it not depressing seeing people with bad injuries, having to tend to people that died?”

“No, not at all, I’ve been doing this for years, I’m used to it.”

“I was told by another rescue worker that a lot of casualties you deal with are in some way related to alcohol, is that true?” I asked him.

“Yes, about 80%,” he said, reiterating what I’d earlier been told by another rescue worker, and then he put his foot down one more time before turning back into Thapae Gate.

The rescue cars and a donated ambulance

I became aware of the Chiang Mai Recue team when I started working on daily news. They are the guys, and girls, much like paramedics, that are the first people on the scene of an accident, or a crime, whether it is a stabbing, a house fire, or a car crash…most often they are called to traffic accidents.

Some of the chilling photos you see in the media are taken by them when they arrive at a ‘scene’. A picture of a body (thrown from a motorcycle) recently cut in half after hitting a wall on the Super-Highway was stuck on pause in my head before my interview with them. Would I have to see anything as horrific as this when I went out with the team? I wasn’t sure my constitution would cope with it. The last time I did a story and had to see dead people I felt kind of ‘funny’.

It seemed to me that it must take a quite unique kind of person to want to do this job, and this is one of the reasons I set up the interview. Another reason was after riding my bicycle out to Sankampaeng this month and seeing pools of blood in the motorbike lane of the 3rd Ring Road, I wondered what had happened. I cycled further up and saw a Chiang Mai Rescue base where an ambulance was parked, which made me wonder how many accidents happened on that road alone. I also wondered who had cleaned up most of the blood I saw, and how did they feel about that? The Thai editor on the Monday after I saw the accident site not only informed me where those pools of blood had come from, but he also brought up photos – from the Chiang Mai Rescue Facebook page – of the accident scene. Two people on a motorcycle had been knocked off and killed by a drunk driver the night before my ride.

The accident spot the night before I rode past

“We should contact them,” I told him.

One of the administrators of Chiang Mai Rescue, Tulip Mahawong, a young Thai man who works as a volunteer for the group talked to us about Chiang Mai Rescue as we were waiting at Thapae Gate…waiting I guess, for accidents to happen.

“We are made up of 87 teams and about 700 people,” he said, “we use ambulances from hospitals, special rescue vehicles, and our own cars.”

The various groups, he explained, in the past worked separately, but now all the groups go under the name ‘Chiang Mai Rescue’. Everyone who works for the team is a volunteer, said Tulip, none of them receive payment. The team subsists on donations. With so many accidents and road deaths in Chiang Mai, the ambulance service is overwhelmed, as a result rescue services do the job of paramedics in Thailand. The volunteers are trained in a hospital before they can start; they learn first aid and how to deal with emergency situations, how to detect serious injuries, and how to report them back to hospital staff. They also receive training for fires, floods, and other emergency situations.

“Most of the time we are called out for traffic accidents,” says Tulip, “usually motorcycles are hit by cars. Not all accidents are really bad, but most do require medical care.”

I asked Tulip about an ordinary day’s work for him. He explains that he works from around 7 p.m. until 4 a.m. every night. He also works in the daytime, a paid job, as a news reporter. “There are accidents or casualties every night in Chiang Mai,” he says.

He explains what happens when he arrives at the site of an accident: “First we check the victim’s vital signs, we apply first aid if necessary, and then call the hospital. If the person is in critical condition we give information to staff so that they are prepared when we arrive with the patient.”

The rescue team are called out to help during flooding emergencies

He says that in many accidents motorcycles are hit by cars, by drunk drivers most of the time. “If they aren’t wearing a helmet,” he says, “they usually end up dead. If you hit your head on the floor that’s usually it…a helmet can save you, but sometimes people die wearing helmets, when they break their neck, or they can die in shock.”

If you’ve seen some of the traffic accidents the team turns up to, you would be forgiven for fainting just looking at the photos, never mind being there at the time; the Chiang Mai Rescue Facebook page looks like a bit of a shock.com page. I asked Tulip how he and his team deal with some very unpleasant circumstances.

“I like the job,” he says, “some volunteers do faint though, or feel sad. Some can’t handle it at all, and leave after one night. But sometimes they take time off, and come back. One time I saw someone on fire, and they burned to death, we couldn’t help them; that’s the worst thing I have seen. The thing that really hurts though is when relatives come to the scene of an accident or a crime… then it’s really sad. Other times people die in the back of the ambulance and that is hard too, but they are often unconscious… they don’t say anything before they die…We save lives, too, a lot of the time we provide help that is essential to them staying alive.” 

“Can you get to sleep after a hard night’s work? Do you not have nightmares?”

 “No,” he replies impassively.

They’ve helped plenty of foreigners in times of trouble, he explains, and foreigners also occasionally die on the mean streets of Chiang Mai, usually as a result of a traffic accident. “The most recent foreign casualty was a man murdered in Hang Dong,” explains Tulip, “that was the last foreigner case we were at. It can be big news when foreigners are killed, and often the police ask us not to say anything as they don’t want to let the killer know about the investigation.”

If we can’t help a person, he tells us matter-of-factly, “we clean up, bag the body, and give it to the hospital.”

This reminded me of the ‘Body Snatcher’ story that became famous all over the world when western media reported that Bangkok rescue teams allegedly fought over bodies. The stories said the teams received 500 baht from the hospital for each dead body they delivered. The body snatcher stories also said that rescue workers would fight over bodies because for every accident they attend, or body they find, they receive Buddhist merit.

“Is that the case in Chiang Mai?” I asked Tulip.

“No, we don’t get money for bodies, and we all work for the same team anyway,” he replied, though he did say that many people are volunteers because of Buddhist merit, “helping people is the biggest form of merit,” he told us. 

The team is not just being called to traffic accidents, sometimes fights break out, sometimes murders happen.

Violent acts are quite common in Chiang Mai, Tulip says. “Just this morning a man cut his girlfriend’s throat and killed her; later in an unrelated case a man shot himself in the head.”

I was glad we’d chosen the night shift on this particular day…

“We are called to murders, violent robberies, and occasionally domestic violence or gang fights, but often people don’t sustain serious injuries in fights. We’ve found bodies that have been lying somewhere for days, and we don’t know what happened to them, we’ve found abandoned babies in dustbins,” he says, adding that these are unusual cases.

The woman whose throat had been cut the day of our interview

It was turning into a morbid interview…but I had steered it that way… like an oncoming drunk driver heading towards me at 140 kph, it was unavoidable.

“So what advice do you give to people to stay safe?” I asked.

“Wear a helmet, it can save you, so can seatbelts,” he said, empirical advice from a veteran of road safety. 27-year-old Tulip has worked as a rescue worker since he was 8 years old when he used to go out with his father who was also a rescue worker.

He says that the road where I had recently seen the blood of traffic victims is maybe the biggest accident black-spot in Chiang Mai: the 3rd Ring Road. Downtown is also very bad, he says.

Tulip repeats that in the past there were more accidents, and that anti-drinking campaigns have helped: “People used to drive faster, and nowadays some people won’t drive drunk because of campaigns.” Although alcohol is still enemy number one he says. “After the pubs close is when we get really busy,” he tells us.

 “Yes it can be sad, but it’s also exciting,” he says in response to when I say something like ‘So you actually enjoy this job’ with a look of consternation on my face.

The Thai editor says to me, “He likes it, he says it’s fun.”

I’m reminded of the crash sites, the bullet hole bodies, and cracked heads spilling their once-intelligent yoke. But I guess they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t enjoy it, I muse. And though I try to talk myself into the fact that death and even severe injury is natural, and that the death taboo should be transcended, I still can’t imagine ever feeling comfortable picking up arms from the street.

They get there fast, he tells me, and in a few minutes they will show me how fast their souped-up rescue cars goes. This is the only time I will sit in the car, and I am glad of it. It wasn’t the front I had a problem with, it was the spectre of sitting in the back, not as rescue worker, but as a spectator. I can’t imagine becoming desensitized to what the team sees on most days of the week, but looking at Tulip’s (what a beautiful name) unmoved face as he tells me the low-down on death and disaster, it’s confirmation that we all have special talents.  Some people aren’t afraid of the dead, while for most of us it’s a taboo we just can’t kick.

“It’s a no-drinking day,” says Tulip, “the elections. So it’s a quiet night tonight.”

“You should have come in the morning,” says the Thai editor, “a murder and a suicide.”

“Nah,” I tell him… “Let’s go.”

“Yeah, better we go,” he says. 

“Is there really nowhere I can get a beer?…I’m not driving.”

Chiang Mai Rescue Team

Two passers-by wanted a photo with the Hello Kitty stretcher
Chiang Mai Rescue account. If you want to donate you can contact: Krungthai Bank, Nim See Seng branch – account number 771-0-01789-4