The firefighters rushed to the disused mine outside Malaysia’s capital in a steady rain Wednesday evening, searching for a teenager who had slipped into a pond. The rescue effort quickly turned into one of the worst disasters the country’s emergency services have ever experienced, with six firefighters drowning in the dark, rushing waters, officials said Thursday.
The deaths come three months after rescuers in neighboring Thailand safely evacuated 12 boys and the coach of their soccer team from a cave, where they had been trapped for days. One diver died in that effort, which attracted global attention.
But in Malaysia, what began as a routine rescue went horribly awry with a shocking swiftness. Videos published online show the men struggling in choppy water, illuminated only by flashlights, with the sounds of shouts and rushing water filling the air.
Mohammad Hamdan Wahid, director general of the Fire and Rescue Department of Malaysia, told reporters attending the funeral of the men on Thursday that it was the most department personnel ever killed during a single rescue operation, the Malay Mail newspaper reported.
The firefighters had formed a human chain and were trying to reach a floodgate where they believed the missing boy was trapped, he said. Then one of the rescuers lost his footing.
“Strong undercurrents caused by heavy rain earlier then dragged all of them into a whirlpool where they subsequently drowned,” Mr. Mohammad Hamdan said.
The men were believed to have become trapped under a low dam by rushing water, he said.
All six were tied to a single rope, Abdul Aziz Ali, the chief of the Sepang district police, told reporters at the scene, according to Bernama, the state-run national news agency.
“Suddenly a strong current occurred in the area, causing all victims to spin in the water while all their equipment came off of them,” he said. They struggled in the water for about 30 minutes and were unconscious when they were finally pulled out, he added.
Heavy rains had contributed to a strong runoff and rising water levels in the pond.
The rescuers had been searching along the surface of the water and did not have diving equipment, Mr. Mohammad Hamdan said.
Officials said the firefighters had followed standard procedure for such rescue efforts, the local news media reported.
The 17-year-old boy they were searching for has not yet been found. Efforts to find the boy stopped after the firefighters’ deaths Wednesday evening, and were resumed early Thursday.