Man who led India's Wuhan evacuation operation speaks out; calls the city 'death city', operation a challenging one

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Feb 13, 2020, 05.58 PM(IST) Written By: Sidhant Sibal

Air India's Captain Amitabh Singh Photograph:( WION )

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The operation was led by Air India's Captain Amitabh Singh. Speaking to our diplomatic correspondent Sidhant Sibal, he narrated his experience and talked about what made this operation full of dangers. 

On January 31 and February 1, India led the evacuation of more than 650 people including 7 Maldivians from Wuhan, the epicentre of coronavirus than has killed many in China. 

The operation was led by Air India's Captain Amitabh Singh. Speaking to WION, he narrated his experience and talked about what made this operation full of dangers. 

WION: Your experience as you led this operation?

Captain Amitabh Singh: It was very challenging. And however, Air India has been involved in many evacuations earlier, we were able to pull this off very nicely. We were informed just a day and a half before evacuation was to start which was January 30. The biggest challenge initially was to get visas for all the crew, staff which were going. In fact, finally, we got our visas in the Mid Night, some of the crew got it next morning at about 7 am. The second challenge was to coordinate with ministries. Coordinating in short period. 3rd challenge was since it was a medical evacuation, it was an epidemic, obviously, we wanted to ensure the safety of our crew and staff and it was of paramount importance.
 
WION: How was Wuhan and the ground situation in the city?

Captain Amitabh Singh: Normally, whenever you fly into the city, there is radiotelephonic chat and you are ready. Here, it was a deathly silence and we were the only aircraft flying in the air and no traffic delays. And before we landed, in fact, what we saw was the city was well lit up. But one vehicle insight, not one soul in sight, it was absolutely like a death city. And that was eerie and uncomfortable. And once we landed, the airport was in dark, we were the only aircraft that was moving and that was unique. When we parked and shut down the aircraft, only 2 people, who came to receive us and doors were closed till the authorities were satisfied that all the systems were in place.

WION: You took two flights back, what was the reaction of passengers?

Captain Amitabh Singh: The passengers were very very tired, they had been waiting for the flight for the past few hours. And they had travelled long distances and it took them 3 hours to go through immigration and customs and medical assessment. So it was a big relief, they were very tired and as they got on board it was a sigh of relief. And especially when they took off, we could see them clapping. 

WION: Air India has led evacuations from Yemen, Libya, Nepal. What was different this time?

Captain Amitabh Singh: Air India has done a lot of evacuations from war-torn areas. They have also done evacuations due to natural disasters. But here the unique thing was an epidemic. And that was something that was worrisome. However, we had very good support from our own medical department, and from the ministry of health, doctors from Ram Manohar Lohia and Safardarjung hospitals were present to support us and none of us gets impacted. We had protective suits, we had masks, glasses everything.

WION: How is the crew, because the crew was put on a break?

Captain Amitabh Singh: Happy to tell u, we are all fine. For 7 days we were in-home quarantine. We are back in action. Some of the flight crew, not going to Europe and all at the moment, so doing just domestic flights and that is for 14 days and after that everything will be normal.