… Recovery of Aliya Bulkan’s body
– Anybody who suggested that the helicopter could have gone down there, I don’t think, know what they are talking about,” Cap. Sheldon Howell
Ranks of the Guyana Defence Force, especially members of its Special Forces Squadron, can execute any search and recovery operation in any part of Guyana.
This assurance was given by Captain Sheldon Howell who led a team of committed soldiers to the base of the Kaieteur Falls to recover the body of Aliya Bulkan.
Howell was addressing a press conference during which he gave a detailed account of the operation that almost cost the life of one of the team members.
Mentally, the challenge could have overwhelmed many, given the magnitude of the task but according to Captain Howell, the soldiers who participated in last week’s operation were up to the task.
“At the Special Forces, we train harder than the other soldiers and I don’t have to prepare their minds. Their minds were already prepared before they entered into the operations. So in terms of mental preparedness, the training prepared them for this,” Howell stated.
However, he pointed out that nothing in their training could compare to their Kaieteur Falls experience.
Howell said that on November 8, last, after the family of Ms. Bulkan requested the assistance of the GDF in the search for her body, Lieutenant Jermaine Whyte and eight soldiers were deployed from Base Camp Stephenson on Monday November 9 at 08:00 hours for Kaieteur Falls to conduct a search operation.
On their arrival, they were oriented by a relative of Ms. Bulkan to the approximate area she had allegedly jumped.
According to Capt.Howell, after doing a quick assessment of the situation, Lt. Whyte decided to journey to Tukeit at the foot of the mountain. He departed at 09:45 hours with his team along with two policemen and two civilian guides.
From Tukeit they traveled by boat for some 20 minutes down river to a nearby camp called Waratuk where they rested for the night.
On Tuesday at 06:05 hours, the team returned to Tukeit by boat from where they navigated on foot to the bottom of Kaieteur Falls.
The estimated distance is two and a half kilometers but the team took five and a half hours to get there given the extremely rough terrain, which is made up of huge boulders, secondary jungle and unforgiving rapids.
On arrival there about 11:10 hours, the team rested for about an hour then commenced a detailed search in that extremely dangerous area for Ms. Bulkan’s body, according to Capt Howell.
After two hours of searching and not making any progress, they decided to continue the search downriver, hoping that the body might have floated down.
Captain Howell noted that on their way back, Sergeant Roland Williams, the team’s Second in Command, fell from one of the slippery boulders and was caught in a rapid, which toppled him continuously and submerged him under the boulders.
“To save his life he had to make the quick decision to release the backpack, which he did while underwater and, being a strong swimmer, was able to surface and cling to a rock from where he pulled himself to safety,” Captain Howell explained.
He said that a while later, the body of Ms. Bulkan surfaced some time during the team’s search downriver and was seen from the top of the falls.
The Special Forces Commanding Officer told the media that after receiving information late Tuesday about the location of the body, another team which he personally headed, and including four soldiers, was inserted into Kaieteur on Wednesday at 11:00 hours to supplement the recovery effort.
“The mission guidance given to me was not to endanger our lives. On arrival we were shown the body by Ms. Bulkan’s father, and around 14:00 hours my team along with an uncle of Ms. Bulkan, Mr. Arif Bulkan, and a civilian guide, Mr. Ian Yansen, trekked down to Tukeit where we married up with Lt. Whyte’s team,” he said.
After a quick briefing session, Lt. Whyte was instructed to head back to the top of Kaieteur to establish a command centre.
At 06:30 hours on Thursday, Captain Howell led a team consisting of eight soldiers and three civilian guides upriver to the bottom of the Falls.
They arrived there at approximately 11:45 hours and were directed to the general area of the body by Lt. Whyte who was at the top of the falls.
Corporal Guy Nash subsequently discovered the body and he was very instrumental in its retrieval, as he had to swim about 19 feet where he grabbed the foot and hoisted the body unto a nearby rock.
At that stage the remainder of the team assisted in pulling the body to a safer area on another rock.
By this time the team at the top of the falls had lowered a 1200 ft rope down the falls with a stretcher attached.
However, according to Captain Howell, the rope and stretcher did not fully descend as it got stuck on a shelf about 100 ft from the basin.
To correct this, Corporal Makelia Armstrong had the risky task of rappelling down for about 200 feet to release the stretcher.
After this was done, the next task for the recovery team in the gorge was to retrieve the rope, which was about some 200 ft away from the body between a heavy flowing rapid. “At this point I consulted the team and Corporal Nash said he was up to the task. He bravely swam through the water to retrieve the rope with the stretcher and handed it to another soldier who was nearby.
“Around 13:30 hours Corporal Nash and I commenced wrapping the decomposed body and then gave the word for it to be pulled to the top. It took about 10 minutes for the body to be hoisted to the top from where it was immediately flown to Georgetown by an Air Services Ltd aircraft,” Captain Howell explained.
“The entire recovery operation was rough, it was risky, and it was extremely difficult and dangerous but my team and I were very happy to accomplish this mission,” Howell said.
While the recovery operation was a success, he acknowledged the fact that to perform similar tasks there is need for more equipment.
This he said has already been conveyed to the army’s high command.
Captain Howell debunked claims by Captain Gerry Gouveia of Roraima Airways who had reportedly criticized the reluctance of the army to engage the helicopter in the operations.
“I don’t think that Mr. Gouveia has ever journeyed to the bottom of Kaieteur,” Captain Howell pointed out.
He explained that a risk analysis was done and there were several reasons why the helicopter could not have been used.
According to Howell, in the first instance the terrain made it impossible for the soldiers or the helicopter to land anywhere near the area of operation at the base of the falls.
He said that in addition to this, the GD helicopter is a surveillance asset and it does not have rappelling capabilities.
“And because of the atmospheric conditions, with the turbulence in the gorge, would have caused that helicopter to go down, and anybody who suggested that the helicopter could have gone down there, I don’t think they know what they are talking about,” Captain Howell stated.
But would they do it again?
“I would not say no, neither would I say yes,” was the response of one of the ranks.
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