It was an annual work event. Something we used to do year by year.
It is located far from the buzzing city of Miri and the only way to reach there was by a small Twin Otter plane or by boat.
As it was one of our favourite destinations, I went there at least three times a year, and it was like my second home.
Being surrounded by nature was calming, the caves were beautiful and the water was clean. It was a place to detox from the hectic lifestyles of the city.
During the Event…
On July 2018, at 5.07 am, in the heart of Baram, Sarawak, a government housing caught fire. The fire was so big, the media caught the smell of it before the sun even rose.
It was still dark when it happened. I remember the sound of glasses breaking, the smell of burning wood and the dark smoke creeping slowly into our bedroom.
I remembered waking up to a bright light. My instinct hit me, “Oh God! It’s a fire!”
I shouted at my roommates to run. I could feel them walking past me in panic, trying to make sense of what had happened.
I grabbed my things and ran into the living room.
Then, I heard one of the tenant’s screams and the sound of someone unlocking the front door.
Following my guts again, I ran towards her scream and thankfully I found my way out, right after her.
When I was out of the burning inferno, to my horror, my roommates weren’t behind me.
I could hear people shouting, crying for help. My colleagues were trying to make sense of what had happened. Some tried to put off the fire.
It happened within 15 minutes. Without realising, the fire had engulfed everything to ashes – including the people I loved.
The fire took a life, badly injuring two. A life that could have been spared had fear not crept in at the time.
By the time it was over, I was still in shock, dazed and in disbelief at the terror it caused.
I realised I had just lost someone who slept next to me only a few minutes ago.
Reality started to hit me – what do I tell her parents? What do I say to her family? Her fiancée?
I Was Swamped With Questions
As volunteers searched for her in hopes that she might have miraculously escaped, I was questioned by some bystanders who were there to “help” console me. These are some of the things they said:
“Why didn’t you act quicker?”
“What do you mean you were second to escape the house? Then why aren’t you hurt?”
“Everyone was hurt. Why aren’t you even injured a little?”
“Did you wake her up?”
“How did this happen? I think I saw her running out. How brave! At least she died saving her friends.”
While it was a miracle that I escaped unharmed, which till this day my parents believe to be God’s protection, a part of me was trapped in that place.
At the clinic, I was placed in a room to rest. And I could hear the villagers gathering outside, chit-chatting among themselves.
The worst thing I heard yet, just 3 hours after the incident, was: “It felt as if you came here just to send her to her death.”
To me it sounded like they were saying: “You brought her here to kill her, didn’t you?”
After the event…
Slowly the words consumed me, lingering around, even when everyone had stopped talking.
Slowly, I began to believe that saying.
I killed her!
Had I been more alert, I could have stopped her from dying.
Had I been quicker, I could have dragged her out of our room.
Had I been a little selfless, I could have saved her.
I’m a selfish person!
I started to believe that I shouldn’t have survived that fire.
I became stressed, depressed and suicidal.
I was diagnosed with survivor’s guilt.
Now I realise how toxic that mindset could be. Looking back, there are a few pieces of advice I wished those bystanders could have taken before speaking to me.
If you are ever in the position of consoling a survivor, please take note of the following advice:
1. Stop focusing on the past, but the future
When I was in a slump, I wished the bystanders didn’t say or tell me what I could have done to save her.
Instead, why not focus on positive things like how thankful that most of us survived? There were other people in the house too. But none of them said anything to them.
Often when it didn’t happen to us, we ask: “Why didn’t you do it this way or that way?” We forget that in times of panic, sometimes our brain did what was best for us – either fight or flight.
So who are we to judge things we never fully experience? Shouldn’t we focus on their well-being instead?
2. Stop being nosy or forceful
When we are curious, we tend to ask about what happened, how it happened, why it happened.
When someone just experienced a traumatic event, asking them what, how and why won’t do any good. It will only cause stress and anguish.
After it happened, I received multiple phone calls and texts from people claiming to be family and friends of the victim, wanting to know what happened.
They even reached my parents’ and siblings’ contact numbers as I lost my phone in the fire.
Back off! Privacy is a much-needed time at the point.
It was a stressful moment and by being pushy isn’t going to help the victim but only provide more stress and trauma of recalling the event.
3. Be careful with your choice of words
There is this saying: “When you can’t be kind, be quiet.”
Why say something, if it is going to hurt someone?
Our choice of words can often send off different messages. Even when our intention was kind, it isn’t reflected in the words we pick.
Saying, “You were here to send her to her death” was just so awful.
As if implying that I killed her, on purpose. So does that mean I brought her all the way to that building just to get rid of her body?
Although these “words” are forgivable, they are unforgettable.
Towards the end, I managed to overcome them. I was a different person before. And I am a different person now.
I no longer blame myself. I stopped having suicidal thoughts.
Yet I learned a fruitful lesson – to be grateful for this short life and to be kind in my actions, words and thinking.
The Dalai Lama used to say: “When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.”
Rest in Peace C.J.T (1993-2018)
For more stories like this, read: I Was Betrayed and Assaulted by a Male Friend One Night. Here’s What I Wish People Didn’t Say to Me After.