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  1. #1
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    On the Road With Bangkok's 'Body Snatchers'

    On the Road With Bangkok's 'Body Snatchers'
    Nirmal Ghosh
    March 19, 2011


    Ruam Katanyu Foundation volunteers waiting to race to the rescue as soon as they receive news of an accident.
    (ST Photo)

    Bangkok.
    he last time I was in the back of one of these pickup trucks, I was on an orange plastic stretcher. My left leg - broken like a matchstick in a motorbike accident - was in a splint.

    That was three years ago. Today, the orange stretcher is strapped to the inside wall of the covered pickup, and I am sitting on a mattress with my camera.

    The truck is speeding to a staging point on the edge of Bangkok in the adjacent province of Nonthaburi, one of many dotting the capital.

    At the wheel in his yellow overalls is Noppadon “Pom” Sristhongkum, 42, a full-time staff member with the Ruam Katanyu Foundation.

    In the back of the jolting pickup are boots, jackets, blankets, latex gloves, a roll of broad tape, two ice boxes, a grimy red duffel bag and a small elephant soft toy wedged into a corner.

    The Ruam Katanyu Foundation was started around 50 years ago by the late Somkiat Soakulrunruang, in Klong Toey, when it was still a slum.

    There was nobody to pick up the area's dead or injured then, so with a donated vehicle and a handful of volunteers, Somkiat took on the role.

    Today, the foundation is run by his widow and has around 5,000 volunteers across Thailand. It is one of several private foundations which are operating road accident rescue services - making up for still-inadequate or non-existent official services.

    The Poh Teck Tung Foundation, for instance, has around 3,000 volunteers across Thailand. Other rescue services have trained foreign paramedics donating their time and skills.

    We arrive at the staging point in Nonthaburi at 9.30pm. Within a few minutes, another pickup drives up, and a volunteer emerges - Thop Kittiwat, 25, who started nine years ago when he was a student at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok.

    Minutes later, a third truck arrives, also with the foundation's distinctive logos and lights on the roof. Television comedian Somchart Songklot, 42, emerges with Praweena Ngernmaneepothong, 23, an Assumption University accountancy student. The volunteers wear olive green overalls. Each pickup is equipped with basic rescue and life-saving hardware.

    By around 11pm, there are four trucks and an ambulance at the staging point. One of the pickups has a motorized winch for dealing with crashed cars.

    Much has been written about these so-called body snatchers of Bangkok.

    The volunteers sit at strategic points drinking Red Bull and herbal tea through the night to keep them going, monitoring police and citizens' band radio chatter, and speeding to the scene of accidents.

    Until about two years ago, the volunteers were notorious for their competitiveness. Different teams would race to an accident and fight over the victims. Allegations flew that they were paid commissions to deliver the injured to hospitals - something hotly denied by the foundations.

    That was not my experience when they picked me off the street after my motorcycle accident.

    And sitting with the Ruam Katanyu volunteers, it was clear that the operational problems have been sorted out. The group shares its territory in Nonthaburi with the Poh Teck Tung Foundation, each group alternating duty days.

    Aside from a few permanent staff, all the rescue workers are volunteers, freely giving of their time.

    Many of the volunteers are young professionals or office executives, while others are students. Funding comes from their own pockets or from donations to the foundation. Many TV stars and other celebrities regularly volunteer, buying their own vehicles and their own equipment, and undergoing training in rescue and revival and trauma care. Once in, they quickly become hooked.

    The volunteer groups are famed for arriving on the scene of an accident in minutes, even before the police. Often they are the ones controlling traffic flow at an accident site. But they have an uneasy relationship with the police. “Sometimes they want us there - especially when there are dead and injured people. Sometimes they don't, and sometimes they get upset because they say there are too many of us,” said Noppadon.

    But if not for groups like these, accident victims - there are 13,000 fatalities on Thailand's roads a year - might be left to die on the streets with their bodies unclaimed for hours.

    There is simply no official mechanism to cope with the victims, as Thailand is the only South-east Asian country where private foundations run almost purely voluntary services like these.

    The group's members were keen for me to understand why they choose to sit in a deserted carpark all night waiting for news of accidents.

    And they do not respond only to road accidents; they are often called by the police to take away bodies of people killed in all manner of episodes, from fights to suicides to drowning.

    They do it from the heart, they tell me, because they want to help people. “We believe Thai people have a volunteer spirit; the good karma is just a bonus,” said Somchart, as he lay on a mat to while away the long, quiet night.

    He has been doing this for 12 years. Praweena has been doing it for less than a year. In the back of their pickup was brand new life-saving equipment bought with their own money.

    “They are crazy. They invest so much!” joked Noppadon, who said he had celebrated his last birthday with the group in the carpark, drinking beer until an accident caused them to scramble.

    Tonight, in an uncommonly cold, windy and rainy Bangkok, the group huddles together under blankets and towels to keep warm.

    On quiet nights, the group members while away the time chatting, snacking and snoozing in their cars or on mats. They do not begrudge the rare periods when there is nothing to do, however.

    As Praweena said: “On days when there is nothing serious, it is a good day for everyone.”

    thejakartaglobe.com

  2. #2
    Member roger77's Avatar
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    I had heard some awful things about the"body snatchers".
    One day a friend of a family member took off on his motor bike, he had been drinking- no helmet- you know the story.
    At the end of the soi he was hit by a bus that did not stop.
    I was trying to do what I could to save the kid, no help from bystanders them the "snatchers" arrived, one young man came straight to me with gloves as the team all took to their obviously trained jobs.
    Later an ambulance arrived, I thought that I had lost the kid but he is now OK.
    I thought that this team was well trained and very good.

  3. #3
    Member Roger Ramjet's Avatar
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    50 years ago Australia had a great volunteer ambulance service like this throughout the country. The few professionals joined unions and eventually forced the volunteers out, making it extremely expensive. It also removed the opportunity for volunteering for the common good. These young Thais apart from learning valuable skills, are all being great citizens and should be commended. I wonder how volunteering can be maintained along side a professional workforce. The other problem in Australia now is that if you dont have ambulance insurance, and get injured..'....once you get transported to hospital you can spend the rest of your life paying off the ambulance ride!


  4. #4
    Mmmm, Bowling......
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roger Ramjet View Post
    once you get transported to hospital you can spend the rest of your life looking for your wallet and gold chains!

    Fixed it for you.

  5. #5
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    I had no idea they buy their own equipment, good on 'em.

  6. #6
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    I'm glad to hear a positive encounter on the matter, I've always been told they find their 'earnings' in your pockets (and may dump you if you have nothing) or leave you a check-bin.

    Nothing is free, and I'd also be curious to see how many accidents they've caused racing other organisations to the scene.

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