Humans of Hong Kong

Humans of Hong Kong

Translated version of feature stories and interviews by Stand News. 立場新聞專題、人訪的英文版本。

2019/12/4 - 17:17

The Siege of PolyU (II): Through the Sewers, Towards the Light

Humans of Hong Kong 為《立場新聞》新欄目,刊出由特約作者翻譯、英文版本的立場專題、人物專訪,方便國際讀者閱讀。

"Humans of Hong Kong" is a brand new column highlighting the English version of feature stories and interviews by Stand News.

In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), the protagonist, Andy, escaped the prison by climbing out of a sewage pipe, then roared in a raging torrent of rain. It is surreal to see that happening in real life.

In the early morning on 19 November, the second day of the siege, an escapee tried to get out of PolyU by climbing down a sewer in Y-Core, but failed. That alarmed the Fire and Ambulance Services. 60 people who were reported to suffer from hypothermia were sent to hospitals. Whether that was a result of failed attempts to escape, or a ploy to get out of PolyU by using ambulances, will probably remain an enigma forever. 

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Photograph: On Monday morning, Fire Service accompanied the escapees who were suffering from hypothermia after an abortive attempt to escape via sewer pipes to hospitals.

Photograph: On Monday morning, Fire Service accompanied the escapees who were suffering from hypothermia after an abortive attempt to escape via sewer pipes to hospitals.

One masked man who claimed to have taken the plunge and gone down the sewer pipe, blamed the fetid smell for his failure. As far as he knew, however, there were people who succeeded in escaping through the sewage tunnels.

From 19 November afternoon onwards, people who were planning their escape by going down the sewage tunnels, hurried around the campus. They could be distinguished by their outfit of respirators, goggles, raincoats and knee pads. They roamed around stealthily and scanned the ground, or to be more precise, the manhole covers.

The first dip

“Rectangular manhole covers link to the drainage tunnels.” 

“We should find those that are round.” 

Stand News reporters followed two teams of people who set out to find a suitable sewer opening to use to escape. “The sewer map says it’s here.” – one team found an opening at around 4pm in an isolated site on campus, with the aid of a sewer map whose provenance was unknown and yet had all the different sewer openings marked. Two girls and two boys tried to pry the manhole cover open with short iron poles for 15 minutes to no avail. They became despondent when they realized that the water-level in the sewage tunnels was as high as 1.6 metres - “As tall as I am!” – a girl who was five feet tall said. Feeling disappointed and helpless, they left. 

It was a team of 17 people who made a hitherto myth of underground escape a reality that night.

It started off as a team of six or seven who were exploring the campus. D was stocky; he was the leader. “There are people who have done it, and we have contacts outside who are ready to pick us up.” People with similar plans began to join them, and it quickly snowballed into a big team. They cut through the central lawn, then went downstairs and found a manhole cover in Lee Ka Shing Tower in M-core. The rim around the manhole cover was stuck with pencil-thin steel pens and spanners and other tools. However, the manhole cover was nonetheless stubbornly shut. These seemed to be the signs of previous failed attempts to pry the cover open.

Photograph: the passage in the car park which leads to the sewer opening.

Photograph: the passage in the car park which leads to the sewer opening.

Opening the Exit Door 

With the escape route towards freedom in sight, they decided to take the plunge. They took advantage of the openings left by the previous escapees. They bent the tip of the iron bars flat using bricks, and shoehorned the bars into the rim around the manhole cover to pry the lid open from all directions, in a motion similar to a lever. “We’re getting there, we’re getting there,” some said. But the iron bars snapped. 

“I am going to find some steel pens,” one boy said. He came back with some steel pens after 10 minutes. They saw a ray of hope again. The metal cover between 3 to 4 inches thick began to shift. “Do not use your hands; it will crush your fingers,”  the girls, who observed on the side, kept reminding the boys. “Let’s use our feet then!” some replied. After struggling for 40 minutes, they finally opened the door of their “emergency exit”.

“How deep is the water?” They first dropped a long iron pole to test the water level. It was about 1.7 metres deep - deeper than what the reporter had seen from the previous team’s measurement. D explained that it would not be the actual water level. Meanwhile, however, the water level continued to rise, occupying ¾ of the tunnel, with merely one foot left of headroom. “If we do not make a move now, we will not be able to do it later,” someone in the crowd said.

“One, two, three, four…” They started counting the number of people in their group. “I am a journalist, I am not going,” the Stand News reporter, who had been watching the whole time, said –– the protesters had mistaken him for one of them. The team members did not seem to know each other well. 17 people were counted in the group. “Raise your hand if you cannot swim!” – Astonishingly, almost half of the group could not. “In this case we should arrange ourselves so that non-swimmers are sandwiched between swimmers, as we go down the sewer drain.”

“I will be the last one to go, to make sure all of you can get out safely,” D said. On the other side, a lanky boy in a flowery T-shirt and wearing a surgical mask, offered to take the lead.

Embarking

The lanky boy in the flowery T-shirt climbed down the sewage tunnel, repeating “OK, OK.” Following him was a couple. The boy gave the girl a hug and said: “You go first, I will be right behind you.” The rest filed in, shouting, “It is so dark!”, “Pass me a torch!” time and time again. D was the last to go down. He estimated that they would have to walk for about an hour to get out. If they did not contact the people outside after 90 mins, he told Stand News to ring the Fire Services for them. “See you out there,” he said. He also agreed to let Stand News report on their daring escape. “This will be a great story when we win,” he added, before he vanished into the sewage tunnel. 

After 10 minutes, noises started coming from the sewer. “That’s the light, it’s here.” Three people climbed out from the sewage tunnel - D and two girls. “The water was too deep; I couldn’t wade through it. But I could not ask those in front of me to come back.” They were all drenched, their hair covered in sludge.

“We’ve got to call the fire service, I am afraid the rest of them may get lost and die in the tunnels.”

Photograph: Fire Service Divers searched for two hours.

Photograph: Fire Service Divers searched for two hours.

“From the beginning, the water had already reached my chin. When we reached the second sewer, it went up my nose.” D explained. He pressed his way forwards for around 70 to 100 metres, wading slowly through the quicksand-like sludge. As they were at the tail end of the team, the three were also hindered by the current created by their teammates wading ahead, which sloshed back against them. “If I had pushed any further, the water level might have risen above my head; another 200 or 300 meters, and I might have died in that tunnel. 

As the rear-guard of the team, D made it explicitly clear before going down the sewer that he would be responsible for the safety of all teammates. “The two girls walking in front of me broke down. They said they wanted to head back; they don’t know how to swim.” Meanwhile the other 14 people were already way ahead, and so D could not ask them to return. He was left with the two girls who could not swim, in the face of a rising water level and treacherous currents. “If I abandoned them and told them to head back on their own, I could have pressed further. I thought of abandoning them for two seconds.”

“But I could not do it,” D told Stand News. In the end, he made his escape via other means.

D and the two girls came back safe and began to provide information to the Fire and Emergency Services teams. One girl sat beside the sewer entrance and cried her eyes out. Perhaps she was imagining her fate if she had stayed in the sewage tunnels. Journalists at the scene were also troubled; If the rest of the 14 people succeeded in getting out of via the sewage tunnels, we would be witnesses to history being made; if they did not, we would be watching a great tragedy unfold. 

For two hours, people waited in silence, staring into the sewer opening. Firemen were running back and forth and studying the sewer map. At the stroke of 10pm,  good news has finally arrived. All of the 14 people had gotten out of the sewage tunnel safely, and were picked up by the “parents” (people outside who volunteered to rescue those trapped inside PolyU) who were waiting for them overground. “They got lost,” D said. They had taken the wrong exit, missing the one atop which their outside contacts were waiting. “They kept knocking on the manhole cover; luckily someone opened the lid for them.”

Latecomers 

This is likely to be the first successful escape via underground sewage tunnels observed by a third party. “The sewer opening near M-core car park” became the door of hope in the eyes of the escapees trapped inside PolyU. But they had to wait, because the firemen were guarding the sewer opening overnight. Furthermore, Julian Law Wing Chung, the former political assistant to the Financial Secretary, was on campus trying to dissuade people from escaping via the sewage tunnels. “There is marsh gas,” “The water is deep, you may drown to death,” he insisted. 

But the threat of death did not stop the desperate from attempting to escape. On 19 November, Tuesday, people tried again, including C, who thought there were no secure routes on ground level.

“As long as there is a successful case of people getting out [via that route], I will give it a go. I have nothing to lose.” C had been arrested before the Siege, so for him not being arrested again was his utmost concern. Since Monday, he had started looking looking for a suitable sewer to escape from, to no avail. On Thursday afternoon, C and two other people climbed down into the sewage tunnel via the newly discovered opening. Learning from the experience of the previous team of 17, they were far more prepared. They put on full face respirators, warm clothes, and wrapped their knees with plastic film. “The moment I dipped in, the water had already reached up to my knees. I was slightly hesitant. But that hesitation vanished once I set took the full plunge.”

Stand News went into the sewage tunnel to observe their departure. The water level was about one foot lower than that of the time when the previous team of 17 embarked on their escape. The team of 3 could walk forward easily, simply by lowering their heads slightly; their progress was quick, and soon, they were out of sight. “After 5 to 10 minutes’ walk, the tunnel became more spacious.”

“The wall was covered in so many cockroaches that it was completely black, I had never seen so many bugs in one place in my life. But there was no time to panic. It was so nerve-racking that you would forget about the bloodcurdling chill.”

After 20 minutes, Stand News got a message from C: “I am out.”

“The people who were waiting for us on the ground told us that just 3 minutes prior, the police were standing exactly where I am now,” C said. With the assistance of the ‘parents’, C changed into new clothes and managed to escape the police. C said he left in perfect ease and was given a lift home by some ‘parents’. “I was laughing hysterically when I left; it was as if I was letting days of bottled up pressure out. I could not control myself, I just kept laughing.”

Orchestration  

Stand News witnessed more than thirty people escaping from the sewer entrance near M-Core. K and T who coordinated the rescue mission outside campus, estimated that more than 200 people had escaped PolyU by going down the sewage tunnels. K said that those escaping via the sewage tunnels required more support from people on the outside than those escaping on ground level. Apart from the usual aspects, like reconnaissance and pick-up drivers, the rescue mission also needed the help of engineering professionals. “These professionals studied the maps of the sewage drains and kept track of the water-level and the currents, in order to calculate the best timings and identify the best escape routes for the escapees. They did not sleep for two days.” At the same time, there was also an ‘elite frontline’ squad stationed outside the campus, who would navigate their way back in, to ensure that the sewage routes were safe and that the plan was viable.  

According to K, apart from the most popular sewer opening near M-Core, there were other suitable sewer openings in other buildings too. “Once you go down, it is all linked. It is just a matter of distance.”

“At the start I was very adamantly a ‘left plastic’ (a derogatory term to refer to people who prefer more safe and peaceful forms of protest). I opposed the idea [of escaping via the sewers], because I did not want to see dead bodies being fished out from the sea. But the depth of the kids’ desire to get home safely overwhelmed all of our preconceived plans, ” K said.

What K could do, was to coordinate people’s efforts and formulate as safe a plan as possible, so that these kids could get home safe–– ultimately, there was no way K could stop them. “We kept reminding them of the marsh gas in the tunnel. But they said it does not matter, they are probably going to die anyway. They would rather try and die in there.”

T, who interacted with many escapees, often questioned whether what he did was pushing the kids over the edge of death. He recalled an escapee who lost contact with him for 6 hours. The next message which confirmed his safety arrived ten hours later. “I thought he was dead. If he did not make it, I would never forgive myself.”

Photo:Joey Kwok

Photo:Joey Kwok

Dreaming the Darkness

On the choice to venture into the sewage tunnels in pitch-black darkness, at the risk of death, both C, who succeeded, and D, who failed, said, they had no other option. “I tried Z, T, Y (Core) on the ground; all of them were fully blocked. There were no ways out on the ground, so the sewers were the only option.” D said. The darkness of the sewage tunnels haunts him in his dreams; but he still believes that the underground route was the only way out. 
The reason is that D witnessed a massive group of first aiders being arrested, with their hands zip tied behind their backs on Monday night. The police were using stun grenades, and the raptors (Special Tactical Squad) had geared up, carrying guns loaded with live rounds. “Either you will be killed by the raptors, or you will die attempting to escape via the sewers,” D said.

“I could neither sleep nor eat. I was wary of being on the verge of a mental breakdown.”

“I stared into the sewage tunnel, holding firmly onto the hope that I would be able to get out.”

Reporter: YP Lam