Meet the accident first responders on treacherous Central Highlands pass

By Tran Hoa   August 2, 2023 | 10:37 pm PT
For 14 years Dinh Van Hoang has endeavored to turn up first at accident spots to ensure no lives are needlessly lost.

One night in 2009 Hoang, then 23, received a phone call from his sister, who was on medical duty at the top of Lo Xo Pass in Kon Tum Province in the Central Highlands.

She said there had been a major accident, with a truck falling off a bridge three kilometers away from where Hoang was.

He had just undergone an appendix surgery a week ago, but he did not hesitate. He grabbed a flashlight and some tools before heading toward the accident scene on a motorbike.

There were already several police officers and civilians at the site. The truck had fallen 100m off the cliff. It body was crushed, and tons of flour had spilled around it, burying its cabin.

Hoang and others at the scene quickly cleared a way into the cabin. Unfortunately, by the time they were brought out of the cabin 30 minutes later, the driver and his assistant had suffocated to death.

"I was already exhausted, but I tried to carry the bodies away from the scene and onto the road," Hoang says, adding the incident haunts him to this day.

"If I had reached earlier, things could have been different."

Dinh Van Hoang in a travel operation on the Lo Xo Pas in Kon Tum. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Oanh

Dinh Van Hoang during a rescue mission at an accident on Lo Xo Pas in Kon Tum Province in the Central Highlands. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Oanh

The 37-km Lo Xo Pass, situated on National Highway 14, runs through Kon Tum's Dak Glei District and Quang Nam's Phuoc Son District.

Steep and treacherous, it is a nightmare for drivers.

Hoang came to be known as Hoang Lo Xo by the drivers who frequently travel through the pass.

He has a vehicle repair shop at the top of the pass a few dozen of meters away from a traffic police booth.

"My phone is never off. No matter how big or small the accidents are, I always try to be there immediately," he says, revealing that drivers often call him to report on accidents they witness and other issues.

The accident that keeps him up at night the most occurred in 2015 when a bus carrying 31 people fell down a cliff.

When he reached the scene, the vehicle was at the bottom of the cliff, its front crushed and stuck in a tree. People covered in blood were screaming and calling for help.

Hoang used a hammer to break windows and carry victims outside. The injured were carried to the road above. After three hours of rescue work one passenger did not make it alive, and the rest were taken to hospital.

"I don't know what made me so strong and tireless at the time. I carried one after another, climbing the cliff with little effort."

Every time he returned home with his clothes covered in blood, his wife advised him to stop doing it. But he says he cannot but rush to the spot when an accident occurs.

Hoang says the key to rescue work is not to be hasty or impatient.

Even if someone is trapped in a vehicle, he remains outside and tries to extricate them since climbing inside might worsen the situation.

And, one must always carry all the necessary tools when trying to rescue people, he says.

Rescuers and authorities cooperate during a traffic accident on Lo Xo Pass of Kon Tum, February 2023. Video by VnExpress/Ngoc Oanh

Inspired by Hoang’s heroic deeds, in 2017 Ngo Quang Quyet joined him and founded a team of rescuers on Lo Xo Pass. Its eight members, aged 26-40, were vehicle repairmen, electricians or vendors selling stuff in the pass. They have a Facebook group with 12,000 members, mostly drivers and locals.

The group's goal is to arrive quickly at the site of accidents in the pass to rescue anyone possible.

It also uses social media to issue warnings about eroded roads, traffic congestion and dangerous spots. Its phone numbers are painted on the sides of cliffs and railings so that people can contact them when something happens.

The rescuers closest to the site of an accident are tasked with reaching there first, even before authorities arrive, to take victims to hospitals and collect their goods.

One of the rescuer says: "If we can reach just a second sooner, victims have a better chance of surviving. They will also suffer less pain."

In February this year four members of a family were traveling through the pass in a car when a truck coming in the opposite direction crashed into them.

The team managed to get the victims out in 30 minutes, but the man and one of the children were already dead.

Ho Dac Dien, 29, a member of the team, says: "I was scared during the first time. But when I saw my teammates rush to save the people, my fear subsided and I joined them as well."

Noticing their selflessness and bravery, a business has provided the team with tools for their rescue operations, including walkie-talkies, signs, reflective rain coats, and wires.

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