When Nimal Siri Bandara ran into the house engulfed in flames, it didn’t cross his mind that he was the father of two kids and the beloved husband to a wife who was awaiting his return to Sri Lanka. All that went through his mind was that there was an old woman inside that house, who would burn to death if he didn’t do something, soon.
Nimal, who is lovingly referred to by friends both in Sri Lanka and Korea won the hearts of the South Korean public for this act of bravery putting Sri Lanka on the map for South Koreans.
“No longer is Sri Lanka referred to by South Koreans as the little country below India,” said Nimal in a telephone conversation with the Nation. Nimal is still in Korea recovering from the ordeal.
It happened on February 10, when he was walking back to work from a lunch break. Nimal works in an apple orchard located on a hilltop and travels to work from his rented room at the base of the hill 45 kilometres away. The postman brought him the bad news, while he was walking the one kilometre stretch from the eatery back to the orchard. The postman told Nimal that smoke was billowing from a house near the eatery. Nimal and a few other people at the eatery got on vehicles and rushed to the scene.
It turned out that the fire was due to a gas leak. “Apartments in Korea are made of concrete and other sturdy material,” explained Nimal. “But individual houses are made of regifoam-like material and board, making them susceptible to fire.”
One of the women who rushed to the scene with Nimal realised to her horror that it was her house that had caught fire. “She told me that her mother-in-law was still inside,” recalled Nimal.
The front entrance to the house was a raging inferno. When they made their way to the back entrance and opened the door black smoke billowed out. He had never been inside the house and didn’t know his way around. The daughter-in-law accompanied Nimal into the house to rescue the old woman.
“It was pitch dark inside, there was no light,” recalled Nimal. Within a few minutes into the search, Nimal realised that it was hard to breathe. “In the last two minutes I thought I might not make it out,” he said.
But he succeeded at rescuing the old woman. A glass of water was the first thing he asked for after he came out of the flames. “But it was difficult for me to drink,” recalled Nimal. He was finding it increasingly difficult to breath and black soot came out of his mouth when he coughed.
“I was rushed to the nearest hospital. But they soon realised that I was in a critical condition and transferred me immediately to Taegu Hospital that specialises in providing treatment for fire victims,” said Nimal, still overwhelmed by bouts of coughing.
Nimal had suffered some burns, but the greatest damage was done to his lungs. Ninety per cent of his lungs were filled with carbon fumes. In fact, the doctors who examined Nimal said that had he been inside the house a minute longer he would not have lived to tell the tale.
He spent eight days in the ICU, during which they cleaned his lungs, with tubes running in and out of his body. For four days he was in and out of consciousness. He spent a total of 22 days in the hospital. “I have never been in a hospital in Sri Lanka,” said Nimal. “It was a weird experience.” He has been subject to numerous blood tests and scans, but for the time being doctor’s orders are to exercise regularly.
The complete hospital bill of just about Rs 1.6 million was paid by his employer and the son of the old lady he saved. People living close to him help him out by cooking meals for him. He thanks the Korean Fire Department and the LG Company for bestowing on him accolades. Nimal was given one of ten awards presented by the Korean Fire Department for his act of selfless courage.
A resident of Randenigala Road, Minipe, Kandy, Nimal Bandara worked as a voluntary maths teacher after sitting for his ALs at Sangabodhi College, Minipe. Meanwhile he sat for the Korean Language Proficiency examination and got through the interview.
He was granted a visa valid for four years and ten months.
He was unable to renew his visa within the stipulated time and the visa expired. “I had to collect a letter within 30 days, but I had to attend to some family matters and so I could not,” admitted Nimal. He said that there are many people working in South Korea without visas, because they have been unable to renew it. “You become so helpless,” confided Nimal. “Medical bills are extremely costly in South Korea,” said Nimal. “If you have to be hospitalised, you are forced to bear exorbitant hospital bills.”
His boss in South Korea, whom he refers to as ‘Sajannim’ (Korean for boss) has much experience working with foreigners, but he never liked any as much as he likes Nimal. He says that his work at the orchard is not all hunky-dory. “I’m paid a decent daily wage but in the winter it’s so cold that my lips crack and bleed”, said Nimal.
Nimal said that the Korean authorities are always on the look-out for immigrants who overstay their visa period. “If they find me out they will confiscate my visa and I would not be able to return for five years.” Nimal went to South Korea in 2011, but regrets the fact that he had not yet been able to finish building his house in Sri Lanka. Hence, coming back right now is not an option for him. “I’m 38 years old,” said Nimal. “If I come back to Sri Lanka now, who’d give me a job?”