Australian mum Silvia speaks to us about motherhood, the importance of learning the ‘life skill’, of swimming, and how she was in the right place at the right time to save 3 boys, changing their lives, and hers, forever.
We first heard about Silvia Hajas earlier this year when The Straits Times reported that she had saved three teenage boys from drowning off East Coast Park. Sadly, one boy whom Silvia says she cannot forget, was not so lucky.
What originally brought you and your family to Singapore? How long have you lived here?
We took the greatest leap of faith when John, my husband got offered a position with a big bank here. It was too good a role to miss out on. We sold everything in Australia and found ourselves in the East Coast of Singapore over six years ago. I had previously worked with the federal government for many years. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would be a stay-at-home mum living in Singapore, but here I am.
After I gave birth, I took six months’ maternity leave. But those six months turned into a year and I never went back. We both love what we do.
What do you like most about Singapore?
We love the vibe of the city – from the facilities in our condo, Costa Del Sol, to Cold Stone Creamery at VivoCity; to just being able to shop until late at night (Australian markets usually close at 5pm); indoor climbing at Climb Central, Stadium; Gardens by the Bay; activities on Sentosa; cycling, running at East Coast Park (ECP) to visiting the Asian Civilisations Museum – we love the culture and I don’t even mind the hot weather.
What does being a Mama mean to you?
Motherhood is one of the most enriching and satisfying experiences of my life. It’s been full of challenges, but I have loved every moment watching my daughter Trinity, now 9, grow, learn, build character, establish independence, develop friendships and navigate emotions. As Trinity came to primary school age, we switched from a conventional method to home education. Our days start late and we learn at our own pace. Trinity is a keen indoor climber and obstacle course enthusiast. Most afternoons we check out museum exhibitions, do crafts and Lego building while reading and shuttling between gymnastic and painting classes.
Tell us about that life-altering moment earlier this year.
On 8 May 2017, Trinity was working on a project on rocks so I thought I’d take her out and collect some samples. Usually, we don’t venture out when it’s so hot, but we made an exception that day. We went out near the Bedok Jetty and climbed up a sand dune next to a water breaker. I was taking a panoramic shot and saw seven teenage boys entering the water.
Shortly after, I heard yelling. There were seven boys in a cluster and soon I saw that three boys were coming in to the shore. I heard another call and ran down the sand dune, taking off my belt and phone. I ran into the water to waist height but I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself if the boys were just playing so I asked the boys who had come in, if they were in trouble. When they replied in the affirmative, I knew I had to help. I swam towards the four boys who were about 50 metres out.
I made my way towards the closest boy and pulled him out. I hadn’t swum in the open waters for over a year so my swimming fitness wasn’t up to par. I could feel my heart working overtime as I got into the water again. I asked the boys to float but due to the shock and panic, they didn’t. Fatigue was kicking in and I had to let the second boy go a couple of times so I could take a breath myself and he’d submerge briefly. Panic set in each time I pulled him back up and he tried to latch on to me. He was reacting naturally but it was also dangerous as he could push me down. Eventually, we made it out. By then a small number of people had gathered. I asked a couple if they could swim, but they couldn’t. I ran up to another couple and said I needed help in saving two more boys and I couldn’t do it alone. The man looked hesitant but his wife urged him to help me. He looked around and saw a lifesaving buoy so he took it out while I caught my breath.
We re-entered the sea and swam for the third boy. We looked around for the fourth boy but he didn’t surface. We slowly made our way out. I sat the boy down and paced the beach hoping for a miracle. But I knew the fourth boy might not have had the strength to stay afloat against the strong undercurrent of the water. It slowly sunk in that a child died on my watch.
How do you think this disaster could have happened?
None of the boys knew how to swim. They entered beside a water breaker where the seabed was shallow for some distance. Unfortunately, the current was strong and they were carried into a channel where the water was too deep for them to touch the seabed. Before they realised what was happening, they were drowning.
It was 12.30 pm and had it not been for Trinity’s project, we wouldn’t have been standing on the sand dune. The man who came with me to help was also there by chance. He told me later he hadn’t swum in 15 years. I wondered what stars aligned that two complete strangers came together to save a life.
I have wondered often if I could have done anything else. As much as I mourned the loss of a child, I had to focus on whom we could save. I have replayed a hundred times how we could have saved the fourth boy. I needed only five minutes more, but there is no point thinking of the what-ifs. What if I hadn’t been there at all? It would have been a catastrophe.
Did you ever fear for your life?
I was very scared. I was scared if I could make the distance over and over again as there were so many of them in the water. Scared if they would push me under from panic and fear. Scared knowing that my daughter was left on the shore and I had to make sure I got back to her.
How have you been affected?
I can see where it happened from my living room. With time, we’re learning to put it behind us. But I keep an eye on the water all the time. Trinity occasionally becomes sad talking about how it unfolded. The grief will always be there but I can’t summon the intense feelings anymore.
My husband and I are very open talking to Trinity about it without creating fear. I know she was scared I might not come back. I want her to know that the ocean is something to respect, and we have to understand it is not a pool.
I had the opportunity to meet the boys I rescued and their mums. It was a very private and emotional moment. They gave me cards and little gifts.
What you did, not many ordinary mums or dads could have done. What do you attribute your life-saving skills to?
I was over 40 when I learnt how to swim properly and I did that so I could participate in a triathlon. Had I not had the training, I wouldn’t have had the stamina and strength to swim the distance or the confidence to jump into the open waters.
What would you like to say to other parents?
We all need to learn how to swim as a life skill. We live on a small island with reclaimed land that creates an unpredictable coastline. Do not swim in “no swimming” zones like the one where this incident occurred. Do not enter open water without adult supervision regardless of how well you can swim. Go to swimming beaches with lifeguards on duty, and stay within designated areas. Let’s watch out for each other and jump in to help when we can.
Heartfelt thanks to superhero mama Silvia for sharing her story with us!
Stunning photographs are by the very talented Irina Nilsson a remarkable photographer in Singapore who manages to capture light and expressions so beautifully.