After spending nearly 45 years rescuing countless people from the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh and recovering the bodies of those he couldn’t get to fast enough, Sary Romal, 63, died in his sleep on Thursday.
Since 1972, Sary Romal, 63, who was ethnic Cham, lived with his wife in a small house on the bank of the river in Chroy Changva district in a predominantly Muslim community.
Although Sary Romal made a living as a fisherman and ferryman, it was his home’s proximity to the Japanese Friendship Bridge that ultimately defined his life, said his widow, Math Sros, 59.
“We can see the bridge, so it was easy for him to hear and see people in order to rescue them,” Ms. Sros said, referring to the many people who attempted to commit suicide by jumping from the structure.
Ms. Sros said she estimates that her husband, who received no formal training in free-diving, rescued or recovered nearly 300 people and bodies from the river before his death last week.
Sary Romal’s reputation as rescue diver led Defense Minister Tea Banh to ask him to help retrieve the bodies of five military officers who died when their helicopter crashed into a flooded sand quarry in Dangkao district in July.
Members of Sary Romal’s community Monday stressed that they had a responsibility to find someone to take over his role as swimming Samaritan.
“We live so close to the bridge,” said Sou Mary, 55. “It is our responsibility, because we are the only ones who can save these lives.”
Locals said there were a handful of local fishermen who had the potential to do what Sary Romal did, but that their skills did not compare to his.
“He was really important to our community,” said Ny Almath, 33, the imam at the local mosque.
The imam described Sary Romal as an amiable man ever ready to lend a hand, no matter the ethnicity of the person in need.
“He was never just thinking about the Muslims,” Mr. Almath said.
“He wanted to help everybody.”