In 1994, while everyone else was running away from the volcanic eruptions in Rabaul, one man picked up his tool box and boarded the almost empty flight to the East New Britain capital to play his part in restoring normalcy at the Rabaul port.
Four years later, the same man was in West Sepik carrying out plumbing works at the Aitape port. He had just returned to Port Moresby with his tool box when news came that Aitape and his fresh plumbing works were completely destroyed by a tsunami.
Andy Wata, a Port Moresby-based Artisan Plumber with PNG Ports Corporation Limited (PNG Ports), dared two of PNG’s worst natural disasters and has many stories to tell of a career that has spanned 30 years but his fame within the company is not that.
This man from the mountains of Hela Province, home to the rich Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project, is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to his job.
In his own words: “What I know is in my head, where engineers have no drawings and I don’t know how to do it for them. I can only point it out and they can draw it themselves.”
During the 30 years, Mr Wata frequently travels to all 15 ports owned and operated by PNG Ports to carry out plumbing works, and knows perfectly well where all the pipes, joints, mains and ‘everything’ is.
Engineers have no drawings/sketches of what he knows, but have begun documentations while accompanying him when he does his work at the port offices, wharves and institutional property’s.
Last year, there was broken pipe along the Stanley Esplanade in Downtown, Port Moresby.
Workers from responsible authorities tried to stop it and in the event, dug trenches here and there but could not find the source.
They soon figured that Mr Wata was the only one who would know, so PNG Ports recalled him from his annual leave where he casually walked to where the workers were sweating, inspected the leakage area and pointed out the correct spot to dig.
The leakage was stopped, business houses in Downtown were happy, and Mr Wata returned to complete his leave.
Such is the value of this long serving staff who has been at this job long enough to know it like the back of his palms.
Mr Wata joined PNG Ports on April 25, 1987. Prior to joining PNG Ports, he had worked in 1968 with D.C. Watkins, the company that built the first high rise building in Port Moresby (ANG Haus). In 1976, he left Watkins for Air Niugini and four years later moved to work with Ok Tedi from 1980 to 1986.
Bringing with him almost 20 years of experience, he was scooped by PNG Ports and has remained for three decades.
Everyone at PNG Ports can agree that Mr Wata is a pleasure to work with, he never fails to smile and greet anybody he meets, and works flawlessly with the skills of a pro.
The past 30 years, he had reported to work at the historical office beside the sea until PNG Ports closed down its operations and officially relocated on March 17 to the temporary location of the Head Office at the Credit Corporation Building in Downtown, Port Moresby.
Standing behind the sliding glass doors in the foyer of the building at Cuthbertson Street, he looked out of place as waited for the elevator to take him to Level 5 and 6 where his colleagues had moved to.
He briefly gazed forlornly across the street and over the buildings to where the former Port Moresby port office was, perhaps reminiscing the good old days there.
“When I started work in 1987, the old office, which was built in the early 1920’s, was in poor shape. The roof on one side of the building was rusted and almost falling. Three months later we worked on that roof and replaced it,” he said.
The building was given some touch-up over the years, along with so many other developments that Mr Wata, as part of the skilled workforce, had played key roles he was proud of.
“The restoration of this building was one of the first projects I was involved in 30 years ago. I was on probation and was looking forward to joining PNG Ports but had to do my job accurately so I could be employed permanently and look after my young family. As a highlands man trying to take on a seaside-based job, I did not have the upper hand,” he recalled as he shyly wiped away tears.
“This building and other short stints at Oro Bay and Wewak port landed me the job, and here I am.”
“My port office for 30 years will be gone, and changes will take place. These days are all about changes, I am looking forward to these changes but the old building I will still hold close to my heart because it is where the foundations were laid for the multi million kina changes PNG Ports is seeing today.”
He struggled to find the right words to explain the thought of the building being demolished soon, none came but the tears he fought back said it all.
Leaving the ‘old office’ was hard for long serving staff like Mr Wata.
He said in terms of work commitment, they could be counted on in those days.
“We used to bring back sawn timber off-cuts, nails, iron and whatever that was left from our jobs. Sometimes our pays were delayed, at times there was no water, air condition and so many disadvantages but we persevered,” he said.
“Today, there are purchase orders here and there, we don’t try to save the bits and pieces but that is just what it’s like nowadays, if only today, we could be more responsible.”
“PNG Ports is the lifeline of the nation, it is also our (the employees) lifeline. It is not a mineral resource like the LNG where it will one day be depleted. As long as the ocean doesn’t dry up, PNG Ports will still be here to look after us. We must respect our job, hold it carefully like an egg, nurture it, let it hatch, grow and prosper,” said Mr Wata.
His hands are rough and hard indicating the years of labour with PNG Ports, and hair that has greyed over time, but his tool box, which had seen him through a total of 50 years in the workforce, will not be stored away just yet.
The multi million kina project at Motukea is progressing, the Huon Industrial Park just started, PNG Ports is still rolling out the rehabilitation drive at all its ports, and Andy Wata’s ‘encyclopedia’ could still be required.
Retirement, for this Hela man, will come to him naturally, just like the LNG.