In the early 1980's, students from 12 schools took part in a diving competition at Kamalasagar village in Brahmanbaria's Kasaba upazila. After a nerve-wracking wait, a thin boy won by defeating 36 other contenders, much to the delight of the spectators.
That was just the beginning for the 12-year-old amateur diver. He is a grown man now, and is still doing something that he is good at – diving.
Meet Abul Khair, a professional diver of the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence (FSCD) where he leads a 25-member squad of divers.
Khair is now a globally recognised diver from Bangladesh, with 30 years of experience to his credit. In this long journey, the daredevil hit national and international news headlines on a number of occasions for spearheading many underwater rescue operations.
Interestingly enough, the immensely gifted diver did not want to take-up diving as a profession. Khair said he was a good swimmer even at a young age. He had to drop out of school because of poverty and find a job to survive.
Khair, the son of an imam of a mosque, joined the FSCD in 1990 out of desperation to land a secure job. That was the beginning of a career that made him a great rescuer. Khair has made uncountable expeditions underwater.
After being posted in Khulna division, his first assignment was to find a big sunken boat loaded with jute.
Khair's eyes glittered with excitement as he shared his first experience as a professional diver with this correspondent.
"The manager of a jute mill was stuck in a small room of the jute-laden sunken boat. My first attempt to identify the room was a failure. I had to return empty-handed," he said.
"Then I made a second attempt. This time, I identified the room at the back of the boat. I brought out the body after breaking the window," added Khair.
This courageous man's life story has become a legend. Khair's name has become synonymous to hope because of a series of daring yet successful operations.
When all hope fails in locating sunken vehicles or retrieving bodies from deep and turbulent water, Abul Khair goes all in, without hesitation.
While explaining the underwater world, Khair said, "It is a tough job to locate a sunken boat in deep water and to retrieve bodies from that depth."
"But I do not get afraid; the anxious faces of relatives standing on the bank, holdng the hope of getting back at least the bodies, gives me much-needed mental strength and determination," said an emotional Khair.
All expeditions are equally important to this legendary rescuer – from the sunken launch at Munsikhola in Narayanganj, to the sunken boat in the Buriganga, to the bus accident in Aminbazar.
This real-life hero particularly recalled one incident when a launch named "MV Raipura" sank near Aricha in April 2005 with 200 people on board.
Four days had passed but no diver could trace the vessel.
Khair was called in as a last hope. After putting on his diving suit, eye protector glasses, boot and knife, he dove into 51-feet water.
Khair became exhausted by the time he reached the river bed because of the strong current.
He had to rest several times during the search for the sunken vessel, and his oxygen supply was running low. He almost lost hope, but decided to give it one more try before returning to the surface.
After a frantic effort he finally found the vessel when others had failed.
There were hundreds of swollen bodies in the sunken vessel. Khair returned to the surface with one of them and lost consciousness immediately after reaching the rescue boat.
Khair recalled another incident of a launch sinking in the Buriganga River near Postogola. He said, "The sunken launch was lying upside down on the river-bed. When I reached it in the strong current, I saw there were several bodies inside.
I tried to separate one body from another."
"While separating two women, I found a baby boy whom the two women had been holding – it affected me so much. But I had no time to think about it because I had to return to the surface with the bodies," said Khair in one breath.
In his long career as a diver, Khair has gone underwater more times than he can count. He has risked his life and has been injured on many occasions.
While talking to The Business Standard, Khair's colleague who was sitting next to him, said, "He does not care about anything. Diving to search for things underwater has become an addiction for him."
Khair's courageous work has been recognised nationally and internationally. He was given the President's Award in 2010, and recognition from UNESCO in 2005 for his heroic rescues. Khair also won a diving competition in Bangkok a few years ago.
This simple and down-to-earth man shyly revealed that his story has been published in 70 countries and in 22 languages, but this correspondent has not been able to verify this claim.
An inspiration to many divers in the country, Khair has nothing much to wish for. He says he has dedicated his life to the welfare of the people.
"We do not enjoy holidays even during festivals. But that does not matter at all. I can serve the people of my country directly through my work," said Khair.