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Published: Thursday December 12, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday December 12, 2013 MYT 9:47:42 AM

Highland Towers: Old memories of a newshound

Hill disaster: Rescue workers at the site of the collapsed block of Highland Towers.

Hill disaster: Rescue workers at the site of the collapsed block of Highland Towers.

A message on a pager about the collapse of a building soon turned into an overwhelming experience for this reporter as it dawned on him the magnitude of the Highland Towers tragedy.

A MESSAGE beeped on my pager that Saturday afternoon. It was from my fellow crime reporter Lam Chee Song (from a Chinese daily), saying that a building had collapsed and there were people inside it. Instinctively, I contacted the Fire and Rescue Department to verify the information.

The person on the other end said: “Ya, ada penghuni dalam bangunan yang runtuh (yes, people were inside the building which collapsed).”

I called my office at once to alert the editor on duty Lim Chye Kim and rushed to the scene from Jalan Hang Tuah, Kuala Lumpur, where I was on assignment.

As I drove towards Highland Towers, the magnitude of the disaster started to hit me. Sirens were blaring and the road junction was full of ambulance and fire engines.

I was soon overwhelmed by what I saw. Like a tree chopped off at the base, a building was lying flat on the ground. At that point, I did not realise that half of the condominium was buried below the surface. What was visible were the balconies of the units located behind those that were lodged into the ground.

As I gathered more information and started interviewing rescue workers, affected family members and those who managed to escape in the nick of time, I knew it was a very huge disaster and I would need help to cover the situation.

I briefed Lim about the situation and requested for reinforcement as I was the only reporter from The Star at the scene then. In fact, there were just a handful of reporters present then.

I approached a woman who was carrying a child near the disaster area. All she could say was that her employer and his wife were missing and that she managed to run out with the couple’s child.

She was distraught. Each time I tried to ask her for more details, she would merely mumble a few words and then turn back to look at the collapsed condominium.

About an hour later, I learnt that the woman was the maid of Tun Musa Hitam’s son and daughter-in-law who died in the tragedy.

As I continued gathering news from the scene, more and more rescue workers, VIPs, top police personnel such as then Inspector-General of Police Tun Haniff Omar, started arriving at the scene.

The number of journalists also began to swell. Soon, police personnel found journalists obstructing the rescue operations and told us to strictly stay behind the police line. But a few of us found our way into the cordoned off area to gather more information.

After being there for almost four hours, and upon seeing the other reporters from The Star arriving to cover the disaster, I made my way back to the office to file the story. I returned to the disaster area later that evening.

By then, other senior journalists had been sent in to take charge of coverage of the round-the-clock rescue operation. As days passed, I began to understand how complex the rescue operation was. At that time, our Malaysian rescue workers did not have the tools and experience to handle such a disaster. It was not a simple case of digging out earth to rescue someone but a dangerous mission of gingerly boring into a mass of concrete rubble without endangering the rescue workers and those trapped alive.

On one occasion, reporters got word that rescuers had found another body as they could smell rotting flesh and several reporters even filed stories saying that workers had located another body. They were wrong. It was meat from a refrigerator.

Twenty years on, I can vividly recall the many scenes from the collapsed building site and how I was on many graveyard shifts in the days that followed. I was also stationed at the mortuary to count body bags and interview the next of kin.

It was an emotional, heart-rending experience that provided invaluable lessons to journalists, besides serving as a reminder how life can be so fleeting.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own. 

Tags / Keywords: Environment, Highland Towers

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