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Published: Sunday December 15, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday December 15, 2013 MYT 11:04:40 AM

Highland Towers: Retired photographer C.Y. Leow recalls his experience covering the tragedy

PETALING JAYA: It has been 20 years but retired photographer C.Y. Leow (pic) still remembers “the smell of death” after the Highland Towers collapsed.


“The tragic scene is vivid in my mind; rescue workers trying desperately to search for trapped victims, the faces of the distraught residents, the confusion, anxiety, pain and horror,” recalled the former The Star photo editor.

Leow who was attached to the Singapore Press Holdings Ltd then, had flown in from Singapore on the second day after the collapse (Dec 12, 1993).

“There was police blockage at the foot of the hill and the press was not allowed near the site, so I had to shoot my photos from some 500m away,” Leow, 66, said when contacted from Wellington, New Zealand, where he now lives.

Luckily, he had his 600mm lens and a 2x teleconverter with him, so he managed to get shots of the former Deputy Prime Minister (then Datuk) Tun Musa Hitam, whose son Carlos Rashid and daughter-in-law Rosina Datuk Abu Bakar perished in the collapsed building.

Another shot he remembered was when news broke out that the rescuers might have found a survivor.

Staying together: A shot of relatives and friends holding hands for moral support at the site taken by Leow. - Photo by C.Y. LEOW

“I noticed the relatives and friends behind me holding hands for moral support. I swung around and grabbed a shot. But there was no chance for me to take a second shot because I was nearly attacked by the person next to me, who obviously did not want photos of those people taken.”

“Every morning, I had to rush up the hill with about 20kg worth of camera gear so that I could get all my photos before late afternoon when it was too dark to get good photos.”

To send over his pictures to Singapore, Leow had to get the help of news agency Reuters.

His day only finished at 11pm after he got all his pictures “transmitted” there but by 6am the next day, he had to be back at the site.

Even with his years of experience, the assignment was emotionally draining, said Leow who was photo editor with The Star at three different times for a total 15 years.

“Every job covering a disaster is tough, it can affect you emotionally, but my years of experience taught me to be ‘emotionless’.

“You cannot afford to be affected by it or you won’t be able to get the job done,” he explained.

It was not easy, he admitted, because of the death “smell”.

“I experienced the ‘smell of death’ when I was covering the 1987 Thai Airways plane crash in Phuket, Thailand (which killed all nine crew members and 74 passengers).

“At the Highland Towers, the same smell hit me. It made me very sad, but I still had to continue with my job.”

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, photographer and highland towers

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