A FIVE-HOUR ferry ride – that’s how near Penang is to Indonesia. At the Kedah Pier at Penang Esplanade, the people can just hop onto a ferry to Medan and Belawan for RM120.
To travel to Aceh, where the earthquake started and triggered a massive tidal wave which killed thousands across the region, one only need to continue the journey by bus. By plane, it’s just 30 minutes by Indonesian-owned Jentayu Air to Medan from Penang.
So close is Penang island to Aceh, there used to be an Acehnese settlement on the island and a road, aptly called Lebuh Acheh, which is just a short distance away from the pier, where Indonesian traders used to land.
Tremors may be a natural phenomenon that one can “experience” in movies but for Penangites, it is almost an annual affair. A check on the records of such incidents over the last 20 years showed that a tremor took place on May 24, 1984.
Shortly after noon, a tremor hit Penang, sending workers of Komtar running out of their offices in panic. The 30-second tremor was caused by an earthquake in West Sumatra.
It shook furniture and rattled the window panes of Komtar, which was then still under construction. It had reached the 60th storey, with five more storeys to go before it was completed.
For many Penangites, who work in high-rise buildings, the “dizzy spell” after each tremor, has always been a laughing matter. Perhaps, even a good time-off from their mundane office work at each evacuation.
But on Sunday, it was not just another tremor but a fatal disaster. Penangites and holiday makers, who were at the coastal areas, saw a killer tidal wave. For many, they also learnt a new word – tsunami. Tsunami (pronounced “soo nahm’ee) is a Japanese word which means harbour wave.
It’s a series of waves generated by an undersea disturbance such as an earthquake. From the area of the disturbance, the waves will travel outward in all directions.
I had planned to travel to Tanjung Tokong on Sunday – where the tidal waves sent fishing boats from their moorings off the beach, about 15m away, to the main road. The plan was to have an early lunch of baked crabs at the famous Sea Pearl Restaurant, which faces the seafront, near the Tua Pek Kong temple.
Even on normal days, huge waves often hit the sea walls of the restaurant. The loud, crushing sound was an ambience which has attracted me to the restaurant on every trip back home. But I dread the consequences if I had travelled along the stretch of Tanjung Tokong road at that time.
A former schoolmate, Chun Wah, who stayed near Batu Ferringhi, where the beach hotels are located, had messaged me early on Sunday alerting me of what was taking place on the island.
Providing detailed accounts of the tidal waves, he said he heard wailing sirens from speeding ambulances. They were bad signs.
By the end of the day, 38 were reported dead. In the confusion that reigned, there were conflicting figures, but the authorities, unprepared for the disaster, did a good job dealing with the disaster at hand.
Datuk Seri Kamal Hashim, the regional director of The Star, said he was at his beach apartment with his family at the time of the disaster. Just shortly before the waves came crushing to the shore, he had ordered his grandchildren to return to the apartment.
“It was too hot and I told them to have lunch first. It was a lucky thing because I then heard the thundering sound of the waves. From my balcony, we watched clearly the waves which came literally to attack the beach.
“We saw panicking picnickers running away while some just stood, dumbfounded, looking at the incoming waves. Some was seen diving into the water desperately searching for their loved ones who were missing,” he said.
As I drove around the disaster-hit areas of Gurney Drive, Batu Ferringhi, Teluk Bahang and Tanjung Tokong, it was almost impossible to believe that a huge tidal wave had caused undue damage to these areas.
The debris in these areas had been cleared and the streets cleaned up quickly. One unkind joke circulating on the island is that nature had decided to clean up the state, which had suffered some bad press for the sad state of affairs.
Sipping teh tarik at a mamak stall, near Chulia Street, there was no shortage of Penangites who wanted to share their experiences – or the tales they had heard – with me.
One told me that the tidal waves were as “high as a coconut tree”. Gesturing excitedly as he narrated his experiences to me, the municipal council worker, who had supposedly gone fishing at the time of the incident, then took a look at my notes and told me to make a correction. “Make it two coconut trees high,” he said with a straight face.
By 3pm yesterday, there were plenty of similar tall tales. The Star office in Penang, which is just a short distance away from the Penang Bridge, received a continuous stream of phone calls.
They wanted to find out whether the bridge may collapse following purported cracks caused by tidal waves and whether to avoid using the ferries, plying the Penang channel, because another round of tidal wave was said to be coming.
But there was one advice from an old Penangite which could not be dismissed –never go swimming when the moon is full. The tide is always high, as everyone knows, and on Sunday, which was the 15th day of the Chinese lunar calendar, the moon was full. That’s Penang.