DR P.G. George’s (pic) voice trails off as he fights back the tears while recalling the events of Dec 11, 1993.
“It is bad enough to lose one family member but to lose your whole family ... is there any point in living?” asked the 72-year-old consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist.
He lost his wife and two daughters aged two and five in the Highland Towers collapse which claimed 48 lives. He and his family had just returned from India the day before the collapse.
He had gone to work that morning and came home to see white dust where the building had stood.
Even after 20 years, the ache of the loss has not gone away.
For three months after everything was over, Dr George visited the cemetery every day.
“I felt (my family) calling me,” he said. “Those three months were very difficult.”
He did not go to work for a month; he lost his will to live.
“Whenever I went out, I would hope some vehicle would knock me down,” he said.
“But without my knowledge, my younger brother followed me to keep watch.”
His family, two close friends and his priest were constantly by his side.
He also received encouraging phone calls and prayers from strangers who knew about his plight.
One night, his priest took him to church when no one was around.
“He took me to the altar, asked me to kneel and prayed,” said Dr George.
“He said: ‘You must understand that in the garden, there are many flowers. But God has picked three, and they’re your wife and two daughters. So they are in the best place possible. You have to be happy and carry on.’
“That was one of the things that helped me.”
Dr George had since remarried and has a 14-year-old daughter.
It was his late wife’s father who encouraged him to marry again.
Other survivors are also trying to move on; to put the tragedy behind them.
Some, such as banker Hilton Lee, 50, and bank manager Sosa Abraham, who is in her 40s, are still startled whenever they hear a sudden, loud sound.
Lee, who lost a couple of close friends, said that most survivors just want to move on.
Abraham, whose family had lived in the Highland Towers for 15 years, said: “We lost material things, but life is more important. It was difficult rebuilding our lives, but we had each other.”
The initial landslide at Block A of the Highland Towers surprised the residents. Abraham and her mother and sister, instinctively ran to safety.
Abraham and her mother lived on the third floor of Block A, while her sister and her husband lived on the first floor.
“We were at my sister’s place then,” she recalled.
“We saw the landslide. Someone told us there was a crack in the building.”
“I told my mother something was not right, so we decided to leave the building.
“By the time we got down one floor, the buildings were already collapsing like dominoes.”
Lee, who lived in Block B, went to move his car after the first landslide. But just as he was about to get into his car, he saw Block A collapsing about 100m away.
“All I remember was everyone running,” said Lee.
“I got into my car and drove away. I parked my car on the road and walked to Block C where everyone had gathered.”
Zhariff Afandi Yahya, who was 12 at the time, was separated from his one-year old brother, one, and six-year old sister, as he was at a friend’s place in Block B while his siblings were home in Block A.
“My friend’s mother got us out of the building,” said Zhariff.
“My first thought was about my brother and sister.
“I ran towards my apartment building but my friend’s mother pulled me back. I followed them with a heavy heart.”
He spent the next two hours in tears as he thought that his siblings might have perished or were trapped in the rubble. But there was good news.
“Our maid had taken my brother and sister out of the apartment,” said Zhariff.
“They ran as the stairs behind them crumbled.”
Zhariff took away something positive from the tragedy.
Having watched the rescue workers hard at work, he was inspired to help others.
“I joined the Red Crescent Society in my school after that. I immersed myself in it. Later, I started getting involved in humanitarian work. I also went to Acheh for nine months to carry out relief work,” he said.
Zhariff also said: “It’s in the past, it was an unfortunate tragedy, but we have moved on with our lives. Personally, I look forward to life ahead than back at that tragedy.”
Today, Dr George will wear the shirt he had worn on that fateful day, because that is all he has left from then.
Still, he takes this second chance at life and family to dote on his daughter.
“Whatever my daughter wants, I would give her,” said Dr George.
“Back then I was working hard and did not have more time to spend with my two daughters. We go to Penang almost every year because she loves Penang.”
Lessons we have yet to learn, 20 years on
Former residents just want to move on
Better engineering works on hillsides now, says engineer
Hazard map listing risky hillslopes to be ready by March
Lack of accountability a culture that endangers lives
Lessons learnt from the disaster
'We move on, but we don't forget'