JOHOR BARU: Come December, retiree Sulaiman Othman will recall the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines System Flight 653 (MH653) that crashed into a mangrove forest in Tanjung Kupang 42 years ago.
The 71-year-old grandfather said he was a young man when he saw the commercial plane flying past him on that fateful night on Dec 4,1977.
“I was with four of my friends looking for prawns at around 8.30pm among the mangrove trees when the plane just went past us.
“We did not think anything of it because it was normal to see commercial planes flying in the airspace here as it is the route to Singapore, but there was something different about that particular plane, ” he said.
Sulaiman recalled that he could hear noises coming from the plane and a few minutes later, there was a loud explosion which shook the ground and a burst of light followed soon after.
He and his friends initially thought the Singapore army was doing their usual military exercise not far from Tanjung Kupang.
“Then some documents, including airplane tickets, started to float into the mangroves where my friends and I were, ” he said.
“Out of curiosity, we decided to go towards the light, which was less than a kilometre away, and became the first group of people to see the wreckage. It was a horrible sight, ” he added.
The plane was burning and was broken into several pieces, and its parts were scattered all over the mangrove forest.
What was more gruesome for him was seeing human remains, Sulaiman said.
“I found several hands and heads of the victims stuck on trees and on the ground. The area was wet because of blood and oil coming from the plane.”
He said that two Singapore army helicopters were the first to arrive, and the Malaysian police, ambulances and fire engines came much later as the road to Tanjung Kupang was not good, unlike now.
Another witness, restaurant owner Mohd Sham Mohd Din, 62, vividly recalled that he was watching a Malay movie titled 6 Jahanam at an open air cinema in Gelang Patah town when he heard sirens from ambulances and fire engines passing by on the way to the crash site that day.
“Coming back from the cinema, I could see a large crowd of onlookers and police cordoned off the area where, my father told me, a plane had just crashed.
“It took the authorities about three days to salvage the plane from the mangroves and collect all the human parts, which were placed in black garbage bags, ” he said.
Mohd Sham added that his father operated a sundry shop and did not allow rescue workers to go inside because they had a very bad stench due to collecting human parts.
“I will never forget that date and whenever Dec 4 arrives, I would put a message in my WhatsApp group asking my friends and relatives to remember all 100 victims on that plane, ” he said.
The MH653 crash site is now thickly forested. The area, which is owned by the Johor Port Authority, has a sign warning that trespassers would be prosecuted.
The remains of the victims, 93 passengers and seven crew members, were buried in a grave known as the Tanjung Kupang memorial in Jalan Kebun Teh here.
Among the victims were the first Cuban ambassador Mario Garcia Inchaustegui and his wife Gladys.
Other names etched on the memorial include then Agriculture Minister Datuk Ali Ahmad and Public Works Department head Datuk Mahfuz Khalid.
The crash is believed to be the deadliest aviation disaster to happen in the country.