Flashback #Star50: The day Mount Kinabalu shook

SIX years ago today, the majestic Mount Kinabalu was shaken.

A 6.0-magnitude earthquake shattered the peaceful morning of June 5,2015, taking 18 lives with it. Those who perished included mountain guides and pupils from Singapore on a field trip.

Recalling that fateful morning, news editor Muguntan Vanar said: “I had just woken up and was lazing around when I felt my house shaking vigorously. I knew then that it was an earthquake.

“I was worried about the fan falling on my two elder children who were in their room, but they were okay. They slept through it.”

Muguntan, who heads the Sabah bureau of The Star, made immediate checks on the situation.

“An hour later, reports started to come in about people being stranded on the mountain, ” he said.

He recalled a major hitch impacting their work: people on social media were circulating pictures of past earthquakes in other countries.“That was real pressure as some of the pictures looked like Sabah, ” said Muguntan, who coordinated the stories while both his colleagues monitored the operations.

There were 137 climbers stranded atop the mountain after the quake, recorded at about 7.15am.

Mountain guides had to slowly guide the people down as rescuers, including helicopter services, were not able to be sent up due to the wind and weather conditions.

Rescuers could only hike up hours later when other mountain guides arrived as they were the only ones who knew the mountain well.They could not wait for helicopters to arrive to get to the stranded people as the temperature was plunging. With food and drinks lacking, plus aftershocks, the rescuers had to scale the mountain fast.

Eventually, the mountain guides, porters and firemen brought the people down by foot.

Muguntan was later told that the guides had to battle through the rocks to guide the people down.

“It was the night of the mountain guide heroes, ” he said.

Scientists said seismic movements caused the quake, but many natives believed it was due to the wrath of the mountain spirits after a group of foreigners stripped naked on the summit a week earlier.

To the locals, it was a sign of disrespect to the mountain gods.

Native priests and priestesses (known as bobolian or bobohizan) later performed rituals to appease the mountain spirits.

The quake and aftershocks not only affected the structure of Mount Kinabalu but also people in Kundasang, Ranau, Kota Belud and many other parts of Sabah.

In the aftermath of the quake, businesses offering lodgings and tours, plus vegetable farms in Kundasang and Ranau were badly hit.For a couple of years after that, mudslides and mud floods were a normal occurrence. Even in areas as far as Kota Belud, flooding became more frequent while water supply disruptions worsened in Ranau and Kundasang.

The tragedy led to the setting up of Malaysia’s first mountain search and rescue unit at Mount Kinabalu with its maiden batch comprising 20 auxiliary firemen, all of whom are mountain guides.

These trained members have a better grasp of how to respond during emergencies. The role of mountain guides and porters, which had been overlooked for years, was finally given the attention needed.

Two new treks – Ranau and Kota Belud trail – were created to replace the destroyed ones.

This tragedy caused heartbreak and losses, but it also led to people putting more emphasis on togetherness, rescue efforts and environmental concerns, as well as giving a different perspective on native and spiritual beliefs.

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