IT was a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning in Butterworth and July 31, 1988, was to be a very special day for Penang.
The Buddhist Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) festival was taking place in George Town on the island, with the annual St Anne’s Feast being celebrated in Bukit Mertajam on the mainland.
The Guan Yin procession was touted as a once-in-60-years event, with tourists coming from as far as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
I was The Star’s Butterworth correspondent and the district was known back then for sensational crimes.
About a year after setting up base there, I had already covered murders, shoot-outs, accidents, fires and even the hijacking of a tour bus with passengers in it.
But none would prepare me for the tragedy to befall the port town that afternoon. It was the unthinkable – the Pengkalan Sultan Abdul Halim jetty platform had collapsed under the overload of thousands of passengers scrambling to board ferries to get across to the island.
The horrific event killed 32 people and injured more than 1,000 others.
Running a one-man bureau then, I was faced with immense pressure to cover a national disaster. There was no room for emotion.
The press had been carrying reports in a run-up to the two major events, anticipating that thousands would move across from Butterworth to the island.
There was the Penang Bridge but the ferries were the popular choice due to the jetty’s strategic location and convenience.
On that fateful afternoon, some 10,000 people were said to be standing on the wooden platform before it gave way.
I was going through some work planned for the week ahead when the phone rang just past 5pm. It was a police detective friend tipping me off about something untoward at the ferry terminal.
I thought a ferry had rammed the dock while trying to berth. Such incidents, sometimes causing minor injuries to passengers, were not rare.
The Fire and Rescue Department which I called up said there were people seriously hurt at the ferry terminal. Things took a totally different dimension from then on.
I called up S. Arulldass who was a stringer for a Tamil daily and we headed for the ferry terminal on his motorcycle.
What we witnessed on the way made us sweat. Ambulances were speeding away from the scene, sirens blaring.
On some of the ambulances, I remember seeing blood splattered on the sides, indicating how serious the incident was.
There were scores of policemen and medical personnel there, with RMAF helicopters hovering above.
I recall seeing the injured, some of them children, placed on blankets on the road waiting to be taken to hospital. Arul and I were among the first journalists to arrive.
It was confirmed that the passenger platform at the top deck of the ferry terminal had collapsed at about 4.40pm, due to the unusually large crowd in the waiting area after the ticket turnstiles.
The passengers were jostling to board the Pulau Langkawi ferry when the platform gave way, crushing the motorists and motorcyclists below.
A survivor I spoke to said he thought “the world was suddenly falling apart”. Others captured the anguish of people screaming as they tried to scramble to safety.
Ferry services were immediately halted with all traffic diverted to the Penang Bridge.
My editor at the newsdesk in Penang said “reinforcements” would be sent via motorboat to assist with reporting and photography.
At press time, police had been able to identify only 20 of the dead, with two children and six women among them.
The injured were rushed to the Butterworth district hospital and private clinics, with others also taken by helicopter to the Penang General Hospital on the island.
Penang Port Commission (PPC) chairman Syed Mohamed Aidid was among those who narrowly escaped death, being just five metres away from the crashing platform and metal beams.
He said he was joined by PPC deputy general manager (operations) Thong Yow Chuan and ferry manager Harun Othman in overseeing traffic control on the vehicular lane below the wooden passenger platform.
“Security personnel were controlling the crowd to board the ferries in stages but people rushed forward. This is the largest crowd we have ever seen... each ferry can only take in 300 passengers,” I quoted him as saying.
As the extended press deadline approached, the police were still unable to provide details on the fatalities and extent of injuries.
It was becoming late when I decided to do the unimaginable – entering the district hospital morgue to find out.
I got past security and it was a chilly moment inside when I saw the body bags, both big and small.
In the absence of official police confirmation, The Star team filed its report stating that at least 31 people were killed and more than 400 injured.
The cover screamed “Pier Horror” with pixman Stephen Goh’s image of a car totally wrecked by the fallen metal beams and firemen standing by.
Arul and I decided to spend the night at The Star office, and the office telephone rang again. The police were calling a press conference by Butterworth OCPD Supt Amiruddin Embi at 4am.
Under the glare of TV lights and sound of cameras clicking away, Tuan Amir pieced together what had happened and shed light on the casualties.
The scores of journalists present could only counter-check against the information they managed to muster, hoping that they were not far off the mark.
It was later revealed that another victim had died to make the casualty list rise to 32.
On the night of the tragedy, then Transport Minister Dr Ling Liong Sik (now Tun) pledged a full and open inquiry to determine its causes, with Chief Minister Dr Lim Chong Eu promising to help the victims through a welfare fund.
A Jetty Tragedy Victims Committee was set up to handle legal liability purposes, with its legal adviser K. Balasundaram saying that the compensation claims of more than 900 victims represented by the committee totalled RM7mil.
On Aug 14, Dr Ling announced the appointment of former Federal Court judge Tan Sri Chang Min Tat as chairman of Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on the jetty tragedy, former Supreme Court judge Tan Sri Syed Agil Syed Hassan Barakbah as commissioner and ministry legal adviser Yaacob Mohamed Sam as secretary.
After hearing evidence from 99 persons, the RCI ended its hearing on May 31, 1989.
A total of 102 exhibits were admitted, including material recovered from the site of the tragedy.
I covered part of the hearings held in Penang including its final day, and recall Chang presiding over the inquiry ever so meticulously.
On Sept 21, 1989, a 200-page report of the RCI which was made public found the PPC to be negligent.
The report concluded that overloading of passengers in the waiting area of the terminal caused the platform to collapse, and that the PPC’s operations department had pleaded ignorance on the maximum number of passengers allowed there.
It said the ferry manager ought to have known the limitations of the upper deck, and that the duty of anticipating the passenger load lay squarely with operations which had figures from previous festivals.
“PPC Blamed” was The Star’s headline the following day.
In the aftermath of the report, I broke the news of Thong and Harun being issued show-cause letters by the PPC.
Penang’s ferry service has since undergone a total revamp with two fast boats for pedestrians and just one of the old ferries retained for motorcycles only.
The ferry terminals are being upgraded for hi-tech water buses and vehicular ferries. It has been a long way but one would hope that the harsh lessons of 33 years ago will never be forgotten.
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