Sabah quake: A day of heartbreak, shock and fear

Sabah quake: A day of heartbreak, shock and fear
PITCHING IN: Mr Cornelius Sanan was among the many guides who volunteered for the search and rescue operation, which involved carrying bodies down the mountain.

Kinabalu Tragedy

Sabahan guide tells CHAI HUNG YIN (chaihyn@sph.com.sg) about the moment when quake hit and the emotional search for survivors

He was on the team leading the Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) kids up the mountain.

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Little did he know that he would end up having the harrowing task of leading the injured down and retrieving the bodies of those who died.

Sabahan guide Cornelius Sanan recalled the tragedy when he spoke to The New Paper on Sunday.

He had been waiting at Laban Rata for the TKPS team to complete their Via Ferrata activity so he could take them safely back down the mountain.

Then the quake struck.

Mr Cornelius said he felt the building he was in shaking and he heard people on the upper floor shouting "Run! Run!".

Then he saw the rocks come tumbling down.

The 34-year-old said his first fear was for the students, as he knew that they were on the mountain.

He saw several TKPS kids who had stayed behind because they weren't feeling well that day.

"I took them to an open area but aftershocks hit again, so I took them further down the mountain," he said in a mix of Malay and English.

"My friends and I also discovered more injured pupils and teachers inside Pendant Hut (where the TKPS team had stayed)."

After getting the injured and frightened climbers to safety, several guides, among them Mr Cornelius, made a push to find the missing children, at about noon.

But what greeted them was heartbreaking.

They found the body of one of the TKPS children, who was later identified as Peony Wee, 12.

He said: "We had brought several blankets with us. We used one to cover her body."

"We then found an injured boy who was still moving, although he couldn't speak. We tried to help him and aftershocks hit again. Everybody ran to take cover."

By then, a rescue team had arrived and they carried the injured boy down to safety.

"Four of us took him to Laban Rata using a stretcher."

Mr Cornelius and more guides went up again to bring Peony's body down.

He said: "We wrapped her body using the blankets and carried her down."

The rescue, plus the shock and fear, left Mr Cornelius feeling physically and mentally drained.

He said: "From the start of the incident up to the point when the boy was saved, I couldn't eat. I could only drink water. I felt weak. I was very sad to see them in that state."

Over the next two days, Mr Cornelius was among the guides who volunteered for the search and rescue operation, without any thought for pay or their safety.

"They are my clients. I did it willingly," he said.

The guides have been hailed by climbers as heroes but that is far from the close-knit community's mind now.

They lost four guides in the quake.

And they also face the grim reality of not knowing when they will work again.

Mount Kinabalu and the national park have been temporarily closed.

WORRIED ABOUT FUTURE

Mr Cornelius said: "We depend on the mountain to survive. We don't have any other sources of income. I'm still thinking of how to feed my family."

As the eldest child, he shoulders the main responsibility of supporting his family of 12, including his retired father, 62, and his mother, 60, a housewife.

The bachelor has nine siblings - the youngest of whom is 13 years old. Four are still in school and two are working as shop assistants, earning measly wages.

On average, Mr Cornelius earns between RM600 (S$216) and RM800 a month, depending on the number of trips he makes up the mountain.

He goes to the national park every day and waits in line for his turn to guide people up.

He says: "If my queue number is 30 or 40, it is harder for me to get jobs. Sometimes, I return home empty-handed."

He gets RM150 per trip for a group of up to four people, and RM162 if there are five or six in the group. Each guide can take a maximum of six climbers.

Fellow guide Supani Tuboh, 43, who has to support his family of 11, is worried too. Three of his siblings are also in the same profession.

Mr Supani has been a guide for 16 years and has gone up the mountain more than 1,000 times.

He loves his job for the joy it brings.

Speaking in a mix of Malay and English, he said: "Apart from enjoying the natural beauty of the mountain, I get to also learn about cultures from all over the world when I interact with the tourists.

"We joke with each other while we climb... The jokes make the climb more bearable, making us forget about the hike and the exhaustion. This job is tiring, but fun."

For now, the future seems bleak for these heroes.

He says: "As the incident is still fresh - it's only been a week - all we can do is wait.

"Meanwhile, we don't have any income. There's still aftershocks... Hopefully after two weeks, we can start to plan how to move on with life. Maybe I can get a job in the hotel industry.

"What's certain is that there's uncertainties. Everything is in limbo now."


This article was first published on June 14, 2015.
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