Man recalls horror when ferry terminal with thousands of people collapsed

Man recalls horror when ferry terminal with thousands of people collapsed
Horrific scenes: Ooi showing the ‘Kwong Wah’ newspaper report on the incident in Butterworth.
PHOTO: The Star/Asia News Network

BUTTERWORTH - Twenty-nine years ago today, an 11-year-old boy was so excited when his mother told him they would take the ferry to Penang Island to see a procession in George Town.

But tragedy happened and till this day he can remember clearly being crushed under a pile of dead bodies and being soaked in their blood.

Ooi Kean Loon travelled with his mother to the island on July 31, 1988, relishing the chance to see the Goddess of Mercy procession which is held once every 60 years.

Even tourists from Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan went to see the procession back then.

That morning, St Anne's Church in Bukit Mertajam also had a large anniversary gathering and many pilgrims also took the ferry from the island to the mainland in the afternoon.

But the weight of about 10,000 people at the Sultan Abdul Halim ferry terminal finally took its toll on the passenger platform, which collapsed at about 4.40pm.

Now a 40-year-old businessman, Ooi still remembers vividly the whole tragedy.

"We were walking on the overcrowded platform and I got separated from my mother.

"Suddenly, I felt a jerk and the whole platform gave way. Everyone just went down.

"The next thing I remember, I was pinned under a pile of bodies and my shirt was soaked in blood.

"I slowly crawled out and waited for a while until a man brought me to safety," recalled Ooi during an interview near the site recently.

His mother Ng Ah Hong, now 69, fractured four toes after the beams landed on her left foot.

The steel structure of the platform also smashed onto several motorcycles and cars parked on the lower deck.

It took rescue personnel hours to recover all the bodies using forklifts. A total of 32 people were killed while 1,674 others were injured.

Ooi said the man who rescued him took him to his shop where he called his father. His mother was sent to the Bukit Mertajam Hospital.

Ng remembers the awful scene at the hospital where she saw dead bodies covered in bloodied white cloths along the corridors.

"My husband checked each body lying on the ground to find me. He was so relieved when he saw me in the ward," she recalls.

Ng, who was warded for 13 days, said the Penang Port Commission (PPC) later gave her compensation of RM6,000 for each toe.

Although they still take the ferry to the island regularly, Ng said the trauma lingers.

"We are cautious and always look around to see if there's structural damage," she said.

Sales representative June Lee, 44, said she was lucky to have avoided the tragedy as she had boarded an earlier ferry.

"My seven friends and I had just reached the island when news of the incident broke.

"It was also crowded when we boarded the ferry earlier," she said.

With the 29th anniversary of the tragedy today, some of the survivors were spotted sharing memories of their ordeal on social media.

A Facebook user named Elaine Choy said she was about nine then.

"I remember we were standing next to the gate near the dock when my mum heard someone behind us asking in Hokkien whether the platform would give way or not as it looked really old.

"On hearing that, something made my mum quickly slip us through a narrow gap to board the ferry despite a guard standing at the gate. The next moment, when we looked back, the platform had collapsed.

"The screams are the hardest to forget. Till now, I still can remember it like it is engraved in my memory," she wrote.

Another netizen, Nalini Shiny, said: "I still remember too. I was one hour early, or else I would have been one of the victims."

The horrific event now exists only in the memories of the survivors, as Penang's ferry service enters a new era.

PPC chairman Datuk Tan Teik Cheng said the service would be called rapidFerry and upgraded once Prasarana finalises the takeover from Penang Port Sdn Bhd.

Tan added that visitors to Penang could look forward to pleasant trips on catamarans when they join the ferry fleet.

Since 1985, with the opening of the Penang Bridge, each ferry would have incurred at least RM700 in losses for every trip.

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