VEGETABLE farmer Tho Swee, 53, watched helplessly as his neighbour Tam Tuck Choi, 51, tried to flee the roaring floodwaters on Wednesday before having a heart attack and dying.
Mr Ragom Wasrip from Indonesia gripped his wife's hand as mud and water gushed into their house, but she was torn away. The body of Ms Kesmat Iduan, 46, was later found trapped in the house.
Villagers said they heard a warning siren but slept on as they were used to the sound. The siren is a signal that water is being released from the dam into the river, but that is usually done without incident.
This time, though, was different. It had been raining continuously the evening before, and the siren signalled an approaching wall of water, mud and debris.
In the aftermath of the deadly mudflow early Wednesday morning in Cameron Highlands, Pahang, that left three people dead and 100 properties and 100 vehicles damaged, environmentalists say it was a tragedy waiting to happen.
Rampant land-clearing for vegetable and flower farms in recent years and heavy rain had eroded the hillsides in the area, with silt accumulating in the nearby dam, causing the water level to rise.
"These are all man-made mistakes," Mr R. Ramakrishnan, president of Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands (Reach), a community organisation, told The Star.
Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB), the dam operator, released water into the Bertam River thrice, according to local media - the first time at midnight on Tuesday, the second at 1am on Wednesday and the third at 2.45am, causing the river to burst its banks.
In a statement on Wednesday, it said it followed procedures by releasing a controlled amount of water into the river to prevent flooding the entire Bertam Valley.
"TNB took all needed steps including liaising with the security authorities, local authority and the head of Bertam Valley's village security and development committee before the controlled release of water was undertaken," it said.
Some 38 people from about 80 families who lost their homes are now staying at the Ringlet community hall, local press said.