Missing S'poreans feared dead

Missing S'poreans feared dead
TRAGIC: An injured Singaporean pupil being carried by members of a Malaysian rescue team on Friday, after an earthquake in Kundasang, a town in the district of Ranau.

Eleven bodies were found on Mount Kinabalu, near a climbing route, yesterday.

The fear is that the group is from Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS).

Visibly emotional, the officer in charge of search-and-rescue efforts, Deputy Superintendent of Police Farhan Lee Abdullah, told the media the bodies were found on the Via Ferrata route.

Speaking at the national park's headquarters, he said many of the bodies were still attached to the climbing cables.

According to survivors, the 37-strong TKPS contingent, comprising 29 pupils and eight teachers, was broken into five groups to ascend the mountain.

The missing Singaporeans - seven pupils and two teachers - were said to be on the route when the 6.0-magnitude quake hit around 7.15am on Friday.

Massive boulders and rocks started raining down shortly after. One iconic rock formation, the Donkey's Ear Peak, broke off completely.

DEAD

Yesterday, a member of the mountaineering company that took the pupils up the Via Ferrata trail, Malaysian media and a Sabah government official all told The New Paper on Sunday that the missing Singaporeans were dead.

If confirmed, it would be one of Singapore's worst tragedies involving mass fatalities overseas.

Singapore's Ministry of Education (MOE) would not confirm that information last night.

An MOE spokesman said: "The Malaysian authorities have recovered more bodies from Mount Kinabalu."

She explained that as the process of identification was going on, they would not confirm or reveal the identity of those bodies.

The spokesman added: "Our priority now is to provide support to the next-of-kin in this difficult time.

"We will not announce the names of the unaccounted pupils and teachers until the next-of-kin have identified their loved ones."

MOE led a team to Kota Kinabalu on a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) C-130 aircraft yesterday morning.

The team comprises counsellors, and officials from the Police, Singapore Civil Defence Force and Ministry of Transport.

Family members of pupils and teachers of TKPS were also on the flight.

The discovery of the 11 bodies brings the total number of fatalities to 13.

The bodies of TKPS pupil Peony Wee Ying Ping and local guide Robbi Sapinggi were brought down from the mountain on Friday.

Peony's body will be flown back to Singapore today.

Bad weather hampered rescue efforts yesterday.

Heavy cloud cover prevented search-and-rescue helicopters from landing near the summit, forcing rescuers to hike down with two of the bodies.

They arrived at the Timpohon Gate, the entrance into the hiking trails, at about 2.40pm.

As the weather cleared up at about 3pm, helicopters could be seen going towards the mountain peak.

DSP Farhan said three helicopters were involved in recovery efforts, which came from the police, air force and fire departments.

"We will keep trying to bring the bodies down. If weather stops our helicopters from landing, we will bring the bodies down (on foot)," he said.

Disturbing images emerged of the broken bodies on the trail - photos too graphic to be published.

According to The Star, tonnes of rocks and boulders had pinned the bodies down.

The fact that the bodies were pinned underneath loose rocks made it "almost impossible" to retrieve them, it said.

Separately, the daily also quoted a mountain guide recounting how he heard "a woman screaming for help".

"I could not do anything. The earth was shaking," he was quoted as saying.

The woman's nationality remains unknown.

The guide, who did not want to be named, said he had to get his group down fast because "rocks were rolling down everywhere".

He said some boulders were as big as cars.

"I really don't know what happened to the woman. She might be buried under rocks."

DSP Farhan said that after the bodies are recovered, they will be taken to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kota Kinabalu for identification before a post-mortem is conducted.

STILL MISSING

DSP Farhan added that there were still six people missing on the mountain.

Among the missing are Chinese, Japanese and Filipino nationals, along with Malaysians.

Meanwhile, Gleneagles Kota Kinabalu Hospital CEO Jean-Francois Naa said in a statement last night that they had seen 20 Singaporeans since Friday.

Four, who suffered head, skull or spinal injuries, are under observation at the hospital's intensive care unit. Another 13 were admitted for minor injuries.

Asked how long the search-and-rescue will continue, he said it's still too early to be talking about that.

Meanwhile, a video TKPS pupils made of the trip has emerged on a blog. It chronicled the Mount Kinabalu climb.

In the video, two girls were asked if they had any messages for their parents.

Poignantly, one said, "Bye," and another said, "We're safe here in Malaysia."

lawsm@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 8, 2015.
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