'I saw Highland Towers block crash to the ground'

They once stood glorious and full of life, home to affluent families and expatriates, but today the two Highland Towers apartment buildings that remain at Taman Hillview, Ulu Klang, Selangor, cut a forlorn figure.

Formerly part of a luxury hillside development comprising three 12-storey blocks, the two blocks were evacuated after Block 1 collapsed after a massive landslide on Dec 11 1993. Forty-eight people died in the tragedy.

Within the first 24 hours, only two women and an infant were pulled out of the rubble. Indonesian maid Umi Rashidah Khoruman, 22, and her 18-month old daughter Nur Hamidah Najib, survived the ordeal, but the second woman, Japanese national Shizue Nakajima, 50, succumbed to her injuries.

Despite being only 12 at that time, Zhariff Afandi, a former resident of Block 1, remembers the tragedy vividly.

"It's not something that ex-residents like me can talk about easily, even today. It was devastating that a tragedy like this had happened to us. I was playing video games at a friend's apartment in Block 2 when we heard a loud bang. We rushed to his balcony, which faced the hillside, and when I saw the landslide rushing towards my block, my heart sank.

"My one-year-old brother and six-year-old sister were at home with our maid in our apartment. My parents were out, and I was very worried for their safety," recalled the social entrepreneur.

"My friend's mother decided it was best that we leave the apartment. When we reached the ground I started to run towards my block, but she pulled me back. Instead, she led us in the opposite direction to Block 3, out of harm's way. From here we looked back on Block 1. It had started to fall, buckling forwards a little, before crashing to the ground in a cloud of dust that was so thick I couldn't see anything, even my own feet.

"Eventually, when the dust cleared, all that was left behind was the building in shambles. After an unnatural, deathly silence, the air was filled with the sound of people screaming and car alarms going off."

Fortunately for Zhariff, his siblings and maid had escaped unscathed. More than an hour later, he was reunited with them.

"The maid had seen the landslide from our balcony and rushed out immediately with my brother and sister.

"I was so happy to see them. Their experience that day was even more astounding. My little sister told me that as they were fleeing for safety via the staircase, the stairs were crumbling behind them like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. She apologised for not being able to save my microscope, which I received for my birthday a week earlier, because it was too heavy for her to lift."

Banker Hilton Lee, a former Block 2 resident, was in the car park when the building fell.

"I made my way to the car park to move my car to a safer place, after learning that a landslide had occurred behind Block 1, just to be on the safe side.

"I couldn't believe what happened next. As I was inserting the key into my car door, I heard a loud noise and turned around just in time to see the block falling. From my angle, the building swayed forward slightly first, before crashing to the ground."

Another former resident of Block 2, KPWG International Sdn Bhd director Chan Keng Fook, was at work when he heard the building had collapsed.

"My father called me, shouting at the top of his voice: 'get down here quickly, Highland Towers Block 1 just fell down!' I jumped into my car and rushed home.

"As I was turning into the Highland Towers area from the road, the first thing I saw was a woman walking towards me covered head to toe in white dust and I sensed something really bad had happened," said Chan, who is also secretary of the Highland Towers Residents Committee, Kuala Lumpur.

The scene that greeted him when he arrived about half an hour later was utter chaos.

"People were shouting, crying, confused and frightened. At the time, nobody knew what to do. The Fire Department and police were focusing on searching for survivors in the collapsed block."

Worried that Block 2 might collapse onto rescuers in Block 1, the army had placed C4 explosives all around it to bring it down. However, before that, they allowed residents to return to their apartments in small batches, to pick up necessities.

"I was relieved to see my father, wife, two children and maid safe and sound. But I had to run back up to my apartment to get clothing and necessities for my family, lock the front door to our apartment and look for my wife's car keys, which she had left behind.

"In their haste to exit the building, they had not taken anything with them. I also went up to look for our dog, who was very dear to my children. Happily, we found it in the area 12 days later."

For Chan, it was a surreal experience.

"I remember walking past the explosives and soldiers with automatic rifles and thinking, 'this is home?' It looked more like war-torn Beirut.

"The whole parking area had been covered with canvas and barbed wire was erected all over the place. The first thing in my mind was to get my family out of the area to my father's apartment, because it was just crazy."

Dr Iain Gray, a former Block 3 resident, was driving towards Highland Towers at the bottom of the hill when he heard a loud "whoomp" and felt his car jostle.

"I thought this was from ongoing construction at the Bukit Antarabangsa housing development project, located on the hilltop behind the Towers.

"When I arrived at Highland Towers, I was gobsmacked to see Block 1 on the ground. There was an eerie silence, you couldn't even hear the birds, just people crying and screaming."

An engineer by training, Gray helped in the rescue effort to extract the survivors from Block 1 on the first day of the collapse. He also helped recover all 48 bodies from the building debris.

"When crawling through the rubble, your adrenaline level is pumping like crazy because if you move too quickly it could cause death to a survivor. It was like playing a game of pick-up sticks, because the collapsed structure was still moving as we went about our task.

"This was the first natural disaster of such a magnitude, something which Malaysia had never dealt with before. Indeed, despite the valiant efforts of our local rescue teams, foreign expertise was called in to help, from Singapore, Japan, France and the United Kingdom," said Gray, who is currently based in China as chief foreign architect and master planner with the South China Architectural Design & Research Institute in Guangzhou City in Guangdong Province.

He said although no more survivors were rescued from the rubble after the first day, the rescue teams did their best.

"Bearing in mind that any quick movement could have caused death to trapped survivors, they took the right decision to proceed with caution, even though people didn't think it was being done fast enough.

"We were there for 12 days and nights. The first four days we had no sleep. We were looking for survivors until the eighth day, then on the ninth day, it inevitably shifted to recovering bodies.

"When that happened, there was a horrible feeling of despondency and failure that we weren't able to save anyone else."

During the rescue, Gray said each time he walked past the family, relatives and friends of the trapped residents, they swarmed towards him for updates or news about their loved ones.

"What's happening? Have you found anybody yet? Have you been to my apartment?" they would ask. It was heart-rending.

"They never lost hope until rescue efforts shifted to body recovery, because rescuers heard knocking and voices right up to the seventh day after the collapse."

Both Chan and Gray said the amount of support received from the public and corporate sectors, hotels and surrounding community was amazing.

They chipped in to provide equipment and food for the rescuers and volunteers who worked tirelessly, as well as accommodation for residents of the two other blocks who had to be evacuated.

Four months ago, while Gray was back in Malaysia and in the vicinity of the Highland Towers area, he decided to visit his old apartment on level five in Block 3.

"I walked into what had been my son's bedroom. He was three at that time, and I was amazed to see that some of his toys were still there, as was a colouring book that had not blown away and a dinosaur stencil on the floor.

"The building had preserved them like a time capsule, and a lump caught in my throat -- it was as if time had stood still and the memories preserved in time. I took them with me as keepsakes when I left.

"But what makes me angry is whenever I see hill slopes still being cleared in an improper manner, because of pure greed. Local developers have not learned from the incidents of slope failures near hillside developments. My plea to property developers is to please adhere to government guidelines on construction on slopes.

"Cutting corners for profit could lead to another tragedy like Highland Towers."