KOTA KINABALU - Almost a year after a deadly earthquake struck Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia, 20 Singaporeans who lost loved ones in the disaster began their own ascent up the mountain.
They are making the climb to finish what the victims could not, and pay tribute to those who perished on this day last year. Ten Singaporeans died, of which seven were Primary 6 pupils from Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS).
Donning white T-shirts with the tag Omega Challenge Braveheart, the group did a cheer and said a prayer with family members of the late Sabah trainers before setting off from Kinabalu Park headquarters yesterday morning to Timpohon Gate, the starting point for the trek.
They will take part in a ceremony on the mountain this morning at 7.15am - the exact time the earthquake hit - and plan to reach the summit tomorrow. The team, comprising former schoolmates, parents and relatives of the victims, remained energetic during the hike.
Mrs Karen Jhala, 49, whose daughter Sonia was among the victims, said the team wanted to "complete what was left incomplete".
"This has brought the family together," said Sonia's uncle, Mr Trilok Jhala, 57, who is also on the climb. "We are trying our best. We have been training for some time."
The commodity trader said the family trained mostly at MacRitchie Reservoir and at a Housing Board block to practise climbing steps. Mr John Quok made the trip with his son Elliot, a former TKPS pupil.
The 45-year-old, who works in investment, said he has been training for nine months. "What I want to achieve is to retrace what the children had started," he said. The group declined to speak at length to The Sunday Times, citing an exclusive contract for a documentary.
During yesterday's climb, they split up into several groups. Those ahead left encouraging messages for the others at rest stops along the way. The first climbers arrived at Laban Rata, where they will rest for the night, at 3.45pm yesterday. The last members arrived at night.
They are not alone in this journey.
Mr James Ho, 46, whose daughter Rachel died in the quake, has been corresponding with the group members since they arrived. "The families, as a whole, have been supporting one another and giving one another strength," said the banker, who did not go on the trip.
Mr Ho added that Sonia's father, Mr Jaidipsinh Jhala, 49, has been asking if he would like to pass on any messages to Rachel. "He has been really big-hearted in doing things for us, since we are not there."
Pastry chef Hazreen Hussain, 39, had pulled out from the climb in February at her daughter Hanis Umairah's request.
Hanis was on the school trip last year and lost her best friend Peony Wee in the quake. With the anniversary of the incident approaching, Madam Hazreen said Hanis started having flashbacks last week.
Although she could not be with the climbers, Madam Hazreen is glad the others made it. "I appreciate it so much that they want to complete the journey for the kids."
Malaysian trainers Valerian Joannes (left) and Ricky Masirin were among those who died while guiding the pupils of Tanjong Katong Primary School up Mount Kinabalu in June last year. (Photo: Mountain Torq)
Trail rerouted to avoid damaged areas
A part of the Via Ferrata trail that the Tanjong Katong Primary School pupils were on when the earthquake struck last June has been rerouted to avoid the damaged areas on Mount Kinabalu.
The Walk the Torq route, located 3,520m above sea level, was partly damaged by falling rocks set off by the quake and closed for several months to allow for repair works and the diversion. Equipment lost or destroyed then has also been replaced.
Since its reopening in January, the upgraded route receives about 100 climbers weekly, down from about 150 previously.
Ms Quek I-Gek, marketing director of Mountain Torq, which operates the Via Ferrata trail on Mount Kinabalu, said: "We rerouted the trek as it was too close to the original summit trail where most of the rocks landed during the rockfall."
The trail, which takes about one to two hours to complete, is designed for beginners and family groups, and caters for individuals aged 10 and above. It is also peppered with spots for visitors to take pictures and enjoy views of the picturesque mountain.
A new hanging ladder feature has been introduced on the route, which also boasts other highlights such as a two-cable monkey bridge.
Mountain Torq also runs another Via Ferrata route, known as the Low's Peak Circuit, which is designed for those with above average fitness. Several safety features have been added to this circuit.
For instance, a new clip system on a single continuous line has been installed along the circuit. Typically, climbers on the Via Ferrata trail have to clip and unclip their harnesses every few metres as they progress along the rock.
The new system means hikers can move along the rock face more quickly in an emergency.
Priorities change - it's more time with family
Every day, banker James Ho, who lost his daughter when an earthquake struck Mount Kinabalu one year ago, looks forward to a simple dinner with his family after work.
For Mr Ho, 46, those intimate moments over dinner are "the highlight of the day for me now".
His daughter, Rachel, 12, was one of seven Primary 6 pupils from Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) who died in the earthquake on June 5 last year. Two teachers from the school and a Singaporean adventure guide on the TKPS expedition also lost their lives.
Every day, banker James Ho, who lost his daughter Rachel in the earthquake, looks forward to returning home after work to have a simple dinner with his family. He is seen here with his wife Peh Lay Ling, 46, sons Ryan (right) and Raphael, and a painting of Rachel and her mother. (Photo: The Straits Times)
Mr Ho, 46, told The Sunday Times that Rachel's death has given him a new perspective - that there is more to life than his career. The bubbly girl left behind her parents and brothers, Ryan, 16, and Raphael, eight.
"Life is so fragile that spending time together as a family is a luxury," he shared. "Just having the kids come home every day, telling us highlights and seeing them smile, is by itself a fulfilling day for us."
On this day last year, a 5.9-magnitude quake hit the western side of the 4,095m-high mountain, dislodging boulders and rocks - some the size of houses - and hurtling them down onto climbers. The disaster claimed 18 lives, including the 10 Singaporeans, and injured many others.
One year on, family and close friends of the Singaporeans who went on that fateful trip have found ways to cope and made adjustments to their lives.
Some have reordered priorities to place their families first, while others find comfort in meeting up with the families of other victims. A few have become more spiritual, and at least one family has relocated overseas.
"Most people have found their comfort zone," Mr Ho said. "We've left Rachel's things, such as her toys, where they are, making us feel that she is always there for us."
When Rachel was alive, Mr Ho would sit by her bedside every night until she fell asleep. The young girl, who played for the TKPS netball team and dreamt of representing Singapore, would share secrets with him.
"I miss those chats we had and also seeing her grow up. I'd have loved to see her blossom into a young lady and get married one day," he said.
The Ho family will spend the most part of today together, looking through old photos and sharing memories Rachel has left for them.
"It isn't going to be an easy first anniversary. It is never easy losing a child," Mr Ho noted. "But it will be a day for us to celebrate her life."
Altogether, 29 Primary 6 pupils and eight teachers, accompanied by three guides from Singapore, had gone on the trip last year.
Many of the children were budding athletes, and were selected for the trip as part of the school's annual leadership programme, called the Omega Challenge.
Some pupils returned home last year with injuries such as torn ankle tendons and fractured arms.
Among them was Emyr Uzayr, 13, who suffered a fractured skull, among other injuries. He now attends Tanjong Katong Secondary School.
Emyr Uzayr, who suffered a fractured skull, now attends Tanjong Katong Secondary School. "Education and grades are not the No. 1 priorities any more," says his father. (Photo: The Straits Times)
Emyr's father, operations manager Sadri Farick, 37, said: "Education and grades are not the No. 1 priorities any more. We didn't give him any stress when he was studying for the PSLE. Now, being in the company of family is much more important."
In the initial months following the quake, the families of the pupils got closer, sharing their ups and downs. Through messages and meet-ups, they drew strength from one another.
Now, most families are moving on, said Mr Sadri, as the children progress on to secondary schools.
The tragedy last June happened more than 1,500km away in Sabah, but plunged Singapore into mourning. Then, the Prime Minister's Office declared June 8 a day of national remembrance. State flags at government buildings were flown at half-mast. That week, TKPS set up a tribute site at its canteen for people to leave mementoes and pen their condolences.
When the school reopened for the new term, pupils and teachers returned to the sober reality that their peers were not coming back.
For TKPS teacher Ashiq Hashim, 36, the desk next to his - once occupied by the late Mr Mohammad Ghazi Mohamed - remains empty.
He had lost a cherished friend of 22 years. They met as 13-year-olds at Victoria School, and went on to become teachers at TKPS. Mr Ghazi, who left behind his wife Khalidal Huda Sukaimi and children, was remembered by many as a teacher with a sense of humour.
"I miss our conversations, and having him around as my confidant," Mr Ashiq said. "But life has to go on."
Camp Challenge instructor Muhammad Daanish Amran, one of the three adventure guides accompanying the group, also lost his life. Mr Daanish, 22, left behind his parents and two younger siblings.
Drafter Farizah Jasin, 25, said Mr Daanish was a jovial person who would often go out of his way to help others.The close friends had promised to attend each other's polytechnic graduation. But that agreement was not to be. "I felt sad because he wasn't there, but I believe he is in a better place, a happier place, now," she said.
Several pupils and parents, including those whose children died in the quake, intend to scale the mountain on the anniversary of the tragedy. Plans to trek up Mount Kinabalu came about a month after the disaster.
Among those making the climb are Mr Jaidipsinh Jhala and his wife Karen, both 49. Their daughter Sonia, one of the seven pupils killed in the quake, had worked hard to be selected for the expedition. Mrs Jhala told The Sunday Times last year that the trip would bring some closure for her family.
"We want to finish what Sonia couldn't finish, to be where she would have been."
Baby on the way, but dad still misses late daughter
A year after losing their daughter Peony in the earthquake on Mount Kinabalu, Mr Alson Wee, 52, and his wife will be welcoming a new addition - a baby boy - to the family.
The boy is due on June 9, four days after the one-year anniversary of the quake.
Mr Wee, who works in shipping, is looking forward to having a son, but still misses his daughter. "I still miss hearing her cheerful voice," he said. "I miss talking to her."
Peony, named after the flower, was one of 10 Singaporeans killed in the quake last June. The Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) pupil would have been 13 this year.
Peony was adventurous and loved the outdoors. (Photo: The Straits Times)
Mr Wee had objected to his daughter going on the school trip.
But her mother, Madam Luo Jin, 44, had given Peony permission after the girl pleaded.
Peony was adventurous, loved the outdoors and often helped out at her mother's traditional Chinese medicine centre in her spare time. She left behind a 15-year-old brother and a three-year-old sister.
She doted on her sister, often taking her to the playground during her free time.
Peony's aunt, Mrs May Mah, 45, said there were tough moments for the family over the past year - such as on Peony's birthday on April 30.
She makes an effort to spend more time with the family.
"I would talk to them, play with the kids and keep Peony's mother company whenever she wants to meet up," she said.
Together with the family of TKPS pupil Rachel Ho, another victim in the tragedy, the Wee family will be praying for the girls at a temple in Punggol today.
Both girls played in the school's netball team and were good friends. In death, their urns were placed side by side.
She lost her hero, who saved pupils during quake
They had been due to marry last November. But for nurse Jessica Veronica Sikta, 26, that promise would never be fulfilled.
Her fiance, adventure trainer Valerian Joannes, was among those who died in the earthquake that struck Mount Kinabalu last June.
Ms Sikta still wears their engagement ring. Mr Joannes was one of the trainers guiding pupils when the quake hit last June. The two were set to marry last November. (Photo: Jessica Veronica Sikta)
Ms Sikta, who still wears the engagement ring - a simple silver band - given to her by Mr Joannes, told The Sunday Times: "I can only imagine how life could be brighter with him, a caring, loving responsible future husband and father to our children.
"Even though it won't happen, it still brings a smile to my face just thinking about it."
Mr Joannes, who would have been 28 this year, was one of the five adventure trainers guiding the pupils through a Via Ferrata trail on June 5 last year when the quake hit, killing him and colleague Ricky Masirin.
Ms Sikta said: "It was the darkest day of my life. Even now, I still can't believe it happened."
As a nurse, she is trained to perform last offices but had Mr Joannes' family go ahead and handle the procedures. "I'd never have imagined doing it for my beloved fiance. It was a lot to handle," she said. For his final send-off, Mr Joannes was dressed in a white shirt - the one he wore during their engagement.
The couple, who were engaged in December 2014, knew each other when they were still teens in 2003. They met at the St Pius X Catholic Church in Bundu Tuhan, at the foothills of Mount Kinabalu. Mr Joannes was a drummer in the church band.
From best friends, they became lovers. "He taught me to be kind to others and forgiving towards another. He also taught me to love selflessly," she said. "I'm thankful for the love we shared."
Over the past year, Ms Sikta has found peace in reminiscing their tender moments together and devoting time to prayer. She also spends her weekend with her family and Mr Joannes' family.
"I miss his jokes. I miss him when he laughs at my jokes too," she said. "I miss the way we would just sit and discuss the future."
Mr Joannes was given a hero's send-off at his funeral, which was packed with mourners who came to pay their last respects.
The fallen adventure trainer, who worked with Mountain Torq that operates the Via Ferrata routes on Mount Kinabalu, had reportedly shielded the Tanjong Katong Primary School pupils from the falling rocks during the quake.
"He was my hero, and he proved to be our hero too," Ms Sikta said. To remember her fiance, she will be scaling Mount Kinabalu on the anniversary of the disaster to finish one of his unfulfilled requests.
"To share a moment together on top of Mount Kinabalu was one of the items on Valerian's wish list," said Ms Sikta, who hopes to visit the trek where Mr Joannes used to work and observe a moment of silence. 'I would like to complete his wish, even though it would only be me without him."
It's been hard but trainers coping well
Moments before an earthquake shook Mount Kinabalu on June 5 last year, adventure trainer Hilary Hendry Augustinus from Malaysian mountaineering company Mountain Torq recalled the Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) pupils in his group taking selfies and chatting happily among themselves.
That morning, the 35-year-old, who had been tasked with taking pictures for his employer's Facebook page, was leading the first of five groups of pupils up a simplified Via Ferrata route on the mountain when disaster struck.
A 5.9-magnitude earthquake sent rocks - some the size of houses - raining down on the group.
Later, Mr Augustinus, who injured his back and right knee, found out that his friends and colleagues Valerian Joannes and Ricky Masirin, who were among the five trainers leading the TKPS expedition, had been killed. Two other trainers - Mr James Maikol, 30, and Mr Hajiris Sulomin, 41 - had survived.
It has not been an easy year since for Mr Augustinus, whose livelihood was affected when Mount Kinabalu closed for a few months following the disaster. The mountain was fully reopened only in December last year.
But the Malaysian is thankful for the support from many people, including strangers from Singapore. He said: "It makes me want to be better and stronger for them."
Like him, other mountain guides and trainers are slowly moving on. In the aftermath of the quake, they have received support in various forms such as the Sabah Earthquake Fund, set up in response to requests from the public here. From the donations collected, a portion, or $100,000, was split between the Mountain Torq trainers and Sabah mountain guides.
Trainer Hilary Hendry Augustinus (right) speaking with quake victim Sonia Jhala’s parents Karen and Jaidipsinh at TKPS last year. (Photo: The Straits Times)
Mountain Torq trainers told The Sunday Times that they are touched by the concern from Singaporeans. Mr Sulomin will use the donations to support his wife and children, while Mr Augustinus and Mr Maikol will keep the money for future needs. Right now, the trio are focused on adjusting back to work.
When contacted, the families of the two Mountain Torq trainers who died in the quake said they are coming to terms with their loss. Student Jennifer Masirin, 28, whose brother Ricky was among those killed, said: "I miss having him around, but I believe he is now an angel watching over us."
According to Sabah Parks, climbers have been trickling back to Mount Kinabalu since it fully reopened in December. There were more than 3,300 climbers in April, up from around 2,000 a month between December and February. Before the closure, it saw 5,000 to 6,000 climbers a month.
Kinabalu Park manager Yassin Miki said that since the quake in June last year, about 140 aftershocks have been recorded.
But these have not stopped tourists from scaling the mountain, he said. "I believe more tourists will come, especially when the visitor facilities are back in full operation."
Mountain Torq marketing director Quek I-Gek, 43, said its trainers, who take groups only through the Via Ferrata routes, are coping well.
"They were really happy when the mountain reopened. It meant that they could return to earning their livelihood as their families depend on them for financial support. Plus, they like living on the mountain. For them, life goes on," she said.
This article was first published on June 5, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.