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Monday, November 4, 2013

Highland Tower Tragedy

Hello readers. I know. It's been a while. I have neglected this blog since July...... 4 MONTHS?! Oh dear.

So, how are you guys doing? Keep calm and stay awesome!




This post is going to be about Highland Tower. To tell you the truth, I actually had no idea what is the story behind Highland Tower. I really didn't know anything about it. The other day, when I saw it's 'behind the scene' showing in the TV, I asked myself, "What about Highland Tower? How come I never heard anything about this place?". I quickly searched for it in Google and after knowing it's story, I felt so sad. It is a very sad tragedy. I can't recall anything about this tragedy because during that time I was 5 years old.

Now, I would like to share this article with you.

Source: The Star

The documentary is a painful reminder of one of the nation’s worst ecological calamities.

TEENAGER Sasha Basheer hurried out of her apartment for her morning dance class. Suddenly, she paused, turning round to glance at her home.

“I don’t know why, I just had this strange feeling I wasn’t going to see it like this again,” she recalls.


Sasha Bashir
Sasha’s premonition came to pass. At 1.35pm, the entire block of apartments where her home was collapsed like a deck of concrete cards, taking with it 48 lives. It was Dec 11, 1993 – a date that would forever be marked by the tragedy of the Highland Towers in Ulu Kelang, Selangor, in the memories of survivors and families who had lost loved ones and homes.

Seventeen years later, for the first time ever, the shocking and heartbreaking story is chronicled in a full feature on television. Commissioned by AETN All Asia Networks, the one-hour documentary airs over Astro tomorrow on History, the channel owned and operated by AETN.

You can watch the documentary here.

The Highland Towers Disaster includes never-before-seen footage filmed by the Malaysian Fire And Rescue Department and the French rescue team. Interviews were conducted with eyewitnesses who barely escaped out of the building, rescuers, and families.








Documentary filmmakers Harun Rahman and Lara Ariffin of Novista were engaged to produce the feature. The husband-and-wife team heads the production company, established in 1991, that is noted for some of the prominent TV documentaries on the country in recent times, including The Malayan Emergency, The Smart Tunnel and Among The Great Apes With Michelle Yeoh.

Now, why commission a film on this disaster 17 years later?

A need to remember – “this is an important story to tell”, says Harun in an interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. “This tragedy should not have happened. But as the years go by, it has become a faded memory.”



AETN All Asia Networks programming and production vice-president Michele Scholfield explains: “The Highland Towers Disaster is a story that deserves to be told – not only for the victims, their families, and the people who went to great lengths to try to save them; it’s also done in the hope that this kind of tragedy will not recur.”

A critical nod to this film came from the survivors and family members left behind who had agreed to be interviewed.

“I saw it coming down in slow motion and then the whole building fell. After that, there was complete silence,” recalls Dr Hooi Chan Ping in the film. The former resident who had stopped by a friend’s unit on the ground floor of Block 1, where, upon hearing strange “grinding” sounds, they both decided to run out of the building, moments before it collapsed.



Dr Hooi’s narrative opens this visual presentation that seamlessly blends dramatic archival footage with gripping eyewitness accounts and graphics to present a clear and concise picture of the disaster. In this documentary, the voices of the eyewitnesses are what propel the story forward to its bitter end.

Life at Highland Towers before the tragedy is described by former residents as a friendly vertical village. The three blocks of the upscale condominium were built between 1975 and 1979 next to a hillside supported by rubble retaining walls.

Tension is deftly built up in the film, as torrential rains arrive with the annual monsoon, to the imminent destruction of Block 1’s physical structure – and life as the residents knew it.

On Dec 11, which was a Saturday, some residents were at work while others were home enjoying the weekend. The unthinkable happened. The building began groaning and swaying.

Bruce Mitchell, an American Marine pilot staying at Block 3, was on his balcony when he saw a river of mud gushing from the retaining walls. He grabbed a camera and promptly snapped eight photos that were to become the only visual record of the disaster as it unfolded.

To Mitchell’s horror, the slowly shifting flow of mud that broke through the lowest retaining wall soon brought the entire Block 1 down in a cloud of dust.

“The building was gliding and then came a low snapping noise and it just collapsed,” he recalls in newspaper reports (Mitchell has since relocated and could not be contacted for the documentary).

The residents who got out were stunned.

“It was like in the movies. This doesn’t happen in Malaysia,” Iain Gray remembers with a sad smile.

But it did. Amidst the “shrill symphony of car alarms”, the shock slowly settled over the people. Some were clutching one another for support, others remained shell-shocked, and some like Zhariff Afandi, a Block 1 resident who was playing at Block 2, was desperately seeking his siblings. Archival footage retrieved from Filem Negara, RTM and the Malaysian Fire And Rescue Department shows the then little boy running around in fear and confusion.

Zhariff’s story ended happily; his siblings escaped with their maid. But not for the families of 48 victims.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam’s son Carlos Rashid and his wife Rosina Abu Bakar were trapped inside their apartment. When the building began swaying, Rosina had instinctively pushed their baby girl into the maid’s arms and instructed her to get out. Rosina then ran to get her husband who was in the shower. Both never made it.

The Fire And Rescue Department (then known as Bomba Malaysia) arrived on the scene, only to be confronted with a disaster they were glaringly ill-equipped for nor experienced to handle.

The once horizontal concrete exterior walls wrapping Block 1 resembled upturned “fish bones” that were emblematic of the disaster in photos. They also formed a formidable vertical barrier for the rescue teams to access the unstable mountain of concrete and twisted steel before them.

“In my 30 years of operation I have never seen such a collapse of a building,” recounts Soh Chye Hock, Fire And Rescue Department deputy director.

Soh ordered his men into action, even with mere ropes and ladders. They soon heard cries amidst the rubble. It was Shizue Nakajima, 50, who was rescued with a stretcher and a crane.

Then they saw a stick pushed through the rubble which led them to recover what became a poignant image of the tragedy – an 18-month-old Norhidah Najib who was miraculously unharmed. Her mother Umirah Rashidah Khoruman was also rescued. However, both could not be located for the film.

Nissa Bano, whose sister Anna, her English husband Robin and baby boy Adam were trapped under the wreckage, held onto a fragile hope. “I just kept asking, could there be a miracle they are still alive?” she recalls.

Lives lost

Then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad arrived on the scene where he immediately called for assistance from rescue specialists in Singapore, Japan and France.

The 50-strong French team sent in two tracker dogs and used sophisticated listening devices to detect movements or sounds.

“What was heartbreaking is that they did hear a series of taps from deep beneath the rubble,” Lara notes quietly.

“When word got out, hope rose among the waiting relatives. There was someone alive down there. But the team could not locate the source. The sounds faded till there were none.”

Spirits were also dampened by the news that Nakajima, rescued the day before, had succumbed to her injuries.

After seven days, the search for survivors was called off and replaced with the grim task of recovering corpses.

Bulldozers moved in to break apart and remove the wreckage. Most of the bodies were discovered in the stairwell from where they had desperately tried to flee.

Acceptance of death for the families became inevitable.

“We just hoped then to get back the bodies to give them a proper burial,” says Nissa.

Personal belongings were unearthed – the sad memories of lives abruptly ended; photographs in broken frames, wedding rings, racks of clothing. The odour of death pervaded as body after body was recovered. There were corpses of mothers clutching their babies to their bosom, in a vain attempt to protect the little ones.

Rosina’s brother Datuk Dr Ridzwan Bakar says sombrely: “I remember watching as workers brought out the bodies and they were all in various states of decomposition. I saw a lady clutching the holy Quran ... and a woman holding a child with both arms.

“They found my sister and her husband on the staircase, somewhere between the third and second floors, locked in an embrace.”

Harun and Lara have chosen to omit the grisly scenes of the badly mangled bodies recovered.

“We are thankful to be able to locate eyewitnesses and family members who were willing to share their story with us. So much pain and raw emotion was conveyed to us. We were listening to people’s worst nightmares. It is their tragedy. We don’t want to sensationalise it. We want to honour their memory and yet not dilute the horror of it. Maintaining this balance was the challenge,” says Lara.

Cry for justice

In the days to follow came the painful process of identifying the bodies through dental records, fingerprints where possible, and personal effects.

As anguish turned to acceptance, anger took hold.

“I want an answer. How can this have happened?” asks Nissa.

“If you had some structural default in a building, you would expect it to collapse vertically rather than toppling forward. There must be an external force that came into play,” says Public Works Department engineer Dr Asbi Othman.

The answers soon emerged. With the use of computer graphics the filmmakers explain how a small stream in the hills behind Highland Towers was diverted through a series of drains and pipes. A new development on Bukit Antarabangsa on the other side of the ridge led to land clearing. The water runoff combined with the stream and channelled into the already overstressed drainage.

Two weeks of relentless rain soaked the hillside. On Dec 11, the poorly constructed retaining walls could no longer contain the force of some 150,000 cubic metres of mud that had built up.

What Bruce Mitchell photographed was only the tip of the iceberg as a subterranean mudflow with the weight of 200 Boeing-747 airplanes pushed its way out. Moments later, Block 1’s structural foundations gave way, leading to its catastrophic collapse.

“You try to play with nature and it will bite back,” says Mike Rickard, a rescue volunteer and safety engineer who lived in Block 2.

“You’ve taken away the ability to absorb the water up on the hillside ... but water has still got to go somewhere ... and it went into the earth ... and the earth said I can only take so much water and after which I have to move. And so it moved and it took Highland Towers with it.”

In 1994, 73 Highland Towers owners and occupants filed a negligence suit against 10 parties including the Ampang Jaya Municipal Council (MPAJ) and the developer, Highland Properties Sdn Bhd. Experts were hired to help pass the buck from one defendant to the other.

(Revelations surfaced – Highland Towers drains were not constructed according to plan, the masterplan was not adhered to, and the rubble walls supporting the hill slope terrace were improperly designed, a weakness that became a fundamental cause of the landslide.

After eight years of lengthy, painful proceedings, on Aug 12, 2000, the court found seven out of the 10 defendants guilty of contributing to the landslide and awarded the residents RM52mil, which was settled in 2004.

However, MPAJ successfully appealed against the ruling in a Federal Court judgment on Feb 17, 2006, that shocked the residents, as it absolved the local council of any responsibility.

The judgment stated that local councils are shielded from lawsuits for certain damages as their priority is providing services to the public, which “has priority over compensation for pure economic loss of some individuals who are clearly better off than the majority of residents in the local area,” said judge Datuk Abdul Hamid Mohamad, according to newspaper reports.)

“We hope for this film to be a platform for discussion and dialogue, there is so much to be learnt from this tragedy,” says Harun.

“But have we really learnt? I believe the biggest tragedy of the Highland Towers disaster is that we haven’t truly learnt from it. Has anything changed fundamentally? The local council got away and the law will continue to protect them as long as it is not reviewed.

“And we are still messing with nature. Every time there is a disaster politicians quickly call for a freeze of hillside developments. As the issue dies down, so does the resolve and interest. The cycle begins all over again ... until the next disaster.”

There have been few changes. A search and rescue team was formed, property developers hold a larger responsibility for their projects, and slope watch committees are set up. But can any compensation replace the lives of loved ones who had perished in the tragedy?

“I miss my sister a lot,” says Nissa. “I don’t have a sister. She was the only one ... and she had a baby and so did I, the same year, there was only a two-month difference between our two boys. I just miss what could have been.”

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