Rescuers on Malaysia’s highest peak yesterday searched for six climbers after recovering 13 dead from a strong earthquake that had trapped scores of trekkers. One survivor said she waited for a rescue helicopter that never came.
A magnitude 5.9 earthquake on Friday sent rocks and boulders raining down the trekking routes on 4,095m Mount Kinabalu in eastern Sabah state on Borneo Island.
Nine of the bodies found on Saturday were flown out by helicopter, while the other two were brought down by foot, district police official Farhan Lee Abdullah said.
Most of the other climbers made it down the mountain in the darkness early on Saturday, some with broken limbs and one in a coma.
Amanda Peter said local guides told her group of 21 climbers that a helicopter would pick them up, but when it did not, they decided to walk after a frustrating nine-hour wait.
“There were risks of us dying up there of cold overnight,” the 23-year-old Sabah native said. “The guide said we either die of waiting or we die trying. So we all chose to try walking down ourselves.”
She said she saw two bodies lying on a flat rock on the way down.
“It really affected me, as it could have been me. I was lucky to be given a chance to live,” she said.
The descent was “very risky and we were all starving, dehydrated and tired, but at least we tried saving ourselves,” she said.
Sabah Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment Masidi Manjun tweeted: “It’s easy to pick on weaknesses” of the search-and-rescue operation.
“I’m sure they are many,” he added.
He said the shortcomings would be examined, but “now is not the time to blame.”
The two dead retrieved on Friday evening were a 30-year-old local guide and a 12-year-old Singaporean student, Farhan said.
Police said earlier on Saturday that they were looking for 17 other people, including eight Singaporeans and one each from China, the Philippines and Japan.
The rest are Malaysians. The nationalities of the 11 dead recovered on Saturday were not immediately clear.
About 60 rescuers and four helicopters were combing the mountain, where loose rocks and boulders that fell during the quake blocked part of the main route.
The quake also damaged roads and buildings, including schools and a hospital on Sabah’s west coast. It also broke one of the twin rock formations on the mountain known as the “Donkey’s Ears.”
The mountain is to be closed for three weeks for maintenance work, while flags are to be flown at half-mast in Sabah today to mourn the victims.
Sabah Deputy Chief Minister Joseph Pairin Kitingan blamed the tragedy on a group of 10 foreigners who “showed disrespect to the sacred mountain” by posing naked at the peak last week. He said a special ritual would be conducted later to “appease the mountain spirit.”
The foreigners, who included two Canadians, two Dutch and a German national, broke away from their entourage and stripped naked before taking photographs at the mountain peak on May 30, officials have said.
Five of the tourists are thought to still be in Malaysia and are to be barred from leaving on the offense of gross indecency, police said.
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