11th December 1993 marks the date of a heart-breaking tragedy that occurred in Taman Hillview, Ulu Klang, Selangor.
It was on this very day that one of the three blocks of Highland Towers collapsed and took the lives of many; shocking the whole nation.
The Highland Towers consist of three blocks of a 12-storey apartment, namely Block 1, Block 2 and Block 3. The buildings were constructed phase by phase between the year 1974 and 1982 on a terraced hill.
Besides the locals, the Highland Towers became home to a significant number of expatriates too.
Leading Up To The Tragedy
There was a stream called Sungai Timur in the vicinity of the Highland Towers. It was there even before the apartment complex was built. Despite it being just a small stream, the water kept flowing into the construction area. Hence, a pipe system was designed and built to divert water from making its way onto the site.
Fast forward to the year 1991, constructions for another housing development project took place on the hilltop that was situated just behind the Highland Towers, which was already occupied then.
It was the Bukit Antarabangsa Development Project -- a project that led to the clearing of trees and much of groundcovers from the hill. This was in fact, a dangerous move.
Without any form of protection, the soil in that area was exposed to the risk of land erosions which later would usually cause landslides. Such was the case in this devastating incident.
The development of the Bukit Antarabangsa project sees yet again, another ‘watery’ situation. Yes, there was water seeping into this new site too. This time, the approach taken was to divert the water into the very same pipe system used to divert the water from Sungai Timur.
As time passed, the pipes were infiltrated with water, sand, and silt that came from the two sources -- Sungai Timur and the new construction site. Eventually, the pipes just couldn’t hold it anymore.
The excessive load caused the pipes to burst at a few places on the hill. The soil surrounding the area, which was behind Highland Towers’ Block 1, had to absorb the high-volume water from the rupture; turning them into mud.
By late November 1993, one could even see water flowing down the hill slope, onto the retaining walls. The monsoon rain that was pouring continuously over the course of 10 days certainly made matters worse. When loose soil meets a rainy season, landslides are bound to ensue.
It did not take long before a massive amount of mud of approximately 100,000 square meters, which is akin to the mass of 200 Jumbo Jets, sled down the hill, consequently demolishing walls that acted as retainers and shattered the tower’s pier foundation system.
Sadly, it brought Block 1 of the Highland Towers down with it. The residents had earlier detected some serious cracks on the road in the area. Regrettably, no further checks were conducted before the tower came crashing down.
And Then It Happened
It was reported that five minutes before the incident occurred, there was a loud ‘metal explosion’ coming from Block 1 of the Highland Towers.
At 1.35 p.m. on that fateful day, the said block collapsed.
A moment of confusion turned into intense fear. The helpless residents were screaming, crying, and shouting -- trying to find means and ways to escape the building. The car park was wrecked. Car alarms went buzzing. Just thinking about it leaves us shivering.
An American Marine pilot by the name of Bruce Erin Mitchell was a resident of Block 3. He happened to be on his balcony when he spotted the mud surging the retaining walls. He was quick to get his camera and took a total of eight pictures of the calamity.
According to newspaper reports, Mitchell was quoted as saying: “The building was gliding and then came a low snapping noise and it just collapsed”.
Throughout the court trial that would later go on for years, the pictures he took were used as exhibits. They were referred as the ‘Mitchell Pictures’.
Zhariff Afandi was only 12 at the time of the event. He was hanging out at a friend’s place in Block 2 to play video games. When a loud sound erupted, they all hurried to the balcony to see what was going on.
Zhariff reportedly witnessed the landslide heading to Block 1, the tower which houses his home. Thankfully, he was safe and so was his siblings who escaped with the maid.
However, not the same can be said for many others.
The Challenging Search And Rescue Operations
The extensive search and rescue mission of the victims who were trapped in the rubble of the collapsed building involved many parties. More than 120 members of the Federal Reserve Unit were involved. Approximately 30 military personnel and engineers from Batu Cantonment Camp and Wardieburn Camp were also deployed for this particular operation.
There were hundreds of policemen, firemen and Kuala Lumpur City Hall’s rescuing team members. Arriving at the scene much earlier than others were the Malaysian Red Crescent Society members.
It was a situation like no other. The rescue team had no experience in dealing with an extremely brutal situation such as this. The building which at one time stood tall, was now snapped in half, lying on its side with some parts of it crushed into pieces.
It was a tough challenge for them to carry out their task. Soh Chye Hock, the deputy director of the Fire and Rescue Department instructed his men to get moving -- even if it was just with ropes and ladders.
Not long after, a cry that came from under the rubble was heard. It was a cry of help from Shizue Nakajima. She was rescued alive. However, the Japanese citizen passed away at the hospital due to the severe internal bleeding she suffered from the catastrophe.
The rescue team also managed to save the lives of Umi Rashidah Khoruman and her then 18-month-old daughter, Nur Hamidah Najib. It was a moving stick which was coming from under the rubble that led the rescue team to uncover them. Amazingly, they were not harmed. It was a miracle.
Carlos Abdul Rashid, the son of Tun Musa Hitam, the former Deputy Prime Minister, and his wife, Rosina Abu Bakar were among those who did not make it out alive.
However, their little girl, Marisa, survived. Marisa was in the arms of the maid. Rosina gave Marisa to the maid by instinct and ordered her to make their way out while she ran for her husband who was in the bathroom.
Tun Dr. Mahathir, who was then the Prime Minister of Malaysia, visited the site along with his then deputy, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, as well as many cabinet ministers.
Those who resided in Block 2 and 3 were instructed to evacuate from their homes after the area was declared unsafe.
Singapore, France, Japan, United Kingdom and the United States sent their search and rescue teams over to provide assistance too, arriving a day after the incident occurred.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force’s helicopters were also utilised in the operation. Rescue dogs were also involved. They reportedly even used heartbeat detectors to seek for survivors.
To forge their path to rescue the victims who were underneath the chunks and pieces of concrete and steel, machines and bulldozers were used to break into the wreckage.
A couple of days after the tragedy, a Cabinet Committee was formed to handle issues that arose due to the incident. More and more bodies were found.
On 17th December 1993, the Cabinet Committee made the decision to stop rescue efforts and start searching for the deceased.
At the end of the search, it was confirmed by the police that 48 bodies were recovered from the scene.
In 1995, there were plans to fix the other two blocks -- Block 2 and Block 3 -- to have them reoccupied once again. However, further inspections showed that it was not safe to do so.
The structure of the buildings could jeopardise those who stayed in it. The fact that these blocks could collapse at any time reaffirms the need to demolish them. The indefinite status of the towers left the residents with no choice but to move out.
The residency was left abandoned even after the cleaning process of the debris from Block 1 was over.
Until today, the surviving blocks are still there. However, vandalism -- from graffiti to stolen window panes and doors -- is now a big part of the whole place.
Even the Highland Towers memorial stone was not safe from the irresponsible doings.
Besides that, the absence of maintenance and the buildings’ exposures to nature elements leave it looking very eerie.
Criminals, drug addicts and mat rempits are making use of the abandoned buildings as their hideout. Time and again, the authorities have been urged to demolish the remaining towers.
Getting Some Screen Time
In 2010, a 60-minute documentary on the Highland Towers collapse was aired on History Channel.
Victims, families of victims and former residents of the Highland Towers were interviewed for the documentary titled 'The Highland Towers Disaster'.
With a high death toll at the site, words have spread about the place being haunted.
In 2013, a horror movie entitled 'Highland Tower' was produced by Metrowealth Pictures, a local film production and distribution company.
Going To Court
Years later, a lawsuit against ten defendants was filed by 73 buyers and owners of Block 2 and Block 3. Only in August 2004 was an out-of-court-settlement reached between AmFinance Bhd (previously known as Arab-Malaysian Finance Bhd), who is one of the defendants, and 139 residents and owners Highland Towers.
The former agreed to pay RM52mil to the latter. However, in exchange, the plaintiffs had to “release and assign to the Company (AmFinance Bhd) all their rights of action in the suits against Highland Properties Sdn Bhd (the developer of Highland Towers) as well as all their rights and title to their individual apartment units in Highland Towers and their rights to common property, unencumbered and free from claims of end financiers”.
Shockingly, the local council who was also a defendant, was not held liable.
The collapse of the Highland Towers left a deep scar in the lives of many. It goes to show that we must never take safety matters lightly. Stricter enforcement is required to prevent such happenings. The authorities must play their part.
24 years down the road, we may have moved on but what happened that day will never be forgotten.
Rojak Daily would like to pay tribute to the victims of the tragedy and those who were hurt in any way by it.