On arrival at the NST office in Jalan Riong one morning in 1977, the then news editor, the late Pak Cik Dahari Ali, beckoned me over to his desk. In not so many words, he said I was to be assigned to the Crime Desk temporarily to work under Rudy Beltran. And that could mean one thing — to be on the team working on the Tanjung Kupang air disaster.
I was then an intern, and to be given such an assignment and working under Beltran were both intimidating and challenging. I wasn’t dispatched to the site of the crash, but to a hotel in Kuala Lumpur where the next of kin and close relatives of the victims had gathered to be informed about the dreaded news. I wasn’t looking forward to that at all as I knew I couldn’t handle it emotionally.
And indeed, I couldn’t.
It was a harrowing experience, watching relatives collapse in tears and there we were asking the obvious: how do you feel?
It was one assignment I could never forget, too, as I found, among the list of passengers of Flight 653, was a friend, a senior at ITM, Luqman Arif.
I was quickly dispatched to his sister’s house to get the reactions of the siblings.
I couldn’t handle it at all — and on my return to the office, Pak Cik Dahari sent me off to the ladies’ toilet to have a good cry, which I did.
Fast forward 37 years later, I found myself in my own bathroom in London, sobbing my eyes out.
I had just returned from a week in Rotterdam after meeting and interviewing close friends and relatives of the victims of flight MH17, the ill-fated flight from Amsterdam that never reached its destination.
It was shot down on July 17, 2014, while flying over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board.
Friends had often asked how did I cope when covering such incidents? The truth is, I couldn’t cope.
Three days after the incident, I flew to Rotterdam to meet Joe Ismail and Mohamed Taib — two Malaysian veterans who had made Rotterdam their home. I knew they would be able to give me some leads to the story.
They did. One of the passengers, Mohd Ali Salim, a PhD student, was Joe’s tenant. Joe and two other friends had sent him off at Schipol airport and that was the last they saw of Ali.
Ironically, close friends of Ali had spent the night with him at Joe’s to make sure they would not oversleep and miss the flight.
They had their sahur together and he even gave another friend a haircut. And when morning came, they all trooped off to Schipol.
In the kitchen that Ali used to cook for Joe and friends, many gathered to remember the nice, generous and warm person that he was; always willing to help and assist new students who arrived for their studies.
I didn’t know Ali, but after a few days at the house where he stayed, visiting his room where his clothes and shoes were neatly arranged for his return, his books lined up on his desk, and listening to stories about him, I felt like I knew him.
There were two other victims, whose next of kin I visited. Jenny Loh and her husband, Fan Shun Po, were accompanying her mother, Tan Siew Poh, who had visited them from Penang. They all perished in the disaster, leaving behind their son, Kevin.
When I went to see Kevin, I didn’t have the heart to talk to him and make him relive the memories of his last few moments with his parents and grandmother.
I was to witness one of the most touching walk in memory of the couple who ran the popular Asian Glories restaurant, from the city in Rotterdam to the restaurant, led by the mayor.
There was so much outpouring of grief, but it was in a dignified way. The flowers at Schipol airport were spilling off the concourse.
On my last day there, I was to witness the arrival of two planes carrying the remains of the victims to an airfield in Eindhoven. It all became too much, on a hot summer’s day in Ramadan.
When I arrived in London the next day, I just had to lock myself in the bathroom; a replay of the that day in the NST office in 1977, where I broke down uncontrollably.
Over the next few months, I had to witness the wreckage being assembled in three hangars in the airbase in Gilze Rijen. And later, when the plane was reconstructed, along with other journalists, I was invited to enter the cabin to look at the interior.
The missile had exploded outside, but thousands of shrapnel had penetrated the plane. Inside, whatever parts that were found were put back; the sight of the seats where the captain and his crew had been seating just got to me.
And I just couldn’t go on.
Three years on, we are still without much of an answer. Relatives are still waiting to know who will be brought to justice and when. There have been promises that the culprit will be brought to justice.
But who are they?
I hope never again, will I have the misfortune to cover a disaster like this. It is one that no one can ever learn how to cope.