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A side view of the collapsed Highland Towers building in Hulu Kelang, Selangor on Dec 12, 1993

Adrian David recalls the harrowing experience as a reporter who was at the scene when Block 1 of the Highland Towers apartment building collapses

I was at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (Lima) 1993 exhibition that was winding up, when I received a telephone call from the then New Sunday Times Crime and Defence editor Sabry Sharif to pack up and return to Kuala Lumpur immediately.

I was told something big had happened.

An apartment building in Hulu Klang, Selangor, had collapsed due to landslides, and NST's Kuala Lumpur office needed as many hands as possible.

After taking the next available flight the following day, I stopped by the office in Balai Berita, Bangsar, for a briefing and quickly made my way to the scene of the tragedy.

When I approached the area, Jalan Hulu Klang was heavily congested, which forced me to park a few kilometres away from the scene. After walking there and obtaining police clearance at the security checkpoint, I arrived at the site, which looked like a scene from a disaster movie.

It was chaotic.

I joined the rest of the NST team for another briefing before we went about out tasks.

We were on 12 to 16-hour shifts, while camped there for about a month, under the hot sun and wet, rainy weather.

There were no mobile phones then.

The only automatic telephone using radio or ATUR we brought got jammed and could not be used.

We had to despatch news by taking turns to rush back to office to file our stories.

Food and beverages were aplenty there as companies and politicians donated generously.

Supply trucks also came daily.

There were steaming nasi lemak, sup tulang and other kinds of food round the clock.

An aerial view of the Highland Towers complex. Block 1 had collapsed due to landslides. File pix by Kamarudin Ahmad

Apart from firemen and police, there were soldiers, Malaysian Red Crescent Society, Saint John's Ambulance, People's Volunteer Corps and other uniformed groups who were stationed at the scene.

A few days later in Balai Berita, Sabry introduced me to two Sabah based English newspaper journalists -Muguthan Vanar and Jerry Kamijan -who were on attachment with NST for training.

Both were told to tag along with me to gain some experience covering the tragedy.

There were hordes of curious onlookers.

Security personnel had to work overtime to prevent them from entering the area.

Politicians, corporate leaders and prominent personalities turned up at the place daily.

Word had it that some important figures had lived there, and some were believed to have died as they were missing from public view for days.

One of them was then culture, arts and tourism minister Tan Sri Sabbaruddin Chik, who emerged about a week later to say he was alive.

Then, news broke out that Tun Musa Hitam's son Carlos, wife and baby were among those who died at the scene.

Then Malaysian Airline System Bhd executive vice-president Tan Sri Bashir Ahmad Abdul Majid was seen with his Australian wife at the disaster site, looking forlorn.

After greeting him, I learnt he was one of the residents of the collapsed tower.

I wrote a story that he had lost everything and was putting up at The Regent Hotel (now Grand Millennium Hotel) in Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur.

He, however, was grateful that he and his family were alive as they were out at work.

News of the first two survivors came trickling in, that of an Indonesian woman and her infant.

It was a Fire Department officer, named Norizan Saad (now a senior superintendent in Putrajaya), who was the first to pull the infant out from the rubble, climb down the fire ladder and hand the infant to former Criminal Investigation Department chief (Tan Sri) Zaman Khan Rahim Khan.

It was learnt that he had a tiff with then Army chief General Tan Sri Borhan Ahmad over relief operations and responsibilities.

Zaman Khan was subsequently relieved off his duties as operations director, and was transferred to the Prisons Department as its director general.

The then NST group editor Datuk A. Kadir Jasin was a stickler for details.

We even had to know the names of the rescue dogs when captioning photographs.

Among the first foreign help to arrive were rescue teams from France and Japan, who were equipped with search-and-rescue equipment, including sound tracker devices and crab-eye cameras.

They also brought along detection dogs.

That was when former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad initiated the setting up of the Special Malaysian Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (Smart).

I had worked with Smart on many subsequent disasters, including accompanying them to India to cover the Gujarat earthquake in 2000.

On one occasion, the army's explosives team were planning to demolish the remaining tower block, which sat precariously on the hillside. But the authorities later decided not to blow it up.

After the dust had settled, as everyone was leaving the crash scene, we were saddled with follow-up stories that stretched for years.

We went to towns with hill and mountainside developments that posed a danger to houses and buildings.

Every time I pass by Jalan Hulu Klang, the sight of the remaining second tower block reminds me of that fateful tragedy that took the lives of so many.

It is a grim reminder about the potential danger of hillside development.

However, the surrounding areas have now seen massive development.

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