Not long after the early morning earthquake which jolted Sabah, the social media like a beast began to savage the search and rescue efforts by Government agencies. One can understand the anxiety the stranded climbers on Mount Kinabalu and their loved ones felt at what they deemed to be a slow response by rescue agencies; The fear they must have felt when the earth jolted beneath them, sending down boulders, destroying the path down and seeing their comrades injured or perish. Traumatized and dazed, even one hour can feel like a day waiting to get to safety, hence the accusations that the Government agencies were absent, having no idea what to do, leaving the dangerous rescue work to the mountain guides who were with them.
I have already resigned myself to the fact that the job of a disaster manager is an unrewarding one, always filled with accusations of slow response, uncoordinated, and clueless, to name a few. But whatever accusations come our way, our first priority is always to save lives to the best of our capability without wasting precious time.
There are two sides of every coin and what I witnessed myself on the ground while overseeing and coordinating the search and rescue (SAR) operation was hard work, dedication, and determination from the various agencies including the mountain guides in carrying out their duty.
Following the 5.9 magnitude main shock at 7.15am, the Ranau Fire and Rescue Department (FRD) was the first responder on the ground. At 8.48am when the Sabah Park administration informed of stranded mountain climbers together with their guides on Mount Kinabalu, they were at the Timpohon Gate within 10 minutes. By 9.40am, the first SAR team were already trekking up to provide rescue. A second and third SAR team were dispatched not long after at 1.35pm and 3.30pm respectively of which the latter were from the FRD’s Special Tactical Operation and Rescue Malaysia (STORM) team.
All three teams without hesitation trekked up the mountain for search and rescue despite the uncertain condition of the path leading up following the earthquake and the series of aftershocks which sent down boulders and caused landslides. Despite the grave risks, they were given stern orders by the On-Site Operations Commander to go straight up to the summit and bring down every single person to safety.
The first SAR team reached km 6.5 at about 4.25pm where they met with a group descending down. The team took over from the injured mountain guide and brought them to Laban Rata to rest and recuperate.
As it was about to get dark, the other two teams arrived at Laban Rata and intended to continue their trek to the summit but was strongly advised not to proceed by the guides as it is too dangerous to trek up in the dark because the terrain have changed. There was still a lot of ground movement with boulders and rocks falling off. The weather also had turned sour. Even if the teams had managed to reach the summit, it will be too much a risk to bring down any surviving victims under the circumstances.
Apart from on-foot rescue, the Military had also deployed their EC725 helicopter at 12.02pm but was unable to get close to the helicopter landing in Laban Rata due to poor visibility. Although the fog dissipated at about 3.30pm according to victim’s account, but down below, the clouds were still thick. The Military took another attempt to ascend at 4.28pm but failed. Such is the unpredictable weather conditions on a mountain where the weather can change within seconds and visibility is a constant problem.
Even as a mountain climber have a limited window of time to reach up to the summit of Mount Kinabalu, the limitations for flying a helicopter is even more under the unfavourable and unpredictable mountain weather. Operating a helicopter for mountain rescue is a very delicate and tactical work. There have been cases where helicopters doing rescue work in the mountains have crashed.
Meanwhile, not wanting to wait any further the distressed climbers were determined to descend from Laban Rata. Upon receiving this information, the On-Scene Commander instructed the SAR teams comprising of the Military, Fire and Rescue Department, and the Department of Civil Defence to set-up four staging points starting from the base camp going up along the trekking route. Together with the guides, they were then accompanied down from check-point to check-point in a relay manner. At the same time, 25 personnel were dispatched make a safe path at km 1.5 which had been badly damaged as the slope had collapsed.
At 8.25pm, the first of the mountain climbers arrived followed by a second one at 8.45pm. Both were carried on a stretcher due to their injury. Subsequently, all started to arrive either individually or in groups. Some tracked down by themselves while others were accompanied by the mountain guides and SAR teams.
By 2.13am, within 19 hours following the earthquake, all the 173 survivors out of 192 had arrived safely at the base camp. Under normal condition, it would take 2 hours from Low’s Peak to go down to Laban Rata and from there on another 3 hours journey to Timpohon. But bear in mind that this rescue operation was done under very unfavourable condition due to an earthquake.
Upon arrival at the base camp, the survivors were met by the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) from the Fire and Rescue Department ready to provide medical attention to those in need. The medical team from the Ministry of Health had also set up their triage with ambulances ready to transport any patients requiring urgent treatment at the nearest hospital. Not 100 meters away, the Military had set up a tent and prepared food for the survivors, guides, and SAR teams that came down.
The second last SAR team that arrived at the base camp was led by one En Asnan (I could not remember his rank) and this was the team that did the sweeping to ensure that nobody got left behind. At 2.48am, Mr. Spencer was the last person to reach the base camp and his team was responsible to do the final sweeping.
The second day of search operation continued early morning on 6 June 2015. We were told that the best opportunity to fly a helicopter was between 6.00 – 9.00am where the clouds would clear. At 6.30am, the first helicopter took off from the Kundasang Forward Base and a second helicopter took off soon after at 7.15am. Both were carrying SAR teams comprising of the National Security Council SMART Team, Fire and Rescue Department, Military, Department of Civil Defence, and mountain guides. By 10.00am, news was relayed to the base camp that 11 remains had been found at km 6.5 and km 6.8 which was the path of the boulders and rock falls.
A helicopter belonging to the Fire and Rescue Department (FRD) went up to Laban Rata with forensics expert and medical equipment but was unable to land and had to come back to Kundasang Forward Base at 12.00 noon.
The next window of opportunity was between 3.00 – 4.00pm but it was only at 4.15pm that the military managed to land their helicopter. The Fire and Rescue Department followed suit but SAR teams had to first cut down the trees and branches to allow its landing due to the size of the helicopter. The two helicopters flew 10 remains straight to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kota Kinabalu for post-mortem. Another one remain was carried down on foot to the base camp and afterwards transported to the same hospital.
The search operation continued for the third day and by noon, SAR teams managed to recover 8 more remains. Due to bad weather, the helicopter had to wait until 4.30pm before it was able to fly down and bring the remains to Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
On Monday, 8 June 2015 the On-Site Operations Commander, declared that all the remains of the victims killed had been recovered and accounted for. Once confirmation is received from the hospital, all SAR teams will stand down.
They were to do a final sweep of the area but were prevented due to bad weather. The initial plan was to leave for Laban Rata at 7.00am together with geologists to conduct study on ground movement. But unfortunately, the weather and cloud did not dissipate despite waiting until 4.00pm.
In retrospect, everyone did their part commendably working tirelessly and selflessly. Credit should be given where credit is due. Everyone had gone above and beyond their duty to ensure the safe passage of those stranded. The mountain guides were true to their code of ethics which was to look after the care and wellbeing of their clients at all times. But to dismiss the Government agencies’ contribution in the search and rescue operation is unjust. The whole operation could not have been a success without the SAR teams and mountain guides working hand in hand, risking their lives.
In performing their duty as rescue agencies, they never asked to be thanked but to downplay and belittle their effort is really ungrateful when they are the ones that people needed in times of calamity. Do remember that when they are out there performing their duties, they also have families at home anxious for their safe return.
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