Friday, 12 December 2014

Highland Towers disaster: Memories still fresh after 20 years

It has been 21 years since the Highland Towers tragedy, but for Kuala Lumpur Hospital (HKL) Forensic Department head Dr Mohd Shah Mahmood, the memories remain fresh.

For the then-budding forensic pathologist, it was an unforgettable baptism by fire, enduring two weeks of sleepless nights identifying the remains of the victims with three other forensic experts.

Highland Towers, a luxury apartment in the opulent neighbourhood of Taman Hillview, Ulu Klang, Selangor, crumbled in less than five minutes after a landslide crashed its Block 1 at 1.35pm, sparking one of the biggest rescue operations the country had seen then.

Dr Shah, who has been in the forensic field for 24 years, said he recalled the events as clearly as though it had happened yesterday.

“It was in my third year in forensics, and my first year as a forensic pathologist. I was in Bangsar assisting the police on a murder case at a construction site when I was told that a residential building had collapsed.

“I was told by HKL to immediately formulate a disaster identification plan for the recovery efforts,” he told the New Straits Times yesterday.

He said one forensic team, including him, was on standby at HKL, while a smaller team was posted to the site, together with the police, search teams and volunteers, in case they recovered any body parts that would then be immediately screened for verification.

Dr Shah said the bodies came in slowly due to the difficulty in recovery as they were trapped underneath the rubble.

“Nevertheless, we wanted to do our best to ensure family members and friends were able to claim and give a proper burial to their loved ones.”

He said the majority of the injuries were fatal, with many having suffered crushed abdomens, lungs and ribs.

He was told that rescuers heard the victims’ knocking and cries for help from beneath the rubble up till the seventh day. He noted that it was medically impossible as the victims’ injuries would have not allowed them to survive more than a day.

“Although 47 victims suffered massive injuries, our team was able to identify them based on belongings, such as jewellery and clothing.

“Some victims were identified based on documents, identification cards and driving licences in their wallets. Even though the bodies were decomposed, many were identified by their fingerprints,” he said, adding that not many of the bodies required DNA comparisons.

However, there were moments of “gallows humour” amidst the gloom.

“There was one isolated case where a set of remains had been brought to the hospital. After a detailed examination, we realised it was a piece of chicken thigh that had bypassed the screening.”

He said such incidents would usually happen in housing areas as most homes had refrigerators with various types of meat in their freezers, adding that it was mistaken with bodies that had been badly mangled.

Dr Shah noted that the fatality count could have been higher if the incident had occurred at night instead of noon. He explained that each block had 48 units, and with 48 victims, it averaged one victim per unit.

“What influenced the number of fatalities was the fact that it occurred at 1pm, when government workers were at work (Saturday was still a working day then) and those in the private sector enjoying their day off by lunching outside or shopping.

“If it had happened at 1am when everyone was asleep in their homes, it would have been three people per apartment on average, tripling the death count.”

He said all victims were recovered and identified within two weeks.

Following the Highland Towers disaster, Dr Shah had been deployed to the Lahad Datu intrusion, the 2013 Genting Highlands bus crash and the Malaysia Airlines MH17 tragedy.

Friday 12 December 2014


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