KOTA KINABALU (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Allowing mountain guides to bring down trapped trekkers on Mount Kinabalu after the June 5 earthquake was deemed the safest rescue option to be taken in the first 24 hours, said the state's Tourism, Culture and Environment minister.
The move saw 272 tourists, Sanctuary Lodge and Sabah Parks staff coming down safely, while most of the 18 who died - including a group of schoolchildren and teachers from Singapore - were killed instantly following the quake that hit the western side of the mountain, said Datuk Masidi Manjun.
Amid questions by assemblymen over the delayed response in helping the people trapped at the plateau of the mountain, Mr Masidi said the decision to rely on mountain guides was made after considering the danger of sending rescuers up.
"It was the best and safest option considering various risks involved. It was better to use our own experts (guides and porters) on top of the mountain instead of sending rescuers up, who might not be familiar with the terrain," he said.
He also added that there was a danger some rescuers might suffer from mountain sickness.
On the issue of helicopters unable to land or even airdrop food and warm clothing to those trapped above, Mr Masidi said it was due to bad visibility and strong winds.
He said the time with the least mist would be around 6am to 7am and between 5pm and 6pm.
"A helicopter can function at its best when it is at 3,000m above ground but at a higher altitude, it can be affected by wind," he said.
"To be fair to the rescuers, they did try at least three times to land on the mountain but they could not because of strong winds.
"Blankets and water among others that were supposed to be airdropped also landed away from the target due to this factor."
Mr Masidi said there were eventually 599 rescuers, including mountain guides and porters, Sabah Parks staff, firemen, civil defence officials, policemen, the Special Malaysian Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team and army, involved in the search and rescue operation.
Sabah suffered nearly RM100 million (S$354.2 million) in damage caused by the earthquake, Sabah Special Tasks Minister Datuk Teo Chee Kang told the state assembly.
The damage following the earthquake and more than 100 aftershocks affected 61 buildings such as schools, hospital and mosque, 22 roads and 22 slopes.