Sabah quake: Hopes fade as crews search 'river of stones' on Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu

Two Canadians were prevented from leaving Malaysia after they were identified as being part of a group of tourists who stripped to pose for photos atop Sabah's Mount Kinabalu, where a deadly earthquake struck on Friday. -- PHOTO: EPA
Two Canadians were prevented from leaving Malaysia after they were identified as being part of a group of tourists who stripped to pose for photos atop Sabah's Mount Kinabalu, where a deadly earthquake struck on Friday. -- PHOTO: EPA

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia (AFP) - Hopes dimmed on Sunday for six people still missing after an earthquake at Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu triggered a "river of stones" that killed 13 climbers, with several Singaporean schoolchildren feared to be among the victims.

Mr Masidi Manjun, Tourism Minister for Sabah state, said on Twitter on Sunday that search teams would focus on a section that he said has been "dubbed 'river of stones' when (the) earthquake struck early Friday which rendered the track impassable, trapping climbers".

An 80-member rescue team was dispatched in the morning to search a section of trail on the popular climbing peak that was obliterated in thunderous rockfalls set loose by Friday's 6.0-magnitude quake, officials said.

A local police official confirmed late on Saturday that 13 bodies had been recovered and six people - believed to include some primary school students from Singapore - remained missing.

The authorities have so far given few details on the victims or the scenes encountered by search crews on the mountain, a popular tourist destination in Malaysia's Sabah state on Borneo island.

But the local Kinabalu Today news portal quoted rescue personnel saying that full recovery of remains could be impossible as some were pinned under massive boulders or possibly swept to their deaths from the peak.

The body of one 12-year-old schoolgirl from the city-state has been identified and six other pupils and two teachers are feared to be among the dead or missing.

Some of the Singaporean students were taking a route to the 4,095m-high summit that diagonally traverses a steeply sloping rock face and in which climbers are tethered to ropes attached to the surface.

The area is above the treeline and would have left those in that section exposed to the hail of stones and boulders.

Besides the Singaporean girl, Malaysian media reports also have said the dead included a local climbing guide.

Rescuers on Saturday had escorted down to safety 137 hikers who were stuck on the mountain for up to 18 hours by the rockfalls.

Crews and officials engaged in search and rescue efforts have been kept on edge by aftershocks, including a Saturday afternoon temblor that Malaysian officials rated at 4.5-magnitude.

It sent staff and journalists scurrying out of the park's headquarters when it hit.

Reports said climbers on the mountain at the time were from countries including Singapore, the United States, the Philippines, Britain, Thailand, Turkey, China and Japan, as well as many from Malaysia.

Major earthquakes are rare in Malaysia and the tremor was one of the strongest in decades, jolting a wide area of Sabah and sending people fleeing outdoors.

There have been no reports of major damage or any casualties outside of those on the mountain.

Climbing has been suspended at Mount Kinabalu for at least three weeks so the authorities can make repairs and assess safety risks.

Around 20,000 people complete the relatively easy climb each year.

Mount Kinabalu is sacred to the local Kadazan Dusun tribe.

Malaysian social media users and some officials have suggested the quake was a sign tribal spirits were angry after a group of 10 apparently Western men and women tourists last weekend snapped nude photos at the summit and posted them on the Internet.