Sabah quake: One year on

Priorities change - it's more time with family

Emyr Uzayr, who suffered a fractured skull, now attends Tanjong Katong Secondary School. "Education and grades are not the No. 1 priorities any more," says his father. Every day, banker James Ho, who lost his daughter Rachel in the earthquake, looks
Every day, banker James Ho, who lost his daughter Rachel in the earthquake, looks forward to returning home after work to have a simple dinner with his family. He is seen here with his wife Peh Lay Ling, 46, sons Ryan (right) and Raphael, and a painting of Rachel and her mother.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Emyr Uzayr, who suffered a fractured skull, now attends Tanjong Katong Secondary School. "Education and grades are not the No. 1 priorities any more," says his father. Every day, banker James Ho, who lost his daughter Rachel in the earthquake, looks
Emyr Uzayr, who suffered a fractured skull, now attends Tanjong Katong Secondary School. "Education and grades are not the No. 1 priorities any more," says his father.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Every day, banker James Ho, who lost his daughter when an earthquake struck Mount Kinabalu one year ago, looks forward to a simple dinner with his family after work.

For Mr Ho, 46, those intimate moments over dinner are "the highlight of the day for me now".

His daughter, Rachel, 12, was one of seven Primary 6 pupils from Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) who died in the earthquake on June 5 last year. Two teachers from the school and a Singaporean adventure guide on the TKPS expedition also lost their lives.

Mr Ho, 46, told The Sunday Times that Rachel's death has given him a new perspective - that there is more to life than his career. The bubbly girl left behind her parents and brothers, Ryan, 16, and Raphael, eight.

 

"Life is so fragile that spending time together as a family is a luxury," he shared. "Just having the kids come home every day, telling us highlights and seeing them smile, is by itself a fulfilling day for us."

 

On this day last year, a 5.9-magnitude quake hit the western side of the 4,095m-high mountain, dislodging boulders and rocks - some the size of houses - and hurtling them down onto climbers. The disaster claimed 18 lives, including the 10 Singaporeans, and injured many others.

One year on, family and close friends of the Singaporeans who went on that fateful trip have found ways to cope and made adjustments to their lives.

Some have reordered priorities to place their families first, while others find comfort in meeting up with the families of other victims. A few have become more spiritual, and at least one family has relocated overseas.

"Most people have found their comfort zone," Mr Ho said. "We've left Rachel's things, such as her toys, where they are, making us feel that she is always there for us."

When Rachel was alive, Mr Ho would sit by her bedside every night until she fell asleep. The young girl, who played for the TKPS netball team and dreamt of representing Singapore, would share secrets with him.

"I miss those chats we had and also seeing her grow up. I'd have loved to see her blossom into a young lady and get married one day," he said.

The Ho family will spend the most part of today together, looking through old photos and sharing memories Rachel has left for them.

"It isn't going to be an easy first anniversary. It is never easy losing a child," Mr Ho noted. "But it will be a day for us to celebrate her life."

Altogether, 29 Primary 6 pupils and eight teachers, accompanied by three guides from Singapore, had gone on the trip last year.

Many of the children were budding athletes, and were selected for the trip as part of the school's annual leadership programme, called the Omega Challenge.

Some pupils returned home last year with injuries such as torn ankle tendons and fractured arms.

Among them was Emyr Uzayr, 13, who suffered a fractured skull, among other injuries. He now attends Tanjong Katong Secondary School.

Emyr's father, operations manager Sadri Farick, 37, said: "Education and grades are not the No. 1 priorities any more. We didn't give him any stress when he was studying for the PSLE. Now, being in the company of family is much more important."

In the initial months following the quake, the families of the pupils got closer, sharing their ups and downs. Through messages and meet-ups, they drew strength from one another.

Now, most families are moving on, said Mr Sadri, as the children progress on to secondary schools.

The tragedy last June happened more than 1,500km away in Sabah, but plunged Singapore into mourning. Then, the Prime Minister's Office declared June 8 a day of national remembrance. State flags at government buildings were flown at half-mast. That week, TKPS set up a tribute site at its canteen for people to leave mementoes and pen their condolences.

When the school reopened for the new term, pupils and teachers returned to the sober reality that their peers were not coming back.

For TKPS teacher Ashiq Hashim, 36, the desk next to his - once occupied by the late Mr Mohammad Ghazi Mohamed - remains empty.

He had lost a cherished friend of 22 years. They met as 13-year-olds at Victoria School, and went on to become teachers at TKPS. Mr Ghazi, who left behind his wife Khalidal Huda Sukaimi and children, was remembered by many as a teacher with a sense of humour.

"I miss our conversations, and having him around as my confidant," Mr Ashiq said. "But life has to go on."

Camp Challenge instructor Muhammad Daanish Amran, one of the three adventure guides accompanying the group, also lost his life. Mr Daanish, 22, left behind his parents and two younger siblings.

Drafter Farizah Jasin, 25, said Mr Daanish was a jovial person who would often go out of his way to help others.The close friends had promised to attend each other's polytechnic graduation. But that agreement was not to be. "I felt sad because he wasn't there, but I believe he is in a better place, a happier place, now," she said.

Several pupils and parents, including those whose children died in the quake, intend to scale the mountain on the anniversary of the tragedy. Plans to trek up Mount Kinabalu came about a month after the disaster.

Among those making the climb are Mr Jaidipsinh Jhala and his wife Karen, both 49. Their daughter Sonia, one of the seven pupils killed in the quake, had worked hard to be selected for the expedition. Mrs Jhala told The Sunday Times last year that the trip would bring some closure for her family.

"We want to finish what Sonia couldn't finish, to be where she would have been."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Priorities change - it's more time with family'. Print Edition | Subscribe