Sabah quake: Adventure guide recounts frantic bid to evacuate Tanjong Katong Primary pupils

Mr Mohamad Amin was in charge of six pupils resting at Pendant Hut when the quake struck. He assisted officials and parents on the ground before flying back to Singapore yesterday.
Mr Mohamad Amin was in charge of six pupils resting at Pendant Hut when the quake struck. He assisted officials and parents on the ground before flying back to Singapore yesterday.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

BOULDERS as large as trucks plummeted down the rock face of the mountain, breaking into smaller pieces with a roar. Nearby, some wooden huts collapsed and rolled down the slope.

This was the scene that greeted six Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) pupils last Friday morning when a 6.0-magnitude earthquake struck near Mount Kinabalu.

That morning, the six children made the decision to stay behind to rest at Pendant Hut, a mountain lodge where other pupils and teachers in their group had slept the night before. They were tired and wanted to rest before heading for the summit the next day.

The other 23 pupils went ahead and set off for the Via Ferrata route 300m away.

At 7.15am, the walls of the hut shook when the quake struck.

Fear gripped 29-year-old Mohamad Amin, the leader who was in charge of the six pupils. He was a staff member with outdoor learning firm Camp Challenge, which ran the expedition.

He quickly snapped out of shock and rushed the children to the nearest place of safety, a helipad that had the open space needed for emergencies.

Along the way, Mr Amin tried to establish contact with the pupils and teachers who were on the mountain with a walkie-talkie.

The group intended to wait for the others at the helipad. However, the ground beneath them shook repeatedly as the aftershocks hit.

So they made their way down to a second helipad where they were joined by other children from TKPS who had suffered broken arms, and head and shoulder injuries.

By then, it was noon and some mountain guides had called for a helicopter. It came two hours later but the fog prevented it from landing.

Some children slowly made their way down while those who were severely injured were carried down the mountain on stretchers.

Mr Amin recalled a boy, Wafeeq, 12, who had hurt his head but delayed getting on a stretcher.

Instead, he asked Mr Amin: "How many of my friends are dead?"

Mr Amin tried to reassure him while helping to bandage the wounds of others.

By then, the first few search and rescue teams were already making their way up.

When Mr Amin reached the foot of the mountain, he was seized by more despair.

He recognised the body of a 12-year-old being brought down and identified her as Peony Wee Ying Ping. He followed her in a separate van to Hospital Ranau and arranged for her to be taken to the main town.

Then he returned to the mountain to make arrangements for other injured pupils, such as Prajesh Dhimant Patel, to be treated at Hospital Queen Elizabeth.

"I went without sleep for 32 hours, fuelled by the fact that 29 pupils and 10 adults went up with me, so they must come down with me," said Mr Amin.

But it was not to be.

Mr Amin kept his grief in check by assisting officials and parents on the ground before flying back to Singapore yesterday to support the parents of his colleague, Mr Muhammad Daanish Amran, who died in the quake. Mr Daanish was buried yesterday.

"The nightmare continues but I will still be running overseas camps because I believe they build character," he said.

jantai@sph.com.sg