Sabah quake: Parents struggle with how to tell pupils in ward about death toll

SINGAPORE - A group of pupils and parents gathered by the bedside of Tanjong Katong Primary School pupil Emyr Uzayr yesterday at lunchtime.

The 12-year-old was placed in the high-dependency ward of KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) after being evacuated by air to Singapore from Malaysia in the early hours.

Minutes later, news broke about the death of their five classmates and teacher. Parents in the ward were grappling with how best to let the young ones know.

The children were in an impasse of their own. They repeatedly asked Emyr how he was feeling but he averted his gaze and did not respond.

His father, Mr Sadri Farick, tried to take charge of the situation and prepare the pupils psychologically. But he could only bring himself to hint at the unfolding bad news.

"You all have to be prepared because we will be lying to you if we say they are fine," he told them.

Other parents tried to soothe the teary children with the promise of burgers afterwards.

Last night, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat also struggled to contain his emotions as he spoke to the media at the hospital. He broke away to compose himself twice before returning for a third time to give an update on the situation.

"I remain very anxious that one student and one teacher are still missing," said Mr Heng. "We have another boy who is recovering in Kota Kinabalu at the hospital there and we are exploring arrangements to bring him back to Singapore."

The Ministry of Education has declined to release the missing boy's name.

Mr Heng visited Emyr and another boy known only as Wafeeq, 12, who is also warded at KKH. He said both were recovering well with the support of a team of specialists and psychologists.

Emyr, who suffered a fractured skull and other injuries, had an operation at Gleneagles Kota Kinabalu hospital to remove stones and grime from his head wounds and may undergo another operation this morning.

Mr Sadri, 37, said his son had told him how his teacher, Mr Mohamed Faizal Abdul Salam, used his body to shield some children from boulders that tumbled down the mountain.

He said: "Emyr said Mr Faizal cut the rope that bound them and his body was large enough to shelter two or three of the pupils nearby and then, bloodied and with broken bones, they braved the 7km trail down."

Mr Faizal is believed to be warded at Singapore General Hospital.

Wafeeq's family declined to speak to the media but the boy received a steady stream of visitors, including Emyr who was warded next to him. It is not known what Wafeeq's injuries are.

"Parental support is very critical at this period and so many of the family members are here," said Mr Heng.

Mr Sadri said: "We can only do so much when the children have seen things they shouldn't have had to see."

jantai@sph.com.sg