As the Ministry of Education confirmed the identity of the Singaporean student who died in the 6.0-magnitude quake that hit Sabah on Friday (June 5), the wait for other Singaporeans anxiously awaiting news of their still-unaccounted for loved ones looked set to lengthen into a third day.
This as the Malaysian authorities recovered more bodies on Mount Kinabalu yesterday.
Six of Tanjong Katong Primary School students and two teachers who were on a school trip remain unaccounted for. Confirming the identify of the student who died – 12-year-old Peony Wee Ying Ping – the ministry said in an update around 11pm the identities of other bodies found could not be verified.
At around 7pm, Sabah’s Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment Masidi Manjun tweeted that nine bodies have been retrieved and flown to Kota Kinabalu by helicopter, while another was being carried down the mountain. At least 11 have been killed in the quake.
In a Facebook post at 11.55pm yesterday, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said: “My heart is heavy to learn that several bodies have been recovered. We’re not able to confirm if they are our students and teachers – but whether they are our students and teachers or not, they are loved and missed by their families.”
He added that he had spoken to Mr Manjun to thank him for “his leadership and the strong support that his team has given us”. “Minister Masidi assured me of continued assistance and close cooperation,” Mr Heng added in his post.
Among the 29 TKPS students — mostly athletes and student leaders — and eight teachers who went on the annual school expedition known as the Omega Challenge, 19 students and two teachers returned yesterday.
Family members of the missing students and teachers left for Kota Kinabalu in the morning on a Republic of Singapore Air force plane, but most remained in the dark about the whereabouts of their loved ones for much of the day.
Mr Heng was present at Changi Airport to receive those who made it back to Singapore safely. Speaking to reporters, the Minister said search and rescue operations on the ground are in full swing.
“We are in close touch with the parents who have also flown in with us, to provide support to the parents. Our officials are working very closely with Malaysian authorities, to do our very best to locate the children and teachers who are missing,” he said.
A team led by the ministry comprising counsellors, officials from the Singapore Police Force, Singapore Civil Defence Force and the Transport Ministry went to Kota Kinabalu on the same flight as the relatives of the missing individuals.
As updates came in from the Malaysian news outlets and social media over the day, MOE stressed that they will not release names of students who are unaccounted for “until the next-of-kin have identified their loved ones”.
“Our team has been in Kota Kinabalu since early afternoon, and is working closely with the Malaysian authorities. Our priority now is to provide support to the next-of-kin in this difficult time,” said the ministry’s spokesperson.
TKPS students who returned yesterday were visibly distraught, many in tears as they were reunited with their loved ones at Changi Airport. Some of them had their arms in slings and one boy was in a wheelchair.
Mr Heng said the students are “a bit shaken, but otherwise they are fine”, adding that the MOE has arranged for follow-up care for them and their family members.
At least 50 people, including parent volunteers of the school, also showed up at Terminal 2 to support those who returned.
Among them were Mr Hafiz Ahmad, who was there to receive his niece Amal Ashley Lim. Speaking to the media, Mr Hafiz said Amal’s mother, his sister-in-law, told him that one of the teachers had shielded Amal and another student under an overhang when the quake happened. Amal was later helped down by a mountain guide, he said.
He added: “It’s been quite unbearable (to be waiting) here. We have had to synchronise what we hear from the press and others…but we understand the limitations, that crisis management involves difficulties.”
Another TKPS parent, Mr Alec Wing, whose son also returned yesterday, said the school and teachers had gone beyond their calls of duty. “Many of the teachers who were with them (on the trip) put themselves in harm’s way and got injured pretty badly. Their spirit is really admirable,” said the permanent resident from Mauritius, who works in the technology sector.
Back in Singapore, the school’s personnel also tried their utmost to keep parents updated, such as by contacting the relevant ministries, airlines and insurance companies, Mr Wing added.
However, he noted that the communication between government agencies could have been more prompt and better coordinated.
“We were getting dribs and drabs of information, and we were not sure where the sources are, and whether they are credible, he said, adding MOE appeared to not be in contact with the MFA’s crisis response team on Friday . “The disaster happened at 7.15am (on Friday) morning, but it took the Minister coming down at 1am (on Saturday) before things started to get into place,” he said.
Parent volunteer Miyashita Swissdy, whose child completed the Omega Challenge two years ago, was also at the airport. “This is a very meaningful leadership programme. It teachers young children perseverance, to work towards their goals. This is an unfortunate accident…The teachers are very experienced because it is not the first time they are planning something like this,” she said.
MOE said that the two injured students and one teacher, who required more medical attention in Kota Kinabalu, would return tomorrow (June 7).
Parent Sadri Farick, whose son Emyr Uzayr is one of the two students, said he feels “thankful and is very happy to see (Emyr) in one piece”. He had flown to Kota Kinabalu to see his son.
“I feel very sad for my friends and (Emyr’s) friends, it’s very sad to hear him ask me where are his friends who are still missing, and it’s getting dark now,” said Mr Sadri.
In his Facebook post late yesterday, Mr Heng added: “This is also a difficult time for our officers, on the frontline in KK, in TKPS and MOE HQ. Officers are giving their all and feel the pain personally. I really appreciate the officers’ dedication.”