KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 11 — Firemen today are better prepared for any disaster, having learnt a very painful lesson from the Highland Towers tragedy.
On December 11, 1993, Block 1 of the Highland Towers condominium complex collapsed, killing 48 people, including a Japanese woman who was pulled out of the rubble alive.
Senior Fire Investigation Officer M. Mahandran, 54, and Training Officer Azmi Morah Abas, 53, were the second and third people from the search and rescue team to enter the fallen Block 1.
The moment Mahandran entered the disaster zone, he knew the danger that he and his team were in.
“We used a manual ladder to climb above the rubble to reach the recesses of the building.
“Within minutes, I heard the voice of a woman responding to our calls. Azmi and I rushed towards the voice and we spotted the victim near a wall.
“We were shocked to see a huge crack on one of the walls. We knew we had to get her out as soon as possible before it collapsed,” he told Malay Mail, recounting the biggest rescue operation he had ever been a part of.
The voice they heard was that of 50-year-old Shizue Nakajima.
“I told Azmi that we need to get her out now, and also told him that if anything were to happen to us, we will go down as brothers. But for now, we should just focus on getting the survivors out.
“As we were getting out, to my horror, I saw residents in Block 2 and 3 watching us conduct the rescue operation. We knew there was a possibility that the other two towers could collapse as well.
“Other firemen then started evacuating residents from the two blocks. It took us about 40 minutes to get Nakajima out while the other team was busy saving Umi Rasyidah Khoiruman and her 14-month-old toddler Nur Hamidah Nadjib.”
Both teams were in close proximity of each other.
Azmi said he still remembers what he told Mahandran in the midst of the rescue operations; “I said don’t worry brother. We will stick together till the end. We will definitely save her (Nakajima) and if the beam breaks so be it.”
“In a situation like that, you don’t have time to think about anything else besides doing your job. It was a first for all of us and while many asked if we formed a strong bond after that day, I would say the bond was there even before that tragedy. This is what makes us a strong unit.”
Sadly, Nakajima succumbed to her injuries at the hospital.
Mahandran said the news of Nakajima’s passing and the recent death of a close comrade, Yogaraja Nadarajah, hit him hard.
“Yoga and I were in the force for nine years and he was one of the most important members of the rescue team.
“He was part of the team that saved Rasyidah and her daughter Nur Hamidah,” said Mahandran of his friend’s death from a car accident.
Norizan Saad, 48, was another rescue personnel who became famous after a picture of him carrying ‘miracle baby’ Nur Hamidah out from the rubble made it to the front-pages of most newspapers.
He said he was overwhelmed when he met Nur Hamidah in 2016 during a reunion organised by the Fire and Rescue department.
Norizan said he was extremely happy when Nur Hamidah told him she is now a mother.
“We were trained not to fear anything, especially when people need help,” said Norizan.
“The conditions were terrible when we were rescuing the survivors and we could have been killed as the rubble could have caved in at any moment, but we were trained for this. It’s ingrained in our DNA. Fear has to take a backseat when saving lives and I’m glad she (Nur Hamidah) came out alive.”
“Yoga was instrumental in saving Nur Hamidah and her mum. I’m glad he got to meet them,” said Azmi.
When asked what they’d like to see done with the two remaining blocks Mahandran said: “I’ll leave it to the experts to decide.”
While Azmi said: “Maybe a memorial.”