Rising above swirling mists and billowing clouds, Mount Kinabalu is regarded by Sabahans as a sacred place where the spirits of the dead rest on their way up to their creator in the sky.
For Singaporean Jaidipsinh Jhala and his wife Karen, the mountain in Sabah, east Malaysia, is where their little girl, Sonia, “found the stairway to heaven”, they wrote in her obituary.
On June 5, 2015, the 12-year-old and six of her friends from Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) in Singapore were climbing Mount Kinabalu when a 5.9-magnitude quake struck, killing them. Two of their teachers and a Singaporean adventure guide accompanying them were also killed.
Twenty-two pupils, six teachers and two Singapore guides who were also on the school expedition survived.
Slowly coming to terms with their devastating loss, the parents of some of the victims are now planning to do what was unthinkable just weeks ago: returning to Mount Kinabalu.
Mr Jhala said he wants to climb the mountain on June 5 next year, on the first anniversary of Sonia’s death. “It’s to finish what she could not finish, to honour her,” said the 48-year-old.
His wife added: “Some of the mothers said they might just go to the base, the fathers can climb. We can probably leave flowers, maybe at the site, perhaps even say prayers.”
The parents of some of the survivors also want to make their way back to the mountain next year.
Tristan Wing, 12, who suffered bruises on his back, still has flashbacks of the incident. But his father Alec Wing, who works in the technology sector, said he would let Tristan attempt the ascent again, and even go with him.
Another survivor, Emyr Uzayr, 12, who suffered a fractured skull and was airlifted back to Singapore, wants to reach the summit this time, said his father Sadri Farick, 37.
“It’s a beautiful place. My kid and some of his friends want to do it for their friends who passed away,” said Mr Sadri, who runs a home decor company.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu was to be the high point of their primary school years for the TKPS pupils. They had worked hard to be selected for the trip, which was part of what was termed the Omega Challenge programme for student and sports leaders, and trained for months to prepare themselves for the expedition.
They were on Day Three of their six-day trip when the quake struck.
The 10 from Singapore who died were pupils Sonia Jhala, Rachel Ho, Peony Wee, Ameer Ryyan Mohd Adeed Sanjay, Emilie Giovanna Ramu, Karyl Matahom and Navdeep Singh Jaryal Raj Kumar; teachers Terrence Sebastian Loo Jian Liang and Mohammad Ghazi Mohamed; and Singapore adventure guide Muhammad Daanish Amran.
Sonia’s parents, who flew to Kota Kinabalu after the quake, recalled how their worst fears were confirmed when another parent showed them a picture taken at the rescue site with Sonia in it. “That was when we knew she was no longer with us,” said Mr Jhala, who is in the safety training business.
The family is slowly coming to terms that the baby of the family - Sonia was the youngest of three children - is gone.
“I don’t have any issues. I don’t have any remorse, I don’t have any regret, I don’t have any questions. I am not angry with God. I totally accept that she was done with her life and she’s gone. Now I am just coping with the actual routine and reality,” said Mrs Jhala, 48, an administrative manager.
Their youngest daughter, Sonia Jhala, may have never reached the summit, but Jaidipsinh and Karen Jhala are determined to finish her climb for her.
In order to move on, she returned to work two weeks after the quake.
“When we first had a memory of her, we ended up crying. Then we progressed to sighing over it, then smiling over her mischievous antics. Now we laugh over things she used to do,” she said. “It will take time but we are progressing.”
The support from friends, family and the entire nation has overwhelmed them but also gave them strength, she said, a sentiment that other families The Straits Times spoke to echoed.
“I think we had a sense of togetherness that we were all experiencing that same bereavement at the same time... so that gave us strength,” she said with quiet dignity.
Still, there were moments when the reality of losing Sonia would hit them hard. On a recent morning, their older children - Karishma, 19, and Dillen, 16 - were preparing to leave the house, and the couple, for a moment, were expecting Sonia to come out of her room. They just sat and looked at each other, said Mr Jhala. “The third one hasn’t come out yet. She’s not going to come.”
Ms Luo Jin, whose daughter Peony Wee was one of the first victims to be identified, was inconsolable when the news first broke. She received a call from TKPS principal , Mrs Caroline Wu, at 3am on June 6, informing her of Peony’s death.
“It’s very unlikely that I can find release from the pain, I carried her for 10 months, and raised her for 12 years,” Ms Luo, 40, said in Mandarin. “She used to come home and chatter about everything... I can still hear her beside me calling ‘ma, ma!’”
Peony had missed out on an earlier school trip to Taiwan, and really wanted to go for the Mount Kinabalu trip, said Ms Luo, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner.
“If I didn’t let her go, she would have had regrets,” said Ms Luo, who also has a 14-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter. “She took Chinese medicine three times a day to convince me she was fit enough to climb the mountain.”
But Ms Luo, too, has moved from sobs to finding solace in the memories of her child.
Scrolling through photos of Peony on her mobile phone with pride, she clearly cherished each memory of her daughter’s antics.
On Peony’s 12th birthday, they went for a steamboat meal, she shared.
“She was just starting to become more feminine. Watching her become a young woman, I was so happy,” she sighed.
Perhaps it was fate that her “little angel” was now in heaven with her best friends, she said.
One of her good friends, Rachel Ho, 12, also died in the quake.
Sonia Jhala (second from left) and her friends and teachers at Mount Kinabalu. Sonia's parents may make a trip to the mountain to leave flowers at the site for their daughter and other victims who lost their lives in the June 5 quake. PHOTO: TKPSOMEGACHALLENGE1. BLOGSPOT.SG
Her father, Mr James Ho, said he and his wife are still adjusting to life without their only daughter. The couple have two sons, aged seven and 15.
“We put all her teddy bears and her medals together by her bedside. With respect to the Chinese customs, we are not moving anything for 49 days,” said Mr Ho, 45, a bank executive.
“More importantly we, or at least my wife, don’t believe in putting her things away. We want to keep it as it is for as long as we can.”
Some parents did talk about going back to Mount Kinabalu, he said, but there were no definite plans.
“We just want to let the families settle, get by the first few weeks first, and when life goes back to normal, then we can make concrete plans.”
The children who went through the traumatic experience were also trying to move on.
All of them - except for Prajesh Dhimant Patel who was still hospitalised but recovering from his injuries - went back to class on the first day of the new school term on June 29.
Some were still nursing their injuries, like pupil Jayden Francis, limping on crutches.
Many had to confront classrooms with a few empty seats, and dealing with the loss of their friends.
Some of the young survivors will need time before they overcome the horror of what they had witnessed on the mountain that morning of June 5 when the earthquake claimed a total of 18 lives.
Said Jayden: “I may get over this, maybe in 10 years’ time. Now, even for a million dollars, I’m not going back.”
It was just after 5am on Friday, June 5.
The TKPS climbers rose early, excited to go on the Via Ferrata trail, or Italian for “iron road”. They wanted to avoid the fog that tends to roll in later in the morning.
It was Day Three of the trip for the group who reached Mount Kinabalu on June 3.
They were in high spirits, even though they had hiked 6km the previous day from Timpohon Gate, the start of the summit trail of Mount Kinabalu, to Pendant Hut, a dormitory for climbers. Pendant Hut is run by Mountain Torq, the company which manages the Via Ferrata trails.
Peony Wee (front row, in dark blue) and her friends from Tanjong Katong Primary School in a picture taken minutes before a 5.9-magnitude quake struck Mount Kinabalu on June 5. Donning helmets and safety gear, they were getting ready to attempt the Walk the Torq trail before 7am. The quake struck at 7.15am, killing Peony and six of her friends. PHOTO FROM LUO JIN
A blog post by the group on June 4 was triumphant: “Tomorrow, we will take on the next challenge. VIA FERRATA! Bring it on, I say!”
There are two official Via Ferrata trails on Mount Kinabalu - the 1.2km Low’s Peak Circuit, and the 430m Walk the Torq. Both involve climbing using steel rungs, walking across hanging bridges and Tyrolean traverses - a “tightrope” strung between two high points on the mountain.
Climbers wear a harness and two lanyards which they clip on with carabiners to a steel cable fixed to the rock.
The pupils were to take a modified route, about 281m in one direction, that was less steep and less difficult than the full 430m Walk the Torq trail.
This would take about an hour complete, instead of the usual two to three hours, according to Mountain Torq.
In past years, the school group would have made it back for breakfast at around 10am. The next day, they would trek up to Low’s Peak to view the sunrise at 4,095m.
TKPS has been sending pupils on such trips for the past six years.
That Friday morning, 23 pupils and eight teachers set out from Pendant Hut where they had stayed the night. Six students stayed behind as they were feeling unwell. They were accompanied by Mr Mohamad Amin, 29, an adventure guide from Camp Challenge, a Singapore trip organiser engaged by the school.
Those who were doing the Walk the Torq were split into five groups, each with four to five pupils, one or two teachers and an instructor from Mountain Torq.
Before starting out from Pendant Hut, they donned helmets and harnesses, and clipped on their shock absorbing lanyards. As an added precaution, climbers were linked with a rope.
They arrived at the start point of the trail at about 6.45am.
At around 7am, the first group was ready to go; they hooked their carabiners on the cables, and stepped onto the route which was on a slope.
At 7.15am, as the last two groups were about to get on the path, the ground began to shake. Rocks hailed down, and trees were ripped from the ground.
Pupil Jayden Francis, 12, was supposed to have been on the Via Ferrata. He was one of the students in the third group, he said, but the fourth group overtook them, and started on the Via Ferrata first.
He said: “We were waiting to go on the Via Ferrata. My group was about to go on... everything started shaking for like 30 seconds but I think that would have been the longest 30 seconds of my life.”
There was nowhere to take cover.
“We just huddled together, because if we took cover behind one of the rocks, it would have got hit,” he said.
When the quake stopped, Jayden was the only one in his group who was hurt.
“I was about to run down so the teacher pulled me back because that was where the rocks hit,” he said. Still, he was hit on the ankle by a falling rock.
Camp Challenge Adventure learning instructor Norashikin Isnin, 23, was with one of the two groups waiting to go on the Via Ferrata.
To her right, she saw boulders - some as large as trucks - fall on the Via Ferrata. To her left, trees were toppling, and the wooden stairs they were on collapsed.
They were crouched down in a circle, when a tree fell on her, hitting her on the head and back. It pinned her down, and trapped the leg of one of the girls. Branches from the tree broke off and hit the other pupils.
When the tremors stopped, she managed to free herself from under the tree.
“At that point I felt like fainting, but I told myself I couldn’t faint - that would just make matters worse, and I took a deep breath,” she told The Straits Times.
She thought she saw a rock hit her colleague Muhammad Daanish Amran, whose body was found later. She also heard those on the Via Ferrata crying “very loudly”.
Mountain Torq trainer Hillary Augustinus's first-hand account of what happened on Mount Kinabalu on June 5, 2015 when a 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck Sabah
On the Via Ferrata, about 12 to 15 pupils, with their teachers and guides, were on the rock face when boulders tumbled down from the broken peaks of Mount Kinabalu.
Amal Ashley Lim, 12, was one of the students who had just started on the Via Ferrata.
Linked by a rope to schoolmates El Wafeeq El Jauzy, Navdeep Singh Jaryal Raj Kumar and Sonia Jhala, they were led by teacher Madam Nur Uzaimah Fadzali. Behind them were Daanish Amran, the Singaporean guide, and a Mountain Torq trainer.
“Rocks were falling. I almost fell but luckily I grabbed on to my teacher’s legs,” Amal Ashley told The New Paper.
She was lucky enough not to be hurt by the falling rocks, which were half the size of car tyres. “They hit my backpack,” she said.
Her teacher, Madam Uzaimah, had pulled her under a rock overhang, but went out again to find help.
Another pupil, Emyr Uzayr, was saved by teacher Mohamed Faizal Abdul Salam. Mr Faizal cut the rope that bound him and the pupils, before cutting the ropes of Emyr’s harness. He used his body to shield him and two other pupils.
Mountain Torq trainer Hillary Augustinus, 34, was on the Walk the Torq with one group of students when he saw the rocks tumbling down.
“When I look up, I can see a wave of rocks falling towards us, small, big boulders, with heavy clouds of dust. The rock face is shaking, we just lean there (on the rock),” he said.
He slipped down the slope for a heart-stopping moment, but was held up by his backup safety rope; and through the rocks and dust, he saw a small crack to his right.
“Out of instinct, I just crawl... to the crack. All I could do was to put my life in God’s hands,” he said. “It’s helpless, very helpless, you just couldn’t do anything.”
When the quake stopped, his hands were bloodied and his right knee was hit by a rock. But he knew he had to move before more rocks fell, so he undid his rope and climbed up.
A number of pupils were still clinging on to the rock face, frozen in shock.
“I respect them, they were very strong, they were not crying,” he said.
“We try to rescue as many as we can, one after another, and send them to the summit trail.”
Despite the best efforts of the teachers and trainers, they could not save everyone.
Ten of them - most of whom were from the three groups who had started on the trail - did not live to see the sunrise from Mount Kinabalu.
After the frantic rush to evacuate pupils from the Via Ferrata trail, the next challenge was to escort the children back to the area around Pendant Hut where they hoped to get help.
A few other guesthouses, such as Laban Rata and Waras Hut, were in the area.
There were two helipads, one near Laban Rata, at around 3,200m, and another near Paka Shelter at about 3,000m.
The nearest place of safety was the helipad near Laban Rata, 500m from the start point of the simplified Walk the Torq trail. The Mountain Torq trainers had called for helicopters to take climbers down the mountain.
Camp Challenge instructor Norashikin Isnin led the students who could move down the mountain, while some teachers stayed to help free a girl whose leg was stuck under a tree.
They made their way down from the Via Ferrata in groups.
One trainer from Mountain Torq made multiple trips, carrying 10 people to the helipad.
Tanjong Katong Primary School pupil Jayden Francis managed to escaped with an injured ankle after a teacher pulled him from danger.
Mr James Maikol, a Mountain Torq trainer with the TKPS group, found Amal Ashley Lim, who was hiding under an overhang near the Via Ferrata.
On their way down, they found her schoolmate El Wafeeq El Jauzy, who was injured and had difficulty walking. Together, Ashley and Mr Maikol helped Wafeeq walk slowly to the helipad at Laban Rata.
Ashley also saw her form teacher, Mr Mohamed Faizal Abdul Salam, who was badly hurt but was helping injured pupils down the mountain.
They arrived at the helipad at about 1pm and met three other TKPS pupils.
At the Waras Hut guesthouse, they ran into Camp Challenge guide Mohamad Amin and the group of TKPS pupils who had stayed behind at Pendant Hut because they were unwell.
Among those who came from the Via Ferrata, at least one boy had a broken arm, some had sprained ankles, bruises, head and shoulder injuries.
From there, Ms Norashikin Isnin led the first group of 11 children down the summit trail.
She told them not to think about the pain, as they did not know when another earthquake may strike.
They were the first group from TKPS to reach the Timpohon Gate, where the Mount Kinabalu summit trail begins, at around 11am.
“The moment we reached Timpohon Gate, we started feeling all the pain,” she said.
The 6km descent took them close to three hours.
Back at Waras Hut, Mr Amin was with the last group of five students from the Via Ferrata, some of whom were more seriously injured.
After tending to the children’s injuries, the group made their way down to the second helipad at Paka Shelter.
But the helicopters which were promised could not land, and they had to make their way down the mountain by foot. Said Mr Amin: “We could hear the sound of helicopters, but couldn’t see them.”
The going was slow as two of the students – Arnaav Chabria and Wafeeq – needed help walking.
Along the way, they bumped into Sabah guide Rizuan Kauhinin, who carried Wafeeq on his back down the still shuddering mountain.
When they finally reached Timpohon Gate, it was already 7pm.
The last Singaporean student to be found alive was Prajesh Dhimant Patel. Sabahan guide Cornelius Sanan found the boy near the start of Via Ferrata, still attached to mountaineering ropes and a safety harness.
“We cut him out (of the harness) and made him comfortable before carrying him down on a stretcher,” he said.
Sabah guides also found the body of Peony Wee, and carried her body down, wrapped in blankets.
Besides the TKPS group, about 100 other climbers were stranded on Mount Kinabalu’s summit plateau.
They had climbed up to Low’s Peak – the mountain’s highest point – to take in the sunrise. The earthquake broke off two of the mountain’s peaks, and the trail they took to the summit had been destroyed. Cold, hungry and thirsty, they waited for help to come.
At 4pm, when it became clear that help would not come that day, the Sabah mountain guides took action.
They forged a new path down the mountain, tying ropes for the guests, and using their bodies as safety barriers so the climbers could get down safely.
Tanjong Katong Primary School pupils who managed to find their way down Mount Kinabalu after the quake on June 5. PHOTO: AFP/ Malaysia Information Ministry of Sabah
They carried the injured, and finally, they came back to carry the bodies of the dead down the mountain, even as they mourned four of their own – two guides and two trainers from Mountain Torq.
Two other Malaysian climbers, one climber from Japan and one from China also perished. In all, 18 lost their lives on Mount Kinabalu that day.
Later at the hospital in Kota Kinabalu, the TKPS students put on a brave front for their friends.
“The look on the children’s faces, it was like they saw the worst thing in their lives,” said a guide who declined to be named. “I can’t even describe it. I could see they were in pain but they were very brave. They tried very hard not to cry so their friends won’t get upset.”
The next day (June 6), 19 children and two teachers returned to Singapore. Children ran into the arms of their loved ones at an emotional reunion at Changi Airport.
Three pupils were flown back to Singapore on separate International SOS air ambulances on Sunday and Monday (June 7 and 8).
Family members of the pupils and teachers who were then still missing left for Kota Kinabalu on June 6.
There was some hope that their loved ones might have survived. But after an agonising wait, their worst fears were confirmed.
The deadly quake has trained the spotlight on the increasing number of overseas trips organised by schools here.
About 90,000 students travel overseas with their schools each year on 3,500 learning journeys, according to 2013 figures from the Ministry of Education.
The trips have varying aims - from community service and cultural exchanges, to academic enrichment and experiential learning.
While many believe in the value of overseas school trips, some ask if there are lessons to be learnt from the unfortunate incident.
One point that has been raised by some: Whether riskier activities, such as mountaineering expeditions, are suitable for primary school pupils.
Some pointed out that while younger children may be physically prepared for such trips, they may not be as mature or resilient as older students when it comes to dealing with emergencies.
The “Walk the Torq” route that the TKPS pupils were on when the quake struck is deemed suitable for those aged 10 and above, according to Mountain Torq, the company that operates the route.
There is no age requirement for Mount Kinabalu climbers in general. However, following last month’s tragedy, the Malaysian authorities said they may review safety protocols for climbers, possibly setting a minimum age requirement of 15.
Parent Ramesh Niedu, who wrote to The Straits Times’ forum pages, said: “I am a parent with young school-going children, and I experience much anxiety whenever they go on overseas school trips.”
He urged that overseas trips should be “for cultural exchanges, for instance, rather than for physically demanding mountaineering expeditions at dangerous locations”.
Another reader, Ada Chan, suggested setting “appropriate age limits for students venturing on overseas expeditions”.
But the parents of some of the children who went on the recent Mount Kinabalu remained supportive of such trips.
Mr Jaidipsinh Jhala and his wife Karen, who lost their daughter Sonia, said they “cannot believe” that people were asking why parents allowed their children to be exposed to danger by letting them go on the trip. “There’s no way to predict an earthquake,” said Mrs Jhala.
Mr Alec Wing, father of TKPS pupil Tristan who was injured during the quake, said that the lives of both adults and children were lost in the tragedy. “It doesn’t matter whether you are 12, 15 or 35, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Mr Wing.
Within the adventure travel industry, opinions differ on whether 12-year-olds are ready for mountain climbing.
IPC Tours director Raj Kumar, believes it is a good idea to raise age guidelines for Mount Kinabalu.
“A five-year gap plays a big difference in the emotional maturity of children,” he said. “In emergencies, older children might be more confident in making better judgments and reacting faster.”
Mr Sim Tim Suan, founder of Adventure Quests, feels that Mount Kinabalu should not be attempted by 12-year-olds in big groups.
Mount Kinabalu is marketed as a “climbable mountain” as the summit trail is well-marked, and no special equipment is required. It is, however, very high at 4,095m.
Mr Sim, a veteran trekker who has hiked up Mount Kinabalu nine times, calls it “a very intense hike”. The height and the exertion could lead to altitude sickness, which he says easily affects three out of 10 climbers.
There is no fixed age limit for mountain climbing but he would not recommend schools to bring students younger than 16 years old.
“In a school group there’s a lot of peer pressure, and sometimes because of peer pressure, even if you don’t feel well you may not voice it out,” said Mr Sim, 47, who organises outdoor trips for students from polytechnics, junior colleges and universities.
It is different for children who are climbing with their parents, or have the personal attention of experienced climbers, he added.
Others, however, feel that 12-year-olds are more than ready to take on the challenge.
Ms Joanne Soo of Ace Adventure Expeditions has guided 12-year-old pupils on mountain climbing expeditions.
She once brought a group of primary school students to climb the 1,010-km Gunung Belumut in Johor. Although the mountain has a much lower altitude compared to Mount Kinabalu, it is more technically challenging to climb, said Ms Soo, 44.
Young climbers are easier to train than adults, she noted, adding that the precautions they should take for mountain sickness are similar.
“They are old enough to understand the consequences,” she said.
Members of Parliament The Straits Times spoke to said that the tragedy should not stop schools from organising overseas trips for children.
Ms Denise Phua, vice-chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee for education, said: “It is an unforeseen tragedy, beyond the imagination of both school and families. It would be a knee jerk reaction if MOE now stops all such similar activities.”
Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong is also supportive of overseas school trips.
He said that his three children have been on many trips with both their schools and with the family, including New Zealand, Xining, Cambodia and the interiors of Kalimantan. His youngest son is now 16.
“I really feel very sad about the lives that were lost, but it is a natural disaster that can happen anywhere. It’s important as part of education to have different forms of exposure for children out of the classroom locally and overseas,” he told The Straits Times.
Mr Lim Biow Chuan, chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee for education, pointed out that what is more important is to make sure that such trips are well planned.
He said: “Schools organise different types of trips, some adventure, some educational. For any trip that a school organises for its students, what’s important is that they engage people who are competent, and who are professionals to organise it.”
Adventure travel operators have suggested ways to make overseas school trips safer.
X-Trekkers, which has previously organised trips to Mount Kinabalu for TKPS, said it will now highlight earthquakes in pre-trip briefings to parents. It will also closely assess the risk of quakes before trips and highlight to participants what to do in the event of a quake.
Adventure Quests’ Mr Sim pointed out that while physical fitness is important, children should also spend one or two years practising camp craft and learning outdoor survival skills before going on challenging expeditions.
“You should not be in a situation where you are just doing what people tell you to do,” he said.
The June holidays are over and it's back to school for the pupils of Tanjong Katong Primary School. School principal Caroline Wu says support is in place for to help the school community get over the loss of seven pupils and two teachers who lost their lives when the 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck Sabah.
On June 29, the first day of school after the deadly earthquake, pupils of Tanjong Katong Primary School were greeted by sunflowers and cheery balloons at the school porch - a gift from Rachel Ho’s family to the returning pupils.
At their first morning assembly, the students sang the school song, which ended with “At Tanjong Katong Primary, we’re one big family”.
It was a bittersweet return to a school which lost seven pupils and two teachers from its family, but rallied together during the crisis, and was ready to heal.
All but one of the 22 pupils who survived were back at school. Prajesh Dhimant Patel was still warded at KK Hospital, but recovering from his injuries.
But before moving on, principal Caroline Wu listed each of those who died during the quake, and asked the pupils gathered to remember them in their prayers.
We remember them, and adventure guide Muhammad Daanish Amran, here.
Ameer Ryyan Mohd Adeed Sanjay,
Emilie Giovanna Ramu,
Matahom Karyl Mitzi Higuit,
Navdeep Singh Jaryal Raj Kumar,
Peony Wee Ying Ping,
Rachel Ho Yann Shiuan,
Mohammad Ghazi Mohamed,
Loo Jian Liang Terrence Sebastian,
Muhammad Daanish Amran,