The death toll from an earthquake that trapped scores of climbers on Malaysia’s highest peak rose to 16 yesterday, as rescuers searched for two Singaporean climbers still missing.
The magnitude-5.9 quake sent rocks and boulders raining down the trekking routes on 13,435ft Mount Kinabalu in Sabah state on Borneo island on Friday.
Nine of the bodies found on Saturday were flown out by helicopter, while two were carried down, police said. Five more have now been recovered.
State tourism minister Masidi Manjun said the victims were seven Singaporeans, six Malaysians, a Filipino, a Chinese and a Japanese. A Singaporean student and teacher were still missing.
Singapore yesterday flew flags at half-mast to mourn its victims, who were part of a school outing to the mountain.
Most of the other climbers either made it down the mountain or were carried in the darkness early on Saturday, some with broken limbs and one in a coma. Amanda Peter said local guides had told her group of 21 climbers that a helicopter would pick them up, but they decided to walk after a frustrating nine-hour wait.
“There were risks of us dying up there of cold overnight,” said the 23-year-old Sabah native. “The guide said we either die of waiting or we die trying. So we all chose to try walking down ourselves.”
She said she had seen two bodies lying on a flat rock on the way down. “It really affected me as it could have been me. I was lucky to be given a chance to live,” she said. Mr Manjun said in a tweet that “it’s easy to pick on weaknesses” of the search-and-rescue operation and added: “I’m sure they are many.” He said the shortcomings would be examined but that “now is not the time to blame”.
About 60 rescuers and four helicopters were combing the mountain, where loose rocks and boulders that fell during the earthquake blocked part of the main route.
The quake damaged roads and buildings, too, including schools and a hospital on Sabah’s west coast. It also broke one of the twin rock formations on the mountain known as the “Donkey’s Ears”.
The mountain will be closed for three weeks for maintenance work.
Sabah deputy chief minister Joseph Pairin Kitingan blamed the tragedy on a group of ten foreigners, including two Canadians, two Dutch and a German national, who “showed disrespect to the sacred mountain” by posing naked at the peak last week. He said a special ritual would be conducted later to “appease the mountain spirit”.