It was a beautiful sunny Sunday morning in Butterworth and July 31, 1988 was going to be a very special day for Penang.
The Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) Buddhist Festival was held in George Town on the island, with the annual feast of Saint Anne being celebrated at Bukit Mertajam on the mainland.
The Guan Yin procession has been billed as a unique event in 60 years, with tourists coming from as far away as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
I was the correspondent for Star’s Butterworth and the area was known at the time for its sensational crimes.
About a year after setting up the base there, I had already covered murders, shootings, accidents, fires, and even the hijacking of a tour bus with passengers inside.
But none would prepare me for the tragedy that would befall the port city that afternoon. It was the unthinkable – Pengkalan Sultan Abdul Halim’s pier platform had collapsed under the overload of thousands of passengers rushing aboard ferries to reach the island.
The horrific event left 32 dead and over 1,000 injured.
As the head of an office on his own, I faced immense pressure to cover a national disaster. There was no room for emotion.
The press had published articles in the run-up to the two major events, anticipating that thousands of people would move from Butterworth to the island.
There was the Penang Bridge, but ferries were the popular choice due to the strategic location and convenience of the pier.
On that fateful afternoon, some 10,000 people were said to have stood on the wooden platform before it gave way.
I was in the process of carrying out work scheduled for the coming week when the phone rang just after 5 p.m. It was a police detective friend who informed me of something untoward at the ferry terminal.
I thought a ferry had hit the quay trying to tie up. Such incidents, sometimes causing minor injuries to passengers, were not uncommon.
The fire and rescue service I called told me there were seriously injured people at the ferry terminal. Things took on a whole new dimension from that point on.
I called S. Arulldass who was a freelance writer for a Tamil daily and we headed to the ferry terminal on his motorbike.
What we saw on the way made us sweat. Ambulances were rapidly moving away from the scene, sirens were blaring.
On some ambulances, I remember seeing blood splattered on the sides, indicating the seriousness of the incident.
There were dozens of police and medical personnel there, with RMAF helicopters hovering overhead.
I remember seeing injured people, some of them children, placed on blankets on the road while waiting to be taken to hospital. Arul and I were among the first journalists to arrive.
It was confirmed that the passenger platform on the upper deck of the ferry terminal collapsed around 4:40 p.m., due to unusually large crowds in the waiting area after ticket turnstiles.
Passengers were scrambling to board the Pulau Langkawi ferry when the platform gave way, crushing motorists and motorcyclists below.
One survivor I spoke to said he thought “the world is suddenly collapsing.” Others captured the anguish of people screaming as they tried to get to safety.
Ferry services were immediately cut off and all traffic was diverted to the Penang Bridge.
My editor at the press office in Penang said “reinforcements” would be sent by motorboat to help with reporting and photography.
At the time of going to press, police have only been able to identify 20 of the dead, including two children and six women.
The injured were rushed to Butterworth District Hospital and private clinics, while others were also flown by helicopter to Penang General Hospital on the island.
Penang Port Commission (PPC) chairman Syed Mohamed Aidid was among those who narrowly escaped death, standing just five meters from the platform and crashing metal girders.
He said he was joined by PPC deputy general manager (operations) Thong Yow Chuan and ferry manager Harun Othman to oversee traffic control in the vehicle lane below the platform. wooden form for passengers.
“Security personnel were controlling the crowds to board the ferries in stages, but people rushed. It’s the biggest crowd we’ve ever seen … each ferry can only accommodate 300 passengers, ”he said.
As the extended press deadline approached, police were still unable to provide details of the deaths and the extent of the injuries.
It was getting late when I decided to do the unimaginable – walk into the district hospital morgue to find out.
I went through security and it was a freezing moment inside when I saw the body bags, large and small.
With no official confirmation from the police, the Star team filed its report indicating that at least 31 people were killed and more than 400 injured.
The cover screamed “Pier Horror” with the image of pixman Stephen Goh of a car being totally destroyed by fallen metal beams and firefighters standing.
Arul and I decided to spend the night at the Star’s office, and the office phone rang again. Police were calling a press conference with Butterworth’s OCPD Superintendent Amiruddin Embi at 4 a.m.
Under the dazzling lights of the television and the sound of clicking cameras, Tuan Amir reconstructed what had happened and shed light on the victims.
The dozens of journalists present could only double-check the information they managed to gather, hoping that they were not far off.
It was later revealed that another victim had died, bringing the casualty list to 32.
On the night of the tragedy, then Transport Minister Dr Ling Liong Sik (now Tun) promised a full and open investigation to determine its causes, Chief Minister Dr Lim Chong Eu, promising to help victims through a social protection fund.
A pier tragedy victims committee has been set up to deal with legal liability issues, with its legal adviser K. Balasundaram claiming that the compensation claims from the more than 900 victims represented by the committee amounted to 7 million RM.
On August 14, Dr Ling announced the appointment of former Federal Court Judge Tan Sri Chang Min Tat as Chairman of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into the Pier Tragedy, the former Judge Supreme Court Tan Sri Syed Agil Syed Hassan Barakbah as Commissioner and Legal Ministry Adviser Yaacob Mohamed Sam as Secretary.
After hearing testimony from 99 people, the RCI ended its hearing on May 31, 1989.
A total of 102 exhibits were admitted, including material recovered from the site of the tragedy.
I covered some of the hearings held in Penang, including its last day, and remember Chang presiding over the investigation with such thoroughness.
On September 21, 1989, a 200 page report from RCI that became public concluded that the PPC was negligent.
The report concluded that the overload of passengers in the terminal waiting area caused the collapse of the platform and that the PPC operations department pleaded ignorance of the maximum number of passengers allowed at that location.
He said the ferry manager should have known the limits of the upper deck and that the duty to anticipate the passenger load clearly lay in operations which had numbers from previous festivals.
“PPC Blamed” was the title of The Star the next day.
Following the report, I broke the news that Thong and Harun were receiving vindication letters from the PPC.
Penang’s ferry service has since undergone a complete overhaul with two fast boats for pedestrians and only one of the old ferries kept only for motorcycles.
The ferry terminals are being modernized for water buses and high-tech vehicle ferries. It has been a long road, but hopefully the hard lessons of 33 years ago will never be forgotten.
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