Sunday, August 17, 2008

Memoirs of a Tragedy

June 4, 1977, will forever be etched in my memory. It was the day when Malaysia Airlines flight 653 with 100 passengers including seven crew members crashed under mysterious circumstances in the marshy swamplands of Tanjung Kupang in Johore.

The Boeing 737 left Penang for Kuala Lumpur Subang airport at 7.20 pm when it crashed under mysterious circumstances killing all the passengers and crew instantly.
Among the passengers were Agricultural Minister, Dato’ Ali Haji Ahmad, Public Works Department Head, Dato’ Mahfuz Khalid, and Cuban Ambassador to Japan, Mario Garcia. The pilot was Captain G.K. Ganjoor.
At about 7.50pm, while at an altitude of 4,000 feet over Bata Arang and descending towards Subang the captain reported there was an unidentified hijacker. The Subang Tower, immediately notified the authorities, who made emergency preparations at the airport.
Several minutes later Captain Ganjoor reported that they were proceeding to Singapore. All communication between the captain and the tower was lost at about 8.15 pm.
When I arrived at the scene the residents of Kampong Ladang, in Tanjong Kupang told me they saw the plane nose dive at about 8.45 pm at high speed followed by explosions and burning wreckage falling in a swamp. As expected, there were no survivors.

For journalists, covering an air crash is a test of their skills in news gathering. We are not sadists who wish for loss of lives but when it happens we have to put grief aside and get on with the job of providing the people with as much details as possible and in quick time.
Talking of speed, from day one of joining Bernama, it was impressed upon us that we had to get the news out fast even if it meant sending out a flash of one or two paragraphs as we are a news agency.

Speed is one thing but to be quick you need to get to know about the incident first. It is therefore vital to have the right contacts and also some luck.
In my case I had both. Also important, is having the right linkman at the news desk in the head office especially if the incident happens at night.

As for me, luck was certainly on my side on that evening or I would have probably got to know about the incident hours later. But some uncanny feeling or call it intuition saved me from being severely reprimanded had I got to know of the tragedy late. I was actually on my way to Singapore that evening with two friends to see the night life in the Republic. As we passed the Bernama office on the way to the causeway, I told my friend to stop and aborted the idea of coming back late from Singapore though my family was spending the December school holidays at my in laws in Malacca. I went up to the office and decided to finish the dreaded monthly report. Shortly after, I received a call from my politician friend, Datuk Yasin Abdul Rahman, who owns the adjacent hotel asking me to come over for a drink. He had apparently seen the office lights and guessed that I was in.

I put aside the report and walking towards the hotel, when I saw several senior police officers rushing out from a wedding reception .They shouted out that there had been a plane crash in Tanjung Kupang a short while ago and they were heading there. I quickly ran up two flights of stairs to the lounge of the hotel to phone Kuala Lumpur office. There, my doctor friend Nawawi Thamby from the General Hospital was gulping down his drink .He confirmed that a plane had crashed in Tanjung Kupang and that he has been summoned to be on emergency standby at the hospital. Only then, did I realise that my humble mini minor was at the workshop .The good doctor gave me the keys to his Alfa Romeo as he could hitch a ride with his colleague.

To be frank, this was the first time I had heard of Tanjung Kupang which was about 90 minutes away from Johore Baru and 30 minutes away from Gelang Patah which I was familiar with.
I quickly rushed back to the office to contact KL but before I could do so, the phone rang. On the line, was my good friend Abdul Karim Shukor who told me that a MAS plane had crashed in Tanjung Tuas rpt Tanjung Tuas in Singapore. I rebutted saying that the crash was on Malaysian soul. He asked me whether I was certain and since I was emphatic he wisely decided to let the man on the spot handle the matter. If it had been another boss who had faith in his foreign agency friends, the story would have been different, I mean very late for I would probably have been ordered to go to Singapore.

Karim and I agreed that we could send out a brief flash newsbreak immediately but without mentioning casualties yet .To make it better, the equally cool Osman Taib was manning the subs desk.

Before rushing to the scene, I called up the two reporters who were with the bureau, the tele- printer operator and even the office boy to come to the office immediately. There were no cell phones, pagers or laptops then but fortunately all the staff had phones and happened to be at home.

Though I was eager to rush to the scene, I had learnt during mock exercises on reporting disasters like plane and train crashes while attending an advanced journalism course in Berlin, Germany that the news desk must organise specific duties for various reporters .Only then will coverage be co-coordinated and better. I asked Bustamam to keep tabs with the hospital and interview survivors if any were brought in for treatment and also liaise with the authorities. I decided to take Noraini Abu Bakar with me to the scene in her car for logistical reasons.
\When we arrived at the scene, the mangrove swamps were pitch dark. The police were using torch lights and setting up generators to operate spotlights.

Both of us were the first journalists on the scene. I learnt later that the other journalists had got wind of it very late and went to Tanjung Tuas in Singapore.

Unfortunately, Bernama did not have picture service then.
To our surprise, the scene did not much resemble an air crash. Despite the lack of movements in the swamps, we harboured hopes of interviewing survivors. But our dreams of scoops were dashed as it became apparent there were no survivors, let alone whole bodies. There were only scattered pieces of flesh like hands and toes .Though it was a big aircraft, only small twisted metals of the plane could be seen. The police and firemen were baffled. Only than did it dawn upon us that the plane had exploded like a bomb before hitting ground. That is why there were no bodies intact.

Anyway it was time for the first scene report. We had to drive to Gelang Patah to find the nearest phone booth. Karim was relieved to hear me and he briefed me on what they had gathered from MAS and Transport Ministry .There was not much detail from them either .Time was passing quickly. We sent another report in the early hours of the morning. The sun was rising as we headed for the third scene report and we could see our friends from the other media passing by in the opposite direction–several hours late due to the futile journey to Singapore. Anyway, the damage was minimal as the newspapers had gone to print, which included the Bernama reports.

When I was about to file my third report, the phone at the booth was out of service. As there were no other phone booths in the cowboy town, we were desperate .We went to the police station and a kind officer obliged as all the calls were reverse charged anyway.

Something funny happened at the police station. After taking down the story, Karim asked me whether I could get immediate comments from the Menteri Besar. I told him that I would get Bustammam to get him in JB .Suddenly like a dream, the Menteri Besar ,Tan Sri Haji Othman Saat, was in front of me .He had come there to ask directions from the police as he was not sure of the crash site.

I took the opportunity to ask him for his comments. He was equally in the dark and as I had good rapport with him, he asked me to word the usual condolences and asking the next of kin to be calm as rescue operations were underway. He did impress on me though not to quote him saying that Dato Ali Haji Ahmad who was in the plane had been killed until absolutely certain that there were no survivors.
Karim was shocked when I gave him the comments from the Menteri Besar.
He had a good laugh when I told him the episode. Anyway as daylight was breaking, I told Ainon to go back and have a short rest before going back to the office as it was becoming evident that there were no survivors.

I hitched a ride with the MB back to the scene .It was morning and hordes of pressmen had gathered. The Police also cordoned off the area.
The first Minister to arrive was Transport Minister Tan Sri V. Manickavasagam. Pressmen were allowed in with the Minister. The scene was no different from what I had seen earlier. But this time I could see a large crater. Apparently the fuselage and cockpit had been sucked in by the impact.

The Minister toured the site but could not provide many details except to say that Malaysia Airlines and his Ministry would issue a statement later in Kuala Lumpur after gathering all the details.
He told us to wait for Home Affairs Minister Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie who was expected to arrive shortly. About 20 minutes later, a helicopter arrived with the flamboyant King Ghaz as he was popularly known.

As he and the press were walking towards the crash site, a foreign news agency reporter from Singapore impatiently asked him whether it was the work of the Japanese Red Army. In anger, the Minister chided him for making such assumptions even as the Malaysian authorities were trying to figure out what had really happened.

Asking the reporter whether he was a scientist coming with theories and assumptions, or a reporter, he said checks on the two Japanese on board showed they were genuine entrepreneurs with business establishment in the country. As such, he said, it was mischievous to link the crash to the red army.

Seeing the Minister’s anger, the Johore CID chief stopped the press from going in except for RTM crew. We were told that there would be no press conference.
Tired and sleepy, I cornered the foreign journalists and asked them to let me handle him when he came back.

As I had just a fortnight earlier accompanied him on a Cessna plane which he piloted from Senai airport to Mersing to cover his visit to a Vietnamese refugee camp, I was confident he would talk to me. True enough, he walked up and seeing my disheveled state told me to go back and rest as no one could possibly survive because of the way the plane fell.

I then told him whether he could enlighten us as with some details. He was pleased with this type of approach and told as the events leading to the crash but was unable to pin point what really happened though it was suspected the aircraft was hijacked.

From that day onwards, the press was barred from going anyway near the scene. Many of my police officer friends had to spend several days at the site housed in tents. One of my officer friends, called me at the office to ask if I could bring him a couple of beers. I obliged and found that a phone had been installed at the site. I noted the phone number and from then on it was smooth sailing for me as I could the latest developments much to the chagrin from others in the media.

One of the stories I got over the phone was the recovery of the fuselage and cockpit from deep in the soil including the cockpit voice recorder or the black box. This was the largest piece recovered. Also recovered was a torso of a steward with his name tag intact. He was a nephew of former Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn.

All the other remains of pieces of flesh that were recovered could not be identified and they were all buried in a single grave at Kebun Teh in Johore Baru four days later, the ceremony was a touching and poignant affair as the khadi, and priests from the Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist faiths recited the final prayers.

A memorial was erected at the site to remember the senseless deaths.

By K.B


Kak Teh said...

Bala, I was a trainee journalist with NST and was roped in by Rudy Beltran to join the team at a hotel in KL - the name escapes me now - to interview relatives of passengers who went to check whether they have survived or not. It was awful because photographers were waiting outside the door just to get pix of relatives crying and fainting after hearing the fate of their loved ones. It was also a very sad day for me because I found out that one of my friends, my senior, did not survive the crash.

rizal hashim said...

Dear Mr Bala,

Please write more often. Today's generation of journos have a lot to learn from you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bala,

If I remember correctly, this crash was on Dec 4, 1977. I remember that date because one of my pilot friend's wife perished in the crash.

For the sake of putting the record straight to make sure the dates don't get mixed up in history, could you please verify this.


Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous Pilot and Bala,

The MAS Boeing 737-2H6 aircraft registration 9M-MBD did crash on December 4, 1977, and not on June 4, 1977.

Among the many websites that back this is


jimmy z said...

I appreciate the veracity of your account Bala. My father perished in this crash and obviously my life was irrevocably changed from this disaster. My question is why journalists aren't questioning the 'classified' nature of the CVR and other information pertaining to this event. Clearly someone has something to hide 37 years on, and i believe the relatives of the victims deserve the truth. Are there any journalists with the courage and motivation to uncover the truth in malaysia. I'm sure there are many who would be intrigued by a story with so many disparate elements, corruption, nepotism, incompetence etc. One lives in hope.