KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The death toll from an earthquake that trapped scores of climbers on Malaysia’s highest peak rose to 16 Monday as rescuers searched for two Singaporean climbers still missing.
A magnitude-5.9 earthquake on Friday sent rocks and boulders raining down the trekking routes on 4,095-meter (13,435-foot) Mount Kinabalu in eastern Sabah state on Borneo island.
Nine of the bodies found Saturday were flown out by helicopter, while two were carried down, police said. Five more bodies have now been recovered.
State tourism minister Masidi Manjun said the victims were seven Singaporeans, six Malaysians, and a Filipino, Chinese and Japanese national each.
He said a Singaporean student and teacher were still missing.
Singapore on Monday flew flags at half-staff to mourn the victims, part of a school outing to the mountain.
Most of the other climbers made it down the mountain in the darkness early Saturday, some with broken limbs and one in a coma.
Amanda Peter said local guides told her group of 21 climbers that a helicopter would pick them up, but they decided to walk out 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 saw 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.
Masidi said in a tweet that “it’s easy to pick on weaknesses” of the search-and-rescue operation and “I’m sure they are many.” He said the shortcomings will be examined, but “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 quake blocked part of the main route.
The quake also damaged roads and buildings, 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, and flags will be flown at half-staff in Sabah on Monday to mourn the victims.
Sabah Deputy Chief Minister Joseph Pairin Kitingan blamed the tragedy on a group of 10 foreigners 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.”
The foreigners, who included two Canadians, two Dutch and a German national, broke away from their group and stripped naked before taking photos at the mountain peak on May 30, officials have said.
Five of the tourists are believed to still be in Malaysia and will be barred from leaving on the offense of gross indecency, according to police.
Nicolas Doire, spokesman for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, said consular officials in Malaysia have contacted local authorities and are assisting the two Canadians who are among those barred from leaving Malaysia.
Foreign Affairs would not confirm the identity of the Canadians, citing privacy concerns, but Malaysia’s foreign affairs ministry identified them to The Canadian Press as siblings Lindsey Petersen and Danielle Petersen.
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