Malaysia official blames nude tourists for deadly quake
Seismologists say it is hard to predict earthquakes, but a senior official in the Malaysian state of Sabah claims he had a premonition that "something was not well" a day before the earth shook beneath Mount Kinabalu.
Friday's 6.0-magnitude quake near one of South East Asia's highest peaks on Borneo island killed 16 climbers, including several school children. Rescue crews are still looking for two more bodies.
Sabah's deputy chief minister, Joseph Pairin Kitingan, says this tragedy is connected to a group of Western tourists who recently posed nude on the peak and allegedly cursed at a local guide for trying to prevent them from stripping.
Pictures of the half-dressed group have been widely circulated online. Mr Pairin says the tourists made the spirits of the mountain angry.
"The quake can be taken as a confirmation of what we feared could be the consequence of their actions," he told local reporters.
"We have to take this tragedy as a reminder that local beliefs and customs cannot be disrespected."
The day before the quake struck, he said he saw a flock of birds circling for half an hour and took it as a bad sign.
Local people believe Mount Kinabalu is the final resting place for their ancestors and is sacred.
Not all Sabahans think the Western tourists' stunt caused the disaster but many agree that the incident was insulting.
"I can't say whether the tourists caused the quake or not. We're a modern society but we also have local customs that have to be respected," says a Mount Kinabalu climbing guide named Supni.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu
- Climbing up and down Mount Kinabalu takes on average two days and one night. There are two trails - the Summit trail and the more advanced Mesilau trail
- The Summit trail begins at Timpohon Gate (1,800m; 5,906 ft)
- It takes about 6-8 hours to reach Laban Rata (3,273m; 10,738 ft) where climbers rest for a few hours
- They usually depart for the summit at 02:00, reaching it 4-5 hours later before descending the mountain
He tells the BBC that the tourists need to be punished.
Mr Supni says he was leading Chinese and Malaysian climbers to the peak when the earthquake struck and trapped a total of 137 people at the peak.
He says they were forced to descend on foot for more than 12 hours after being told that rescue helicopters couldn't reach them because of bad weather.
Mr Supni says they saw some bodies trapped beneath rocks.
"We told each other to stay quiet every time we passed a body as a sign of respect. Many people cried and we tried to keep each other strong," he says.
Sabah's tourism minister declared Monday an official day of mourning and flags were flown at half-mast.
Major earthquakes are rare in Malaysia. The country lies outside the so-called Pacific "ring of fire," where a lot of seismic activity occurs.
Anthropologist Paul Porodong of the University Malaysia Sabah told the Star newspaper that local indigenous tribes have always linked acts of disrespect to accidents and this earthquake fits into this belief.
Malaysian authorities have identified some of the so-called nude tourists, who include two Canadians, two Dutch and a German.
Border guards have been alerted to stop the foreigners from leaving the country while an investigation is under way, and local media reported that one of the group has been arrested.
Officials also say they plan to hold a traditional ritual at Mount Kinabalu to "appease the spirits".