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 The Highland Towers Judgment -
 Civil Suit No. S5-21-174-1996

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The Cause Of Collapse Of Block 1

In order to determine the liabilities of defendants on the allegations as charged by the plaintiffs, it is necessary at the onset to establish the cause of the collapse of Block 1 which lead to the forced evacuation Block 2 & 3. To decide on this, it is essential to disclose some brief facts.

Highland Towers & Its Surrounding Features

The retaining walls

The 3 apartment blocks of Highland Towers were built on elevated land with a relatively flat base. Directly behind it was a steep hill. Though some witnesses have describe the gradient of this hill to be 10 to 20 degrees but, by my estimate from various photographs tendered as exhibits, I perceive it to be far steeper. This hill was terraced, supported by retaining rubble walls made of boulders and cobbles of rock of varying seize placed together by mortar at a random fashion. Some of these walls had collapsed and were buried in the soil at the time of the Highland Towers tragedy. Those left are still standing, either in part or as a whole, but in a dire state of repair. From a physical survey was commissioned by MPAJ soon after the collapse of Block 1 on the affected area, covering the Highland Towers Site and the Arab Malaysian Land, it is apparent that these retaining walls were constructed in a haphazardous manner. Some were located on the Highland Towers Site with the rest in the Arab Malaysian Land.

Ownership of the slope behind Highland Towers

Both the Highland Towers Site and the Arab Malaysian Land once belonged to a common owner - the 1st defendant, who intended to develop the entire area into a housing scheme with 3 apartment blocks on Highland Towers Site and bungalows on the Arab Malaysian Land. When the lands were subdivided and issued with individual documents of title, the 1st defendant mortgaged the bungalow lots, consisting of 50 in number, to the 5th defendant in consideration of some financial arrangements. When the loans were not repaid, the 50 bungalow lots were transferred to the 5th defendant in November 1991 to offset the amount due.

The East Stream & pipe culvert

At the furthest eastern corner of the Arab Malaysian Land water from a stream, popularly known as the "East Stream" (which name is totally inappropriate since it actually flows westward), enters the 5th defendant land. The source of this stream originates from the Metrolux Land. It flows down hill in a westerly direction until it reaches a plateau where it forms a mud pond. From here the water is channeled into a set of concrete culverts which directs it to a pipe culvert (pipe culvert). This pipe culvert runs horizontally right across the hill slope of the Arab Malaysian Land. After passing through 10 bungalow lots, the water from this pipe is discharged into Lot 445 which is situated in the north. Lot 445 is a government land. This entire section of the land, as described, seems unaffected by the effects of the landslide that brought down Block 1.

The initial section of this pipe culvert was built as an integrated part of a retaining wall. It has manholes located at various intervals. Just by the side of this pipe culvert, running for some distance, is an open concrete drain. This was intended to drain surface runoff water while the pipe culvert catered for the water emanating from the East Stream.

All drainage and geo-technical experts who testified in this case agree that the flow regime of the East Stream into the pipe culvert running across the hill is highly undesirable and dangerous. Instead of water flowing along its natural course - downhill (following its natural terrain), it is now diverted into a man made structure that requires constant maintenance and supervision. Failure to attend to this will affect slope stability, causing a danger to humans living down slope. It must have been this concern that, subsequent to the collapse of Block 1, the rescue operators, upon discovering this unwarranted drainage system of the East Stream, redirected the flow pattern of this stream to its natural course, downhill in a westerly direction. They did it by placing sandbags in an area to prevent the flow of water into the pipe culvert. This is not completely successful since, by my observation during this Court's visit to the area, water is still detected in the pipe culvert.

Further down slope on the Arab Malaysian Land is network of drains. Those at the upper sector are earth drains while at the lower portion are made of concrete. These drains, I believed cater for surface water runoff while the pipe culvert was take care of the discharge emanating from the East Stream. Though in certain areas these drains are disconnected abruptly, presumably caused by the landslide that brought down Block 1, those at the upper level are still intact. But they are in an odd fashion. Starting from the top, a drain runs parallel for some distance along the pipe culvert. It then suddenly makes a U-turn to flow back in the same direction from where it came from. Then after proceeding for some distance, it is connected to a culvert across a road reserve. At this culvert and joining it is a drain coming from the opposite direction. By deduction, this drain from the opposite caters for water runoff on the southern side of the slope. From the junction the drain proceeds down hill and terminates abruptly at far right at a level parallel to the rear of Highland Towers. From an overall view of the post-collapse survey plan, this drain must have continued along the rear of Highland Towers until the end of Block 3 when it turned left down hill and drained into the lower section of the government land - Lot 445.

This drainage pattern too, in the view of all experts in the field of hydrology, is far from satisfactory. Firstly, large section of drains is earth drains that can be easily eroded. Secondly, water can infiltrate into the soil of these earth drains at a greater rate than those made of concrete. Thirdly, the flow pattern of these drains is undesirable. It does not flow naturally down hill. Instead it makes a number of U-turns, one of which even flows backwards to the direction where it came from. Fourthly, the drains are insufficient to accommodate the amount of runoff from the slope. Fifthly, the drains are in a vegetated area and maintenance is regularly and constantly required.

Before the Arab Malaysian Land was sold to the 5th defendant, Mr. Lim (DW1) was in charged of the drains on the slope. He ensured water in the drains flowed without interruptions, particularly from vegetation around it, and when the drains were damaged he would repaired it. Failure or neglect to ensure these has serious consequences as can witnessed by the flooding of the car parks at the Highland Towers accompanied by rocks and mud and a landslide on the slope some months before the collapse of Block 1. This was when Tropic moved into the Arab Malaysian Land to excavate and cleared the vegetation as well as leaving branches of trees and debris in the drains.

Bruce Mitchell's photographs

The 3 blocks of Highland Towers were built in such a manner that Block 1 and 3 were almost parallel to each other, with Block 2 in between set slightly back. From the window of the of the 4th floor of Block 3, a resident, Mr. Bruce Mitchell, had the presence of mind to snap a series of photographs just before the collapsed of Block 1. These highly commendable pictures, 6 in number, recorded the tragedy and rendered us a grime reminder of the last moments before the disaster that took so many lives and caused enormous loss of property. These pictures also provided invaluable information to specialist in the field of geo-technology to determine the cause of the collapse. They are marked as exhibit P7A - 7H but are commonly, throughout this trial, referred to as the "Mitchell Pictures".

As principal expert witnesses have relied extensively on these pictures to form their opinion, it is essential that I do give a brief description of each of these.

Photograph P7A, shows a view of the rear section of Highland Towers framed on both sides by the balconies from apartments in Block 1 & 2. At the furthest end of the picture is the hill slope. Erosion scars are seen in two areas where they are engulfed by vegetation, mainly trees which lean downhill as if being pushed by some force from above. Beneath is a rubble retaining wall. In front of this wall is a heap of earth with fragments of tar spawn over. Lower down from this spot is a continuous row of corrugated asbestos roofs in a state of collapse, with motor vehicles trapped under. Right next to this and slightly further front, is a cement slap which looks like an open-air badminton court. Supporting it is a rubble retaining wall topped by flower plants.

The left side of picture P7B shows a partial profile of Block 1 with some balconies of apartments facing Kuala Lumpur City protruding out. Beneath these is a tar-paved road with 3 motor cars parked in a row. At the far end of this road is a rubble retaining wall supporting a growth of lush green vegetation. The lower portion of this retaining wall has explored with soil spawn over a lower tier road. A lamppost standing close to the area where the soil is seen emitting has leaned.

Photograph P7C is the second frame of the same spot as P7B. The soil seen emitting in the earlier picture it is more profound. Substantial part of the retaining wall has collapsed. Greater volume of earth is seen gushing out of the disintegrated retaining wall. The lamppost has leaned more extreme.

P7D captures almost the entire Block 1 tilted at an angle with clouds of dust emitting from the base.

P7E records Block 1 almost tumbling to the ground. The rear apartments' balconies, now facing the sky are clearly visible.

P7F is a second frame of the same spot as P7E. In this subsequent shot, taken a few seconds later, there is a sea of dust with intermittent sight of a fallen building.

P7G reveals a wider view of the rear of Block 1 without the building (Block 1) obstructing. The dust from the fallen Block 1 is still present as evidenced by the white cloudily shades on the right side of the picture. In the center, starting from the top is the hill slope marked by scars extending to the right in a continuous line. Below, divided by a row of vegetation, is a rubble retaining wall which is still standing but split in the middle and slanting. In front of this is a large mess of expose earth, and floating on top are some cars with parts of the corrugated roof, which once provided a shade for the car park. At the extreme left of this photograph stands Block 2, with its landscaped terraced garden fully intact.

P7H is a pathetic view of the collapsed Block 1 lying on the ground in one piece with stunned spectators staring at the aftermath in total disbelief.

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