Previously: The Seattle Underground.
Starting around October, Malaysia’s northeast monsoon season arrives: For months, heavy rains fall regularly, letting up only somewhat once spring rolls around. Although the capital city of Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding area tend to be sheltered a bit from the rain, thanks to the proximity and position of the mountains in the region, it is not exempt from the weather — and in December of 1993, an event would occur that would be a painful reminder of this fact: When one of the Highland Towers apartment buildings collapsed after 10 days of nonstop rain and a catastrophic landslide, at least 48 people would lose their lives.
It’s no wonder that, more than 20 years on, the abandoned remains of Highland Towers are still rumored to be haunted.
Construction on Highland Towers began in the early 1970s. Located in Taman Hillview, it’s not directly in Kuala Lumpur’s city center; however, its proximity to it made it popular with expatriates during this time. But there’s something else to know about Taman Hillview: It’s in the Ulu Klang region, an area which is quite susceptible to landslides. You’d think that might be enough to deter large scale property development in the area… but it wasn’t.
Consisting of three blocks, Highland Towers went up in stages. Block 1 was built first; the southernmost block, it was completed in 1977. Block 2, which was northwest of Block 1, followed in 1979; then, Block 3 finished off the trio in 1981. It was located northwest of Block 1 and west of Block 2. A swimming pool stood between Blocks 2 and 3, because what’s an apartment complex meant for wealthy upper-middle class people without a swimming pool?
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Exactly what caused the collapse has been heavily studied in the decades since — and as a result, we think it comes down to a few different factors. First, a stream known as East Creek once ran directly through the area that Highland Towers would later occupy. The stream was diverted through a pipe system to prepare for the apartment complex’s construction — but you can probably see how this might eventually be a problem, especially in an area known for heavy rainfall. Second, another housing development project, the Bukit Antarabangsa Development Project, began construction in 1991 on the hilltop directly behind Highland Towers. The preparation for this project required clearing the hilltop of trees and other vegetation, causing land erosion. Additionally, the pipe system that had previously been put in to divert East Creek was also used to carry water away from the new construction site, submitting the pipes to a volume of water they hadn’t been built to handle. Add to all that the extraordinary rainfall that began several months prior to the collapse, and what we’re looking at is a classic recipe for disaster.
In October, the pipes burst in several different locations. In November, the soil had absorbed all the water it could. In December, days of prolonged rain arrived. And on Dec. 11, 1993, a landslide began. Water and mud rushed down the hill at great speeds, slamming into the retaining walls meant to bolster up the buildings of Highland Towers.
At 1:35 pm, Block 1 collapsed. Blocks 2 and 3 were subsequently evacuated.
Search-and-rescue teams combed the rubble of Block 1 for survivors for nearly two weeks — but only three people were found, and then only within the first 24 hours immediately following the collapse. One of those people was a baby who became known as the “miracle toddler”; she is now an adult and a qualified midwife at a health clinic in East Java. Her mother also survived. The third person, however, did not; she died from her injuries after being brought to the hospital. At least 48 people perished, although according to some reports, the number was higher — as many as 55.
Rescuers at the scene reportedly heard the voices of those trapped and knocking sounds they made to indicate their locations for a full week after the collapse.
I have observed a few times that I believe many tales of hauntings and ghosts — particularly those which cling to locations associated with terribly events — to be a method for coping with tragedy. We often can’t quite comprehend what might compel someone to brutally murder other people, or how a tyrant could get away with torturing so many of his subjects; and so, after the murderers and tyrants are gone, and after their victims are gone, we attach rumors of hauntings to the places in which certain events occurred, giving these events a recognizable shape — something story-shaped, something with which we know how to cope.
I think the same is true for large-scale tragedies like the Highland Towers collapse. And, indeed, some of the stories that circulate about the site of the former apartment complex suggest that these coping strategies are… well, I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say universal, but at the very least, shared.
One story tells of a young woman that taxi drivers might see on nights when the rain comes bucketing down. Should they pick her up, these drivers, they’ll feel a chill when their new fare tells them where she needs to go: Hillview. Should they try to engage her in small talk, she’ll answer only briefly, if at all. Their feelings of unease might increase. And if, upon arrival, they should ask her why she would want to come to such a place in the middle of the night — particularly on a night like this — she might tell them, “I left several of my belongings here — belongings that are important to me.” It is not advised that drivers press her further than this… but if they do — if they ask her what is so important to her that it could not wait until daylight to retrieve — she will tell them this:
“My body and my life. This is where I died.”
Or, should anyone visit the site — that is, should you venture into one of the abandoned buildings and climb the stairs — it’s said that you might encounter a boy. You’ll see him ahead of you; he’s climbing the stairs, too. If you call out to him — if you ask him what he’s doing there (after all, he is a child, and this place is no place for a child) — he will turn to face you. Half of his face will be torn to shreds, and one of his arms will be missing. “I’m looking for my other arm. I lost it in that building there,” he will say, pointing through the window to where Block 1 once stood. “Have you seen it?”
Some who have taken equipment to the two remaining buildings have taken photographs purporting to depict orbs and documented cases of sudden fluctuations in temperature. Some have brought back photographs with strange shapes in them — shapes whose presences are inexplicable a indescribable. Others have brought back stories of participants in their ghost hunts suddenly beginning to scream in horror — in two different locations, and at exactly the same time, for reasons they will not tell.
Do these stories sound familiar? I’m willing to be that you’ve probably heard similar tales before. Instead of asking a taxi driver to take her to Hillview in Malaysia, for example, a strange passenger might ask to be taken to Minamihama district of Ishinomaki in Japan — not far away from where the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred in 2011. Or, she might ask to be let off at the corner of Balete Drive and España Extension in Quezon City in the Philippines — only to disappear before the destination is reached. Or she might ask to be driven to a cemetery or a run-down house, only for the driver — not a taxi driver this time, but simply a motorist who happened to be in the right place at the right time — to find her grave or talk to her elderly mother the next day. The driver will find her passenger has been dead for years.
These stories are all versions of the same story: The legend of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. They’re rarely, if ever, true; even so, though, they persist in cultures all over the world, and have for millennia.
The boy with the missing arm, too, might be seen as a version of an urban legend — a ghost story where a soul looking for something it has lost will wreak havoc on you if you fail to either return it or help them find it. There’s Tailypo, who is missing his tail. There’s La Llorna, who is missing her children. There’s the old woman in The Little Finger Game. There’s the owner of “The Big Toe” from Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. You get the idea.
Again, these all similar stories; they just change with the telling, depending on who’s telling it and where.
I think, too, that ghost stories help us memorialize those we’ve lost. The stories might be gruesome, but they ensure that we’ll never forget what happened. It’s up to us to remember, though, that even if the stories aren’t wholly true, the tragedies that inspired them are real — and so are the people who died during them.
It is not recommended that anyone attempt to visit the remains of Highland Towers. In the decades since the collapse, the remains of the other two Blocks — now little more than concrete shells — have become hotbeds for crime; the area simply is not safe. In recent years, there have been motions to tear down what’s left of the complex, but they have not yet come to fruition.
If you drive along the roads up there, though, you can still see Blocks 2 and 3 looming through the trees. Stop at the intersection of Jin Hillview 2 and Lor2C and look east.
Just… don’t get too close.