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It did. Wednesday dawned bright and sunny. We were filled with new hope. Brian Wood from Travelbag, who had flown out to support us, asked if we would like to accompany him to Mount Kinabalu that morning. The SMART team (Special Malaysian Army Rescue Team) from Kuala Lumpur had arrived and the helicopters were made ready to fly. Ellie just had to be found today. We packed a bag and climbed into the car provided for us by the Deputy High Commissioner in KK.
We were just pulling out of the car park when Brian received a call on his mobile phone. He said ‘Stop the car’. My heart froze. I knew that my darling, beautiful daughter had been found dead. It was the most horrible moment of my life, but strangely, I felt an enormous sense of relief. We returned to our room and within ten minutes I had written the tribute to Ellie, which appeared in the British national press the following day. It is extraordinary how something written quickly, in a state of extreme grief and desperation, has become a cliché used by many of the people who have sent us cards and messages of condolence. ‘Ellie achieved more in seventeen and a half years than most people do in seventy five’. It is heartening that people agree with me.
Ellie had been spotted from the main trail soon after dawn. The guide who saw the pink lining of Ellie’s ski jacket through his binoculars was the younger brother of our guide, Sugarah. By the time he had confirmed that Ellie was dead and returned to the restaurant at Laban Rata to ensure that the message was relayed to us, it was 10.20. It took the best part of an hour for the guides to get from the main trail to where Ellie’s body lay which is an indication of the difficulty of the terrain. It took a further two hours to bring Ellie’s body down a ridge to the main trail on a stretcher. Ellie was finally brought back to the Park Headquarters as the sun was setting. The guides, aware of the press attention, with heads bowed formed a protective shield around the stretcher carrying her, to deny the photographers their pictures.
Very late that evening we went to the mortuary to identify Ellie. We were aware that two dozen photographers had gathered. The police did not help much by guiding us in with their lights flashing. We were unable to get into the mortuary without fighting our way through. Bruce damaged at least one camera in the process. We saw Ellie, exquisite but cold, still wearing all her clothes that were soaked through. Ellie had been found with her legs inside her rucksack but without her ski jacket.
The few things that she had taken with her were neatly lined up in the lee of the cliff: the camera, water bottle, small hand torch, head torch, money, first aid kit, tissues and contact lens case. She was well prepared. It is a pity that she had not also packed waterproof trousers and a foil blanket. It is possible that in a late stage of hypothermia and feeling warm and cosy rather than cold, she had removed her jacket together with her two pink hats. In death her face was perfect and more beautiful than we had ever known her. With neat eyebrows and heightened colour in her cheeks, she looked like the bust of Queen Nefertiti that Ellie had admired in a Berlin museum years before.
The photographers were still there, annoyed apparently that we had released a statement via the British Press Association, when we had refused to be interviewed locally. We were unaware of the extent of the coverage back in the UK. Although Ellie’s story was front page news in the Sabah press, we saw nothing on television and had not been approached by local newspapers. The management and staff of the Tanjung Aru resort discreetly screened all of our phone calls and ensured our privacy by patrolling the grounds in pairs. Bruce shouted at the photographers who were crowding around us again and chased them off. The police did little to discourage him. The incident was reported the following day as a ‘commotion at the mortuary’, not the sort of publicity we wanted.
On Friday there was a service for Ellie conducted by the local Chinese, Anglican minister. The congregation was large as Outward Bound Sabah closed for the day and all Tom’s friends and colleagues came to offer their support. The hymn chosen from the service book was ‘Amazing Grace,’ one of Ellie’s favourites. Ellie was dressed in the batik skirt and top, similar to that worn by Malaysian Airlines cabin crew, she had bought when we were first in KK.
We rode with her in the hearse to the local Chinese cemetery where Ellie was cremated in the simplest coffin available made from marine ply. Although both ceremonies were much more open and public than is usual in the West, they were very moving and we felt that Ellie would have approved. Certainly Ellie had told us that should she die, she wanted to be cremated as simply as possible and we could not bear the thought of traipsing round the world with a coffin in tow.
We had already asked our tour leader if we could return to the village where our guides lived. We were keen to thank them for their unstinting efforts, day and night, to find Ellie. Although the SMART team had been given much prominence in the press, they had not arrived in time to do any searching. They took eight hours to get up the first part of the mountain – that which Ellie had completed in a little over two and a half hours. Wednesday morning saw them eating breakfast and saying prayers when the news arrived that Ellie had been found. Earlier in the week some locally based soldiers had searched lower down the mountain lest Ellie had somehow reached the forest. Unfortunately, seven of their number became lost for a short time.