This is a guest post contributed by Ling.
15 March 1986 – to some, it was just another day, but to many, it was the biggest civil disaster in Singapore’s history and there is so much to learn and remember from this national crisis.
In less than 60 seconds, 33 people lost their lives. Bodies were crushed but the Singapore spirit was not and it kept 17 people alive.
The six-storey Lian Yak Building (also known as Hotel New World) was built between 1969 and 1971 and was formerly located at the junction of Serangoon Road and Owen road. It housed a nightclub, a bank and 67 hotel rooms.
Staff who were working in the building already spotted cracks in the wall and joked amongst themselves that the building was going to collapse.
Little did they know that it is no laughing matter. The building structure was so weak that it was on the verge of collapsing since the first day it was built.
Here are five facts about this disaster that you really should know, even if you were not born then.
One of the worst architecture fails
At first glance, one might have guessed that the collapse was caused by an explosion. However, experts shared that they did not notice windows shattering or debris being blown out of the window.
Building experts also concluded that the collapse was not caused by shoddy construction, swamp land or subway tunneling. At that point in time, Singapore was building its MRT system but the tunneling works were hundreds of yards away from Hotel New World. So they ruled out this factor.
The investigation team eventually found their vital piece of evidence from the nightclub. The night before the collapse, the nightclub host told the police that as she was setting up the bar, the pillar on the dancefloor cracked. Two other pillars also cracked that night.
The investigators had thought that the extra load of water tanks and air-conditioning units added to the weight of the building which the pillars could not support.
They later made an astonishing discovery and found the building’s original engineer made a serious error. He only calculated the live load (weight of occupants, furniture, fixtures etc.) and did not account for the dead load (weight of the building itself).
It was a matter of the time before the building collapsed.
Singapore wasn’t ready to handle large-scale disaster
More than 500 personnel from the Singapore Civil Defence Force, the former Singapore Fire Service, the Singapore Police Force and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) were involved in the five-day rescue operations.
While there was outpouring of help, rescue teams were not trained to handle disaster of such a magnitude. For the first one and a half day, they adopted the cut-and-lift method where beams and debris from the top and the sides were removed. This helped to locate and rescue 11 people who were trapped in the rubble.
But this wasn’t good enough. They were racing against time to rescue more people.
Thankfully, tunneling experts from Britain, Ireland, and Japan were stationed in Singapore to work on the MRT system. They were willing to help reach those trapped beneath the rubble.
Tunneling experts believed that the use of heavy machinery might cause the rubble to fall on more people and endanger the lives of survivors.
So they proposed a more radical approach – the tunneling method instead.
Tunnelers could have died from hacking through the rubble
The tunneling method didn’t prove to be any easier. In fact, it was a slow and risky process.
The engineers decided that the quickest way to break into the carpark is through the ventilation shafts. As they were wading through knee-deep waters, they pushed past crushed cars and smelt petrol.
It was very dangerous as any spark in the machinery could set off a devastating explosion and this would destroy any rescue efforts. They had no choice but to pump out the water and petrol before hacking through the rubble.
The Irish engineers took seven hours to tunnel through nine meters and their worst fears came true. The rubble started to collapse further and the tunnel caved in. Fortunately, they managed to scramble out in the nick of time.
But this didn’t stop them from making more tunnels. They were willing to risk their lives.
“The tunnelers are the bravest people I’ve ever met in my life. And the way they went about it…the spirit…is a spirit that is very rare, really”, said Dr Lim Meng Kin, the then Chief Medical Officer of the SAF.
The rescuers continued to tunnel through and saved 6 more lives. Rescue operations finally stopped after it became clear that there were no more survivors.
Doctors treating survivors in a dark, cramped environment
Helicopters were on standby at Farrer Park to fly the injured to the hospitals. But it wasn’t easy to pull out survivors trapped in the rubble.
According to a Singapore Red Cross volunteer who dug for survivors until his hands bled, it took more than half an hour to pull out each person. They were covered in sand and some were bleeding profusely.
SAF doctors, medics and other Civil Defence volunteers came together to render medical assistance.
In a complex disaster zone, rescue efforts can take a long time. In this case, for example, rubble had to be lifted and tunnels had to be built. With so many victims to rescue, it could take up to hours before someone could be safely pulled out.
Medical intervention was necessary for victims with severe injury or those who had their body parts (hands, legs etc.) pinned below fallen objects.
Civil Defence volunteer, Dr Edward Pang, stepped forward during the Hotel New World collapse. He shared that he had to set up a drip whilst lying on his stomach in the dark and cramped environment.
According to him, the victim’s leg was pinned below the rubble. Medical intervention saved her leg and ensured her other body functions were working well.
Late Dr Hanif Singh, a young medical officer then, bravely volunteered to crawl through the tunnels to provide medical care to those trapped.
Dr Pang tried to discourage him but Dr Hanif reminded Dr Pang that he was a family man.
“If I die, I am alone. My family will not suffer”, said Dr Hanif. Eventually, both of them went into the tunnels together.
Survivor and rescuer reunite after 30 years
Jerina Tan Oi Ling, 49, was the first to be pulled out alive from the wreckage of the Hotel New World collapse. She was then working as a hotel receptionist when the building fell.
She was trapped in the debris for almost eight hours and her right leg was almost amputated to be freed from the rubble. When this happened, 56-year-old former fireman Ali Ismail crawled into the darkness and pulled her out.
Ali said Jerina was sobbing quietly as her right leg was pinned by a plank and some Yellow Pages books while her left leg was pinned down by a dead body.
He had to knock a small hole in the fallen wall and drag himself into the area to save Jerina.
Both of them finally found each other after 30 years and it was an emotional moment as Jerina relived the memories of Ali saving her life. Ali, too, could not hold back his tears.
Years on from Hotel New World collapse
It is one of the worst tragedies in Singapore’s history but it also defined us as a nation.
From the SCDF to the Civil Defence volunteers to those who stood by families of the victims, all of the rescuers displayed mental and psychological resilience.
May we never forget the indomitable spirit of self-sacrifice, resilience and unity as we forge ahead into the future of uncertainties.
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