Hotel New World rescuers dug with their bare hands

(From left) Senior Warrant Officers Isnin Ghani, Mohd Salleh Ali and Jimmy Tan at the Civil Defence Academy's field training area, where "ruins" made of concrete slabs and debris simulate a collapsed structure. They dug a tunnel with their hands and
(From left) Senior Warrant Officers Isnin Ghani, Mohd Salleh Ali and Jimmy Tan at the Civil Defence Academy's field training area, where "ruins" made of concrete slabs and debris simulate a collapsed structure. They dug a tunnel with their hands and emergency tools to reach a Hotel New World survivor.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Trio recall building's collapse on the 30th anniversary of one of S'pore's worst disasters

It was nearly midnight on March 15, 1986 when Ms Helen Tan was carried out of the rubble, her body wrapped in a blanket.

At about 11.25am that day, the building she was in had collapsed, trapping 50 people and ultimately claiming the lives of 33, in what was to be one of the worst disasters in post-war Singapore.

Better known as Hotel New World, the Lian Yak Building at the junction of Owen and Serangoon roads housed a bank on the first level and a nightclub on its second level. The other four levels were occupied by the 67-room hotel.


Rescue workers working at the site of the collapsed Hotel New World on March 16, 1986. PHOTO: ST FILE

It was reduced to rubble within a minute on a Saturday afternoon.

More than 500 personnel from the police, Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), the now defunct Singapore Fire Service (SFS), and Singapore Armed Forces took part in a five-day rescue operation that saved 17 people including Ms Tan.

She had SCDF Senior Warrant Officers (SWO) Jimmy Tan, Mohd Salleh Ali and Isnin Ghani to thank.

Then in their 20s, they were firemen in the SFS' MRT task force, and had undergone rescue training in the MRT tunnels that were under construction.

The training came in handy, they told The Straits Times yesterday on the eve of the tragedy's 30th anniversary, but what they lacked was equipment.


Helen Tan is out at last, after about 10 hours under the rubble. PHOTO: ST FILE

After hearing Ms Tan's cries for help, "we had to use our bare hands and emergency tools to dig a tunnel through 6m to 8m to reach her", said SWO Tan, 58.

They took turns to crawl through the narrow passageway, struggling to breathe through the thick dust and hoping that the tunnel would not collapse on them.

A basin that separated the rescuers from Ms Tan then had to be chipped away with a small hammer before she was finally freed.

Nine survivors were rescued on the first day, and Ms Tan was the last that day.

On Wednesday morning, after several tests using a noise detector found no signs of life, the rescue operations were called off.

Madam Chua Kim Choo was the last to be rescued, after being trapped for 83 hours, or more than three days.

Rescuers worked until Saturday to recover the remaining bodies.

"Once we heard the order to stand down, we were relieved. Our bodies also started to feel the ache," said SWO Salleh, 58.


The six-storey Hotel New World in Serangoon Road collapsed like a house of cards at 11.26 am on March 16, 1986. PHOTO: ST FILE

Investigations later found that the building had collapsed due to structural faults and shoddy construction, as well as strain from new installations on the roof.

Following the tragedy, more frequent spot checks on buildings were put in place, as well as legislation to enforce stricter maintenance checks.

The Government also merged the Singapore Fire Service and the Singapore Civil Defence Force in 1989, to ensure better coordination for rescue work, especially during disasters.

The three officers were among 94 people presented awards by then President Wee Kim Wee.

"Sometimes the juniors will ask what's this triangle badge," said SWO Tan, pointing to his uniform.

"I tell them it's a rescue badge for Hotel New World. We try to share our experience with them, so they can learn."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2016, with the headline 'Hotel New World rescuers dug with their bare hands'. Print Edition | Subscribe