Retelling the story of Hotel New World tragedy

The six-storey Hotel New World in Serangoon Road collapsed like a house of cards. A massive rescue operation was started to rescue victims trapped in the rubble of the collapsed hotel. -- ST PHOTO: YAP YEW PIANG
The six-storey Hotel New World in Serangoon Road collapsed like a house of cards. A massive rescue operation was started to rescue victims trapped in the rubble of the collapsed hotel. -- ST PHOTO: YAP YEW PIANG
The six-storey Hotel New World in Serangoon Road collapsed like a house of cards. Anguish and uncertainity etched on their faces, relatives of staff of the bank and hotel kept vigil throughout the night in the hope that their loved ones might still b
The six-storey Hotel New World in Serangoon Road collapsed like a house of cards. Anguish and uncertainity etched on their faces, relatives of staff of the bank and hotel kept vigil throughout the night in the hope that their loved ones might still be alive. -- ST PHOTO: JACKIE HO
Rescue workers giving oxygen to a woman trapped in the rubble of the collapsed Hotel New World, 15 March, 1986. The six-storey hotel at Serangoon Road had collapsed like a house of cards earlier in the day at 11.26am. --ST PHOTO: FRANCIS ONG PUAY GUA
Rescue workers giving oxygen to a woman trapped in the rubble of the collapsed Hotel New World, 15 March, 1986. The six-storey hotel at Serangoon Road had collapsed like a house of cards earlier in the day at 11.26am. --ST PHOTO: FRANCIS ONG PUAY GUAN
The six-storey Hotel New World in Serangoon Road collapsed like a house of cards. A massive rescue operation was started to rescue victims trapped in the rubble of the collapsed hotel. Accountant Madam Chua Kim Choo, 46, the latest known survivor of
The six-storey Hotel New World in Serangoon Road collapsed like a house of cards. A massive rescue operation was started to rescue victims trapped in the rubble of the collapsed hotel. Accountant Madam Chua Kim Choo, 46, the latest known survivor of the hotel disaster, being taken to the Singapore General Hospital. -- ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW
The six-storey Hotel New World in Serangoon Road collapsed like a house of cards. A massive rescue operation was started to rescue victims trapped in the rubble of the collapsed hotel. -- ST PHOTO: YAP YEW PIANG
The six-storey Hotel New World in Serangoon Road collapsed like a house of cards. A massive rescue operation was started to rescue victims trapped in the rubble of the collapsed hotel. -- ST PHOTO: YAP YEW PIANG
The six-storey Hotel New World in Serangoon Road collapsed like a house of cards. Anguish and uncertainity etched on their faces, relatives of staff of the bank and hotel kept vigil throughout the night in the hope that their loved ones might still b
The six-storey Hotel New World in Serangoon Road collapsed like a house of cards. Anguish and uncertainity etched on their faces, relatives of staff of the bank and hotel kept vigil throughout the night in the hope that their loved ones might still be alive. --ST PHOTO: FRANCIS ONG PUAY GUAN

Veteran journalist and photographer share their first-hand experience at ST event held in conjunction with photo exhibition.

Veteran journalist Philip Lee can still recall what it was like at the scene of the 1986 Hotel New World disaster.

"Whenever rescuers pulled out a body from the wreckage, they were greeted by a stony silence," the 72-year-old told 120 Straits Times readers last night.

But there were applause and cheers whenever a survivor was pulled out.

"The national heart was with the victims," said Mr Lee who was part of The Straits Times team that covered the disaster which left 33 people dead.

He shared survivor stories, such as how a girl, thought to have had her legs crushed, escaped with just cuts.

He also talked about how the news was put together - he pieced together articles at about 11pm each night with snippets of information which reporters sent in throughout the day.

Mr Lee was speaking at an event organised as part of the Straits Times Appreciates Readers (Star) programme.

It was held in conjunction with We: Defining Stories, a photo exhibition put up by the newspaper and the National Museum of Singapore.

The exhibition, aimed at giving people the opportunity to revisit landmark moments in Singapore's history, features more than 400 photographs from The Straits Times' archives and the mu-seum's collection.

Speaking along with Mr Lee was photographer Francis Ong, 67, who retired from the newspaper five years ago. He showed readers photos of bodies amid rubble, the rescue effort and prayers by religious groups.

He said: "Readers depended on us for coverage back when mobile phones were not common."

For readers such as construction project officer Tan Sing Huat, 45, hearing these first-hand accounts gave an insight into what happened at the scene and the role reporters and photojournalists play in delivering news.

Retiree Morris Ng, 74, found last night's talk enlightening. "I was posted overseas when it happened, so the detailed first-hand accounts painted a clearer picture of what happened."

Mr Lee, now a freelance writer, said he hoped people would realise the need to speak out when danger signs are spotted.

"One thing that struck me about the collapse was how the staff had already seen cracks in the wall and had joked among themselves that the building was going to collapse. But they did nothing about it."

melodyz@sph.com.sg