Hotel New World hero tells his story

Mr Tan Kim Teck, an SCDF reservist who volunteered to help in rescue operations during the 1986 Hotel New World collapse. He describes his search for survivors at the building's basement carpark.ST VIDEO: ZAIHAN MOHAMED YUSOF
Mr Tan Kim Teck, who was involved in rescue operations during the Hotel New World collapse in 1986, recalling his experience at the SCDF NS Gallery yesterday.
Mr Tan Kim Teck, who was involved in rescue operations during the Hotel New World collapse in 1986, recalling his experience at the SCDF NS Gallery yesterday.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Hotel New World rescuer recounts efforts to save lives

When he heard about the collapse of Hotel New World on March 15, 1986, Mr Tan Kim Teck, then a reservist in the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), reported to the then-SCDF headquarters in Bendemeer Road.

Despite not being mobilised, Mr Tan, then a 25-year-old carpenter, volunteered to help.

Mr Tan, now 55, told The Straits Times on Thursday : "I'm very sure in some big situation, your conscience will tell you that you're needed. My style is to 'just go'."

Mr Tan was a guest at the SCDF NS Gallery which was officially opened yesterday.

The collapse of the Serangoon Road hotel had left 50 people trapped. In the end, 17 survivors were pulled out of the rubble and 33 people died, in what was the biggest civil disaster in local history.

A total of 500 personnel from the SCDF, Singapore Fire Service (SFS), police, Singapore Armed Forces and tunnelling experts helped in the week-long operation.

At the site, Mr Tan, who was then a general rescuer from the 1st Rescue Battalion, busied himself by moving debris away from the collapsed six-storey Lian Yak Building, which housed the hotel.

But Mr Tan, now a director of a heavy machinery rental company in Vietnam, wanted to do more.

Together with a handful of personnel from the SFS, Mr Tan broke open a ventilation outlet and got into the basement carpark.

It was dark and the ceiling had caved in. On one wall, the reinforcement steel bars stood dangerously exposed. Still, the men waded in chest-high waters and climbed over submerged cars, shouting, "Anybody here?"

And then, they heard a woman's voice. Mr Tan said: "Her voice was weak. She told me there were a few others trapped in there.

"I couldn't see her behind the rubble but I wanted to assure her that help was on the way."

They also spoke to another survivor. On their recommendation, heavy machinery work above the carpark was stopped.

Mr Tan and his fire service counterparts led other rescuers, including tunnelling experts, into the carpark. When the survivors were brought out one by one, everyone cheered.

For the next four days, Mr Tan had very little sleep. Two days later, he heard the news that the woman he had spoken to at the basement carpark had died.

"I felt bad," Mr Tan said. "She was so close, yet so far."

Mr Tan later became the only reservist in SCDF history to get a three-step field promotion - from private to sergeant - for his courage and perseverance in search-and-rescue work.

He was also conferred the Public Service Star. But he said: "But in my mind, I did nothing special."

Mr Tan Kim Teck describing his search for survivors at the Hotel New World disaster site.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2017, with the headline 'Help was needed, and he answered the call'. Print Edition | Subscribe