Hotel New World collapse
The Lian Yak Building, popularly known as Hotel New World, collapsed on 15 March 1986 due to structural faults and poor-quality construction. The collapse left 33 people dead and was considered one of the worst disasters in post-war Singapore. A rescue operation involving more than 500 personnel from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), the Fire Service, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and foreign experts lasted for four days, and the rescuers pulled out 17 survivors from the rubble.
Situated at the junction of Serangoon Road and Owen Road, Hotel New World was a six-storey building. It was owned by Lian Yak Realty Company and was built between 1969 and 1971. Prior to the collapse, the building had made headlines when a toxic carbon monoxide leak on 19 August 1975 rendered 35 hotel guests unconscious. The building was then known as New Serangoon Hotel.
At the time of its collapse, the building was occupied by a branch of the Industrial & Commercial Bank on the ground floor and a nightclub on the second floor. The remaining floors were taken up by a 67-room hotel called Hotel New World. The building also had a car park at the basement and a flat roof that held a water tank, two storage water-heaters, a cooling tower and four condensing units of the air-conditioning system.
Hotel New World collapsed on 15 March 1986 at about 11:25 am. The collapse, which lasted less than a minute, did not leave a single wall or column standing and reduced the entire building to rubble. Eight minutes after the collapse, the first two fire engines dispatched from the Central Fire Station on Hill Street arrived at the scene. They were followed shortly by the police. Within half an hour, regulars and volunteers of the SCDF together with medical personnel of the SAF were also at the site. By late afternoon, government ministers and Cabinet members as well as relatives of the trapped victims were there to assess the situation.
However, rescue operations were hampered by the fact that the rescue personnel were not trained or equipped to deal with such situations. Initial attempts to clear the rubble created problems for the firemen who were tunnelling beneath it to reach survivors. The authorities then called in tunnelling experts from Britain, Ireland and Japan, who were then stationed in Singapore for the construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) subway. The progress of the rescue operations gathered momentum with the arrival of specialised equipment such as aqua-jet cutting tools, life detector devices and infrared imagers provided by private organisations and the SCDF.
Rescue efforts at the collapse site comprised several stages. Large debris and beams were first cleared, before tunnels were dug for rescue personnel to enter. The rescuers used life detectors to search for survivors, and the aqua-jet and other mechanical tools to cut through debris. The entire process, the tunnelling in particular, was carried out with extreme care to prevent cave-ins. A shophouse selling pianos operated by Eagle Piano Company opposite the collapse site was used by authorities as the command centre for the rescue operation, while helicopters were stationed in Farrer Park to fly the injured to hospitals. Authorities also set up a centre for the relatives of the trapped victims at a nearby coffeeshop called the Savoy Coffee House.
When rescue operations ended four days later on 19 March 1986, rescuers had pulled out 17 survivors from the rubble and retrieved the bodies of the 33 who perished.
Investigation and cause of collapse
On 22 March 1986, President Wee Kim Wee appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the cause of the collapse. In the final report that was released on 16 February 1987, the panel concluded that the collapse was due to the inadequate structural design of the building. The problem was further exacerbated by new installations on the roof and was exposed by the appearance of persistent cracks in columns, walls and floors weeks before the collapse. The commission also found that the architect's plans for the building were drawn up by an unqualified draughtsman, Leong Shui Lung. Leong had also recommended the building's architect Ee Hoong Khoon to the Lian Yak company. In March 1987, the commission noted that Ng Khoon Lim, the managing director of Lian Yak who had died in the collapse, was "very much in charge of the construction of the building and carried out the supervision himself".
The panel recommended that the government assume a more active role in the building industry to avert potential disasters of this nature. Measures recommended included more spot checks on buildings and legislation to enforce maintenance checks every five years. The revised laws also encouraged building owners to adopt more stringent standards in reviewing building plans, testing structural materials and supervising structural works.
In response to the recommendations, the government empowered the Development and Building Control Division in the Ministry of National Development as the agency to conduct structural checks on all new buildings. In addition, it integrated the Fire Service into the SCDF. This was to streamline the SCDF’s operations and improve its response to future disaster situations. The government also advised the owners of 170 other buildings designed by Ee and structural engineer K. N. Lekshmanan to check for structural problems.
Disaster relief fund
The Hotel New World disaster relief fund set up by the Community Chest raised more than S$1.5 million in donations from the public and other organisations. The families of the 33 who died in the collapse each received S$24,000, while an annuity scheme worth S$900,000 was set up for the 35 children of the victims.
15 March 1986
10:45 am to 11:10 am : Strange noises were heard from inside and outside Hotel New World.
11:25 am : Hotel New World collapsed.
11:26 am : The police and the Fire Service were alerted. First two fire engines were dispatched. They arrived eight minutes later.
12:00 pm to 1:00 pm : Arrival of rescue personnel from the Singapore Civil Defence Force, Fire Service, and the Armed Forces. The area around Hotel New World including Serangoon Road was cordoned off to enable rescue work to begin.
1:00 pm to 5:00 pm : Ministers and Cabinet members including First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, Minister for Home Affairs Professor S. Jayakumar and the ministry’s Director of Operations Lim Kim San arrived at the scene. During this period, rescuers began clearing the upper rubble with heavy cranes.
5:10 pm : Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew arrived at the scene.
6:40 pm : First trapped survivor was pulled out from the rubble and was airlifted to the Singapore General Hospital.
9:00 pm to midnight : Director of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Lim Leong Geok arrived at the scene. He was followed shortly by MRT project director Terry W. Hulme and other MRT engineers including Russell Black and Dave Stewart. At the end of the first day, nine survivors had been rescued and one body had been extracted from the rubble.
16 March 1986
Midnight to 6:00 am : More MRT personnel arrived to help clear the rubble using the cut-and-lift method.
7:00 am : Richard Keers, a geotechnical engineer and partner of Aqua Jet (Asia) Pte Ltd, arrived to direct the operation of aqua-jet cutting tools.
Afternoon to Midnight : President Wee Kim Wee arrived at the scene in the afternoon. By evening, much of the upper rubble had been cleared. By then MRT and other rescue personnel had begun the tunnelling process to reach survivors. The toll at the end of the second day was 11 rescued and 10 dead.
17 March 1986
Above-ground activity was stopped as rescuers stepped up tunnelling work. They continued even though one of the tunnels had collapsed before dawn. By the end of the day, rescuers were able to pull out another five survivors from the rubble, bringing the total number of rescued to 16. One of the survivors was even able to crawl out of the rubble on his own. The death toll remained at 10.
18 March 1986
Rescuers continued to tunnel through the rubble. Their efforts came to an end with the rescue of the last known survivor 83 hours after the collapse. The toll at the end of the fourth day of rescue was 11 dead and 17 rescued.
19 March 1986
Rescue operations were called off at mid-day after it became clear that there were no more survivors. Tunnelling was stopped and work to clear the remaining rubble started. Workers began to unearth more dead bodies and by the end of the day, the death toll had risen to 16.
20 March 1986
The removal of rubble continued at a rapid pace and another five bodies were uncovered, bringing the death toll to 21.
21 March 1986
The final 12 bodies were uncovered as workers cleared off the remaining rubble and removed more than 30 cars from the bottom of the heap. This brought the final death toll to 33. When the last of the bodies was lifted out, heavy machines were called in to clear the site.
22 March 1986
After the disaster site was sealed off with plywood hoardings, Serangoon Road was reopened to traffic. Life in the neighbourhood returned to normal. A commission of inquiry was then appointed by President Wee Kim Wee to find out the cause of the collapse.
26 April 1986
A special investiture ceremony was held to bestow national awards to 94 individuals and 33 organisations involved in the rescue operation. Among the recipients were MRT engineers Terry W. Hulme, Russell Black and Dave Stewart.
28 May to 30 May 1986
The commission of inquiry held its first hearings.
13 October 1986
The government called on owners of 170 buildings designed by the architect and engineer of Hotel New World to carry out structural checks on their buildings.
6 November 1986
51 personnel from the SCDF and the Fire Service involved in the rescue operation of Hotel New World were given the Rescue Badge.
16 February 1987
The final report and recommendations of the commission of inquiry were presented to President Wee.
Lim Tin Seng
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The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.