Overheard from Singapore Matters


On 15 March 1986 at approximately 11.25 am, Lian Yak Building, located at the junction of Serangoon and Owen roads and which housed the Hotel New World, suddenly collapsed.
It was a total collapse: The entire building from ground level upwards gave way, falling to the ground and basement levels, with no wall or column left standing.The collapse was also swift, lasting less than a minute.

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.

Eight minutes after the collapse, the first two fire engines 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.

The rescue operations, however, encountered difficulties as the rescue personnel were neither trained nor equipped to deal with such a situation.

As a result, the authorities decided to call in tunnelling experts from Britain, Ireland and Japan, who were stationed in Singapore at the time for the construction of the Mass Rapid Transit rail system.

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.

The entire search-and-rescue operations lasted four days.

When it ended, rescuers had pulled out 17 survivors and 33 bodies from the rubble.


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.

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