Hotel New World Collapse


The Lian Yak Building, which housed Hotel New World, collapsed on 15 March 1986 due to structural defects and poor-quality construction. The collapse left 33 people dead,1 and was considered one of the worst disasters in post-war Singapore.2 A rescue operation involving more than 500 personnel from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), Singapore Fire Service, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and foreign experts took place over four days. Seventeen survivors were pulled out from the rubble.3

Background
Situated at the junction of Serangoon Road and Owen Road, Hotel New World was a six-storey building owned by Lian Yak Realty Company and built between 1969 and 1971.4 The building first 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.5

At the time of its collapse in 1986, 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 carpark 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.6

Collapse
Hotel New World collapsed on 15 March 1986 at around 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.7 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.8 Within half an hour, regulars and volunteers of the SCDF, together with medical personnel of the SAF, were also at the scene. By late afternoon, government ministers and cabinet members, as well as relatives of the trapped victims, had also arrived to assess the situation.9

Rescue operations were hampered by the fact that the rescue personnel were not trained nor equipped to deal with such a situation. 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 stationed in Singapore at the time 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 infra-red imagers provided by private organisations and the SCDF.10

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, in particular the tunnelling, 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 operations, while helicopters were stationed at Farrer Park to fly the injured to hospitals. Authorities also set up a centre for relatives of trapped victims at the nearby Bee Huat Coffeeshop.11

When search and rescue operation ended four days later on 19 March, rescuers had pulled out 17 survivors from the rubble12 and retrieved the bodies of 33 who had perished.13

Investigation and cause of collapse
On 22 March 1986, then President Wee Kim Wee appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the cause of the collapse. In the final report released on 16 February 1987, the panel concluded that the collapse was due to the inadequate structural design of the building.14 The problem was further exacerbated by new installations on the roof, and the appearance of persistent cracks in columns, walls and floors weeks before the collapse. The commission also discovered that the building’s architectural plans and structural drawings were drawn up by unqualified draughtsmen, Leong Shui Lung and Shum Cheong Heng, respectively. Leong had also recommended the building’s architect, Ee Hoong Khoon, to Lian Yak Realty 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”.15


The panel recommended that the government assumed a more active role in the building industry to avert potential disasters of this nature. Measures recommended include conducting 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.16

In response to the recommendations, the government appointed the Development and Building Control Division at the Ministry of National Development as the agency to conduct structural checks on all new buildings. In addition, it integrated the Singapore Fire Service with the SCDF in order 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.17

Hotel New World Disaster Relief Fund
The Hotel New World Disaster Relief Fund, set up by the Community Chest of Singapore, raised more than S$1.5 million in donations from the public as well as private organisations and companies. The families of the 33 who died in the collapse each received S$24,000, while an annuity scheme worth more than S$900,000 was set up for the 35 children of the victims.18

Timeline19
15 March 1986
10.45–11.10 am: Strange noises heard from inside and outside Hotel New World.

11.25 am: Hotel New World collapses.
11.26 am: The police and the fire service are alerted.
12–1 pm: Arrival of rescue personnel from the SCDF, fire service and SAF. The area around Hotel New World, including Serangoon Road, is cordoned off.
1–5 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, arrive at the scene. Rescuers begin clearing the upper rubble with heavy cranes.
5.10 pm: Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew arrives.
6.40 pm: First trapped survivor is pulled out from the rubble and airlifted to the Singapore General Hospital.
9 pm–midnight: Director of the MRT, Lim Leong Geok, MRT project director Terry W. Hulme and other MRT engineers, including Russell Black and Dave Stewart, arrive. Nine survivors rescued and one body extracted from the rubble.

16 March 1986

Midnight–6 am: More MRT personnel are deployed to clear the rubble using the cut-and-lift method.
7 am: Richard Keers, a geotechnical engineer and partner of Aqua Jet (Asia) Pte Ltd, arrives to direct the operation of aqua-jet cutting tools.
Afternoon–midnight: President Wee Kim Wee arrives in the afternoon. By evening, much of the upper rubble has been cleared. Rescue personnel begin the tunnelling process to reach survivors. The toll at the end of the second day is 11 rescued and seven dead.

17 March 1986

Above-ground activity is stopped; rescuers step up tunnelling work.
Five survivors rescued from the rubble, bringing the total number rescued to 16.
Death toll remains at 10.

18 March 1986
Rescuers continue to tunnel through the rubble.

Last known survivor is rescued 83 hours after the collapse.
The toll at the end of the fourth day of rescue is 11 dead and 17 rescued.

19 March 1986
Rescue operations called off at mid-day after it becomes clear that there are no more survivors.

Tunnelling stops and work to clear the remaining rubble starts.
Workers begin to unearth more dead bodies; death toll rises to 16.

20 March 1986
Removal of rubble continues at a rapid pace.

Five bodies uncovered, bringing the death toll to 21.

21 March 1986
Last 12 bodies uncovered, bringing the final death toll to 33.

More than 30 cars cleared from the bottom of the heap.
Heavy machines start to clear the site.

22 March 1986
Disaster site is sealed off; Serangoon Road re-opens to traffic.

President Wee Kim Wee appoints a commission of inquiry to investigate the cause of the collapse.

26 April 1986
National awards are bestowed on 94 individuals and 33 organisations involved in the rescue operations.


28–30 May 1986
The commission of inquiry holds its first hearings.


6 November 1986
51 personnel from the SCDF and fire service involved in the rescue operations are awarded the Rescue Badge.


16 February 1987
The commission of inquiry presents its report to President Wee.




Author

Lim Tin Seng



References
1. How to avoid another Hotel New World disaster. (1987, March 29). The Straits Times, pp. 1, 14–15; How the victims were rescued. (1986, March 23). The Sunday Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ministry of Culture. (1986). Singapore facts and pictures. Singapore: Author, p. 248. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SMCFFS)
2. Rescue pace stepped up. (1986, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. How the events unfolded. (1986, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 6; How the victims were rescued. (1986, March 23). The Sunday Times, p. 4; 100 still trapped. (1986, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 1; Chronology of events. (1987, March 15). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. 100 still trapped. (1986, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 1; Gas leak made news 10 years ago. (1986, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Thean, L. P., et al. (1987). Report of the inquiry into the collapse of Hotel New World. Singapore: Singapore National Printers, pp. 1, 62–64, 78–79, 86. (Call no.: RSING 690.85095957 SIN)
5. Gas leak made news 10 years ago. (1986, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 4; 100 still trapped. (1986, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Thean, L. P., et al. (1987). Report of the inquiry into the collapse of Hotel New World. Singapore: Singapore National Printers, pp. 1, 62–64, 78–79, 86. (Call no.: RSING 690.85095957 SIN)
7. Thean, L. P., et al. (1987). Report of the inquiry into the collapse of Hotel New World. Singapore: Singapore National Printers, pp. 1, 62–64, 78–79, 86. (Call no.: RSING 690.85095957 SIN); The imminent explosion. (1987, March 29). The Straits Times, p. 14; Chronology of events. (1987, March 15). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Hon, J. (1987). Hotel New World collapse. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 11, 21, 26–28, 31, 40, 49–54, 74–75. (Call no.: RSING 904.7095957 HON)
9. How the events unfolded. (1986, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Hon, J. (1987). Hotel New World collapse. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 11, 21, 26–28, 31, 40, 49–54, 74–75. (Call no.: RSING 904.7095957 HON); Rescue pace stepped up. (1986, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Hon, J. (1987). Hotel New World collapse. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 11, 21, 26–28, 31, 40, 49–54, 74–75. (Call no.: RSING 904.7095957 HON)
12. How the victims were rescued. (1986, March 23). The Sunday Times, p. 4; Chronology of events. (1987, March 15). The Straits Times, p. 2; Rescuers to get awards on April 26. (1986, April 17). The Straits Times, p. 1; Woman safely out after 83 hours. (1986, March 19). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. How the victims were rescued. (1986, March 23). The Sunday Times, p. 4; Chronology of events. (1987, March 15). The Straits Times, p. 2; Rescuers to get awards on April 26. (1986, April 17). The Straits Times, p. 1; How to avoid another Hotel New World disaster. (1987, March 29). The Straits Times, pp. 1, 14–15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Thean, L. P., et al. (1987). Report of the inquiry into the collapse of Hotel New World. Singapore: Singapore National Printers, pp. 1, 62–64, 78–79, 86. (Call no.: RSING 690.85095957 SIN); President receives report on hotel collapse. (1987, February 17). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Time bomb is triggered. (1987, March 29). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. How to avoid another Hotel New World disaster. (1987, March 29). The Straits Times, pp. 1, 14–15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Thean, L. P., et al. (1987). Report of the inquiry into the collapse of Hotel New World. Singapore: Singapore National Printers, pp. 1, 62–64, 78–79, 86. (Call no.: RSING 690.85095957 SIN); Fully-merged disaster force by end of the year. (1989, April 11). The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Gabriel, M. (1986, July 4). Children of hotel disaster victims to get $900,000. The Straits Times, p. 14; $24,000 each for hotel tragedy victims. (1986, May 7). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Hon, J. (1987). Hotel New World collapse. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 11, 21, 26–28, 31, 40, 49–54, 74–75. (Call no.: RSING 904.7095957 HON); Thean, L. P., et al. (1987). Report of the inquiry into the collapse of Hotel New World. Singapore: Singapore National Printers, pp. 1, 62–64, 78–79, 86. (Call no.: RSING 690.85095957 SIN); Chronology of events. (1987, March 15). The Straits Times, p. 2; How the events unfolded. (1986, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 6; Rescue pace stepped up. (1986, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 1. How the victims were rescued. (1986, March 23). The Sunday Times, p. 4; President receives report on hotel collapse. (1987, February 17). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



Further resources
Civil Defence Force passes its first real test. (1986, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Reports of tremors and cracks, and questions on structure. (1987, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Shock and disbelief at scene of the tragedy. (1986, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Teamwork was vital. (1986, March 26). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



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.

 

Subject
Accidents
Building failures--Singapore
Disasters--Singapore
Structural failures--Singapore
Science and technology>>Construction>>Buildings
Hotel New World Collapse, Singapore, 1986
Building failures--Investigation--Singapore
Events>>Disasters

All Rights Reserved. National Library Board Singapore 2011.