Nicoll Highway collapse

A stretch of Nicoll Highway collapse on 20 April 2004, rendering it unpassable for more than seven months. The disaster occurred due to the collapse of a temporary retaining wall of the tunnel at the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Circle Line at Nicoll Highway. The wall’s collapse caused a cave-in and brought the surrounding area and the highway down into it, forming a 30-metre-deep ravine.1 The tragedy left four men dead.

The 759-metre-long Nicoll Highway was officially opened on 17 August 1956 to connect Kallang to the Central Business District. Built by the British at a cost of $8 million (or S$85 million today), the highway was named after the former governor of Singapore, John Nicoll. It adjoins Merdeka Bridge.2

At about 3:30pm on 20 April 2004, while most construction workers of the MRT Circle Line tunnel at Nicoll Highway were having their tea break, the steel supports over the tunnel began to fall over, going down like dominoes into the deep tunnel.3 The surrounding area followed suit, leaving a wide gorge scattered with twisted steel beams, cranes and rubble.4

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) immediately set up its crisis management centre, activating over 337 people,5 while the Building and Construction Authority proceeded to inspect all the construction sites and buildings along the Circle Line.6 Meanwhile, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) Disaster and Rescue Team were activated and found find four site workers who were unaccounted for.7 Three others who were injured were taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital.8 After four days of rescue operations, the search for missing persons under the tunnel was called off on 23 April because it had become too risky.9 The collapse claimed four lives.10

As Nicoll Highway sank, gas, water and electricity cables snapped, causing power to go out for about 15,000 people and 700 businesses in the Marina Bay and Suntec City areas. Tenants and residents of the nearby Golden Mile Complex, where tremors were felt, were evacuated.11

Following the collapse, the police immediately cordoned off Merdeka Bridge and sealed all roads leading to Nicoll Highway. The road closure affected thousands of commuters,12 who had to use alternative routes into and out of the city. Public transport services were also diverted. Electronic Road Pricing charges were waived at the entry to the East Coast Parkway from Kallang Road.13

As a result of the collapse, excavation works at all the Circle Line sites under the charge of the main contractor, Nishimatsu-Lum Chang, were temporarily suspended. The completion of the Circle Line was also expected to be delayed by about a year, from 2010 to 2011.14 Nevertheless, the Nicoll Highway MRT Station would still be built. The cost of damages arising from the disaster was estimated to run into millions.15

Nishimatsu-Lum Chang also unconditionally offered S$30,000 to the family of each man who died.16 They acknowledged that monetary compensation would not assuage the grief of those who lost family members in the collapse but the sum was given to tide them over the difficult period.17

Report of the committee of inquiry
After the incident, the government formed a three-man committee of inquiry to probe into the cause of the collapse and present recommendations to prevent a similar tragedy.18 The committee published its final report on 10 May 2005. It was concluded that “critical design errors” had resulted in the collapse of the earth-retaining wall system. Another significant finding was the lack of safety culture in the building project.19 The main recommendations of the committee included: effective risk management; a good system of managing uncertainties and quality; as well as design review and independent checks.20

20 April
9.00 am: Strange noises from the steel struts first heard by Kori Construction site workers at the excavation pit. Workers leave excavation pit.
2.00 pm: Workers go into the pit and use cement in an attempt to stabilise the structure.21
3.30 pm: MRT tunnel collapses, causing a section of Nicoll Highway to caves in. Blackout in surrounding buildings: Golden Mile Tower, Golden Mile Complex, The Concourse and Suntec City.22
3.40 pm: Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) personnel arrive. 75 men and their rescue dogs from the SCDF's (DART) move into action.23
3:50 pm: Electricity restored to affected buildings.
6:15 pm: The first body of the four missing men, that of Malaysian crane operator, Vadivil Nadason, 42, is found.24

21 April
11:45 pm: 162 SCDF men are now involved. Rescuers find the second body, that of a Chinese national, from the disaster site.25

22 April
11:45 am: Body of LTA site inspector John Tan Lock Yong, 56, is found about 1.6 m under muddy waters, between a tipper truck and a container.26 Manpower Ministry names a three-man committee of inquiry to examine how the Nicoll Highway collapse happened.27

23 April
Nishimatsu-Lum Chang offers an ex gratia payment of S$30,000 to each of the four families who lost a member in the tragedy.28
A section of the Merdeka Bridge nearest the accident site is cut off to allow the Crawford Underpass to be reopened to traffic.29
SCDF rescuers calls off search for the last victim, Heng Yeow Peow, 40.30

24 April
LTA orders all excavation work to stop at other Circle Line worksites.31

25 April
A 600-metre section of Nicoll highway between Mountbatten Road and Stadium Road is opened to allow drivers to reach the National Stadium, Singapore Indoor Stadium and Kallang Theatre areas.32 Foam concrete is poured into the ground around the 30-metre-deep gap to stabilise the site.33

4 December
Nicoll highway is reopened to road users after a hiatus of more than seven months.34


Nureza Ahmad

1. Sharon Loh, “MRT Worksite Collapse Wrecks Nicoll Highway,” Straits Times, 21 April 2004, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Serene Goh, “On a Trip down Highway’s Memory Lane,” Straits Times, 26 April 2004, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Loh, “MRT Worksite Collapse.” 
4. Loh, “MRT Worksite Collapse.” 
5. Christopher Tan, “It Happened without Warning: LTA,” Straits Times, 22 April 2004, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Constant Checks to Make Sure Nearby Buildings Sound,” Straits Times, 22 April 2004, H2. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Irene Hoe, “For SCDF Rescuers, a Delicate Mission Fraught with Danger,” Straits Times, 23 April 2004, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Loh, “MRT Worksite Collapse.” 
9. Sharon Loh, “Search Called Off,” Straits Times, 24 April 2004, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Karamjit Kaur, “Soft Soil at Other MRT Lines Too,” Straits Times, 25 April 2004, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Loh, “MRT Worksite Collapse.” 
12. Loh, “MRT Worksite Collapse.” 
13. “More Road and ERP Changes to Ease Traffic,” Straits Times, 27 April 2004, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Main Contractor Told to Stop All Excavation Work,” Straits Times, 24 April 2004, H3. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Kaur, “Soft Soil at Other MRT Lines Too.” 
16. “Main Contractor Offers $30,000 Each to Grieving Families,” Straits Times, 23 April 2004, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Main Contractor Offers $30,000.”
18. Kaur, “Soft Soil at Other MRT Lines Too.” 
19. Ministry of Manpower Singapore, Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Incident at the MRT Circle Line Worksite that Led to the Collapse of Nicoll Highway on 20 April 2004 (Singapore: Ministry of Manpower, 2005), i, vi, viii. (Call no. RSING 363.119624171 SIN)
20. Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, “Committee of Inquiry Concludes String of Critical Design Errors Caused Collapse at Nicoll Highway,” press release, 13 May 2005, 1, 7–9, 13–15. (National Archives of Singapore document 20050513987)
21. “Saved by Foreman’s Sixth Sense,” Straits Times, 22 April 2004, H3. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Loh, “MRT Worksite Collapse.” 
23. “Delicate Search for the Missing,” Straits Times, 22 April 2004,  H2(From NewspaperSG)
24. Loh, “MRT Worksite Collapse.” 
25. “Delicate Search for the Missing.”
26. Hoe, “SCDF Rescuers.”
27. Ministry of Transport,Government Response to Interim Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Incident at the MRT Circle Line Worksite (C824 of the Circle Line Project) That Led to the Collapse of Nicoll Highway on 20 April 2004, press release, 13 September 2004.
28. “Main Contractor Offers $30,000.”
29. “Bridge Section to Be Cut off So Underpass Can Open,” Straits Times, 23 April 2004, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Loh, “Search Called Off.” 
31. “Main Contractor Told to Stop All Excavation Work,” Straits Times, 24 April 2004, H3. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “Section of Highway to Reopen,” Straits Times, 25 April 2004, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Arti Mulchand, “Stabilising Ground Is Now Top Priority,” Straits Times, 25 April 2004, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
34. “Nicoll Highway Opens after $3M in Repairs,” Straits Times, 5 December 2004, 10. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
LTA Orders Its Worksites to Be Checked,” Straits Times, 24 April 2004, H2. (From NewspaperSG)

M. Nirmala, “Digging Stopped at All Circle Line Sites,” Straits Times, 26 April 2004, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

 “Up to $111,000 for Each Collapse Victim,” Straits Times, 4 May 2004, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2017 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.

Nicoll Highway Collapse, Singapore, 2004
Streets and Places