30 years after hotel New World collapse, volunteers at scene look back

It might have been 30 years, but he remembers it like it was yesterday. Florist Bernard Chiang, then 35, was working at his shop in Lorong Lew Lian at Upper Serangoon Road on the afternoon of March 15, 1986, when he heard on the radio: "Emergency! Hotel New World has collapsed."

Mr Chiang said: "I dropped the flowers I was holding and called my superiors. We were trained for this and we had to help."

At the time, Mr Chiang was the company commander for the Braddell Heights Civil Defence volunteer company, a group of residents trained to respond in emergencies.

After getting his superiors' approval to mobilise his men, he rallied them. Within the hour, Mr Chiang and about 30 men were on their way to the collapsed hotel with their equipment and uniforms.

He recalls seeing the site for the first time: "It really was beyond words. When buildings collapse, they usually fall to one side but Hotel New World was flattened and stacked, like a sandwich."

There was no time to waste.

Mr Chiang and his men got to work, helping to clear the rubble, unearth survivors and carry out the dead.

The devastation around them was nothing they had ever imagined but Mr Chiang and his men persisted, staying at the site for a week.

"We were a group of everyday people. I was a florist, some of them were teachers, engineers or even unemployed," he says.

"It was tiring but we couldn't stop - not when we knew we could help."

Mr Chiang and his company were not the only ones who volunteered that day. Mr Kelvin Tan, 51, was then serving his national service as an instructor at the school of combat engineers.

When the six-storey hotel collapsed, Mr Tan's commander asked if anyone wanted to help. Almost on instinct, Mr Tan volunteered. Although he was told that he could only go at night and had to come back for training during the day, he accepted.

Mr Tan says: "I did not get much sleep but the decision was obvious."


Together with a friend, they helped to clear the rubble, transport resources to the rescuers and reassure relatives of the injured.

Mr Tan says he was disturbed by what he saw. "Seeing all that destruction in front of my eyes was indescribable," he recalls.

"They let me in because of my uniform but around the cordon, I could see people waiting for their relatives who could be trapped. It was really sad."

The collapse of the Hotel New World - which trapped 50 people, killed 33 and injured 17 - is considered to be the deadliest civil disaster in Singapore's history.

Five years after the collapse, construction work for a new seven-storey hotel started and in 1994, the Fortuna Hotel opened.

This article was first published on March 13, 2016.
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