Time has not healed the pain

Today marks exactly 10 years since the Nicoll Highway collapse.

At 3.30pm on April 20, 2004, one of the worst construction accidents in Singapore's history claimed four lives.

The supporting scaffolding and structure around the deep excavation for the Circle Line collapsed. It resulted in a 30m-deep cave-in that spread across six lanes of the highway.

The tragedy is deeply-etched in the minds of many Singaporeans.

None more so than the families of the men who died, like the wife and children left behind by construction foreman Heng Yeow Peow.

Dubbed Hero Heng by this paper, the father of two children then aged 10 and 8, lost time to escape while urging his eight co-workers to get out. He and his team were at the bottom of the tunnel that was being built.

When The New Paper visited the Heng family at their four-room flat in Tampines this time last year, his widow, Madam Poa Beng Hong, revealed that time has not been the best salve and the grief is still raw.

Her late husband's "hero" status is cold comfort to her.

"So what if he has this nickname. It doesn't mean anything to us... It's like having a four-legged table and you suddenly lose one leg..."

Mr Heng, who was 40, was a sub-contractor for the project.

The search for his body was called off after three days. It was too deep for rescuers to get to without endangering other lives, and the surrounding area was extremely unstable.

All the family had for rites was a fistful of soil from the site placed in a miniature coffin, which was cremated.

A survivor said Mr Heng disregarded his own safety to ensure his eight co-workers got out alive.

For his courage, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Valour, the nation's top honour usually given to uniformed services personnel who demonstrate extreme courage in performing their duties.

Madam Poa reveals that members of the public still recognise her as Hero Heng's wife, making the tragedy harder to forget.

For this reason, she dislikes heading out unless she is accompanied by a friend or children.

Shortly after she lost her husband, she trawled through newspapers to compile articles published about him. She now has seven large photo albums. She confesses that she cries every time she looks at them.

"After two to three years, I felt that I couldn't go on like this, so I packed them up and kept them in the storeroom," she says.

A decade has gone by, but she still finds it hard to accept that he is really gone.

"So far, I have not seen his body (so) it's not so easy to just give up on it."

In tears, she added: "In this case, it's still a mystery. His wallet isn't there, there is nothing left of him, he is left inside... It's hard to admit that he is no longer here. It's impossible to accept."

While the Heng family still battle emotionally with their loss, they have at least been awarded a sum of compensation to tide them over difficult times.

In October 2007, a High Court hearing awarded the family $380,000 in compensation and $30,000 in legal costs. Mr Heng was the family's sole breadwinner.

Madam Poa now does odd jobs to sustain the family.

She said: "I'm a person with little courage, but my husband was different.

"If he ever saw anything that needed help, even a little bird, he would go and rescue it."

Loss of dad followed by more blows

The Nicoll Highway accident claimed four lives, including that of LTA inspector Tan Lock Yong.

His death took a toll on his family, especially his daughter, Madam Catherine Tan, who is now in her late 30s.

Life dealt her another cruel blow when her fiance called off their engagement two weeks after the tragedy. Shortly after that, her maternal grandmother, whom she had been very close to, died.

Madam Tan's mother, who could not deal with the double loss, slipped into depression.

Despite that, the aspiring actress forged on in her acting career. But her appearances in men's magazines like Maxim also sparked controversy.

In response to the flak she received, Madam Tan told TNP some nine years ago: "The fact is my dad died. I didn't pray for my father to die so that my face can be splashed in the papers."

Since then, she has stayed out of the limelight.

Madam Tan revealed to this reporter via text messages that she was based in Taiwan from 2011 to 2013, where she volunteered at homeless shelters and eldercare centers and acted in projects by students from Taiwan University.

It was also there that she met her Taiwanese husband, who is now a permanent resident here. Both are based in Singapore.

Ex-reporter: Hero Heng's story had to be told

A chaotic scene greeted former journalist Tanya Fong when she arrived at the accident scene of the collapse.

"Many people from nearby buildings, including Golden Mile Complex, had been evacuated and were milling around. There was lots of fear and panic in the air," says the 38-year-old, who was then reporting for The Straits Times.

Miss Fong remembers staking out Kampong Glam Community Club, where the family of LTA inspector Tan Lock Yong were putting up.

"When his daughter Catherine finally spoke to me it was about 2am, one day after the accident. When I asked her how she was holding out, she just cried.

"It was heartbreaking as they were still hoping that he would be found. She also sent her father an SMS, telling him that he was missed and asking him to come home soon."

Mr Tan's body was eventually found beneath the undercarriage of a 5,000kg tipper truck two days after the incident.

Miss Joycelyn Wong, 35, a reporter with The New Paper at the time, was tasked to track down the workers involved.

She and her colleague uncovered the moving story of Hero Heng.

"I remember stopping every worker in the Kallang vicinity, where dormitories were located, asking if they knew the workers from the company involved in the tragedy.

"We began in the afternoon and still had not found the workers when the sky turned dark. It was easy to give up then, but we persevered because we knew Hero Heng's story was one that had to be told.

"And no one could tell it better than the very people he had saved," recounts Miss Wong, who is now a senior manager for communications and corporate responsibility in the financial industry.

Eventually she and her colleague, together with a friend who could translate Thai to English, recorded the account of one of Hero Heng's Thai workers.

"There was a look in his eyes that is difficult to describe... the look of someone who just managed to crawl out from the jaws of death," she says.

Speaking to one of Mr Heng's superiors also made an indelible impression on her, even after a decade.

"He told me that the motto for their foreman was 'first man in, last man out'. It was probably a mantra that was chanted regularly, but I wondered how many would have the courage to act like Hero Heng," she muses.


This article was published on April 20 in The New Paper.

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