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The Hotel New World disaster happened on Saturday 15 March 1986 at 11.25 am. The 6 level building with 1 basement carpark collapsed suddenly killing 33 people. The subsequent rescue effort saved 17 lives out of the 50 people trapped in the rubble.
The rescue operations involved both the government and the private organisations. The disaster was a real-life test for the then newly established Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).
HQ SCDF was activated by Police Radio Division at 11.33 am on 15 Mar 86. SCDF initial response team together with the Rescue Tender was despatched to assist in the initial rescue activities. At the same time, resources from 3 CD training camps, CD 'D' Division and the CD Volunteer Units were activated.
The immediate tasks undertaken by SCDF were as follows:
make proper assessment of the situation and formulate initial plans for rescue operations
assess the resources (i.e. manpower, equipment and facilities) available
work out a command and control system
analyse the courses of action and determine the best approach in the rescue operations so that the maximum number of
victims trapped could be rescued within the shortest possible time
co-ordinate with CD related agencies and private organisations available to assist in the operations
get the site cleared of vehicles and people who were not involved in the rescue operations
With the above sorted out, planning and orders group meetings were held to work out and implement a concerted and co-ordinated rescue operations.
The immediate area of disaster was divided into 3 sectors for easy control and management of rescue operations. Different teams of rescuers were assigned to each sector with Sector Commander taking charge. A senior SCDF Officer was appointed as the overall Site Commander to co-ordinate and oversee the efforts of the sectors.
On the first 1 1/2 days (15 & 16 Mar) the approach was to remove beams and debris from the top and the sides so as to locate and to gain access to those people trapped inside the rubble. During this phase, a few casualties were rescued.
In the later part of the second day (16 Mar), with the assistance from MRT tunnelling experts, a new approach was adopted. Tunnels were made from the sides to reach those trapped beneath. Before tunnelling started, life detector devices were used to pin-point the spots where the victims were trapped. Tunnelling was a slow and risky process. During the tunnelling stage, the rescue efforts from the top were stopped as any movement or vibration could cause further collapse which would endanger the lives of the survivors as well as the rescuers. Through the tunnelling method a number of survivors were rescued.
On the fourth day (18 Mar), attempts to detect any more survivors under the debris were unsuccessful. Hence, the next phase of rapid "cut and lift" method from the top was adopted. This stage witnessed the recovery of a few corpses.
Equipment and Techniques
Equipment and means were key factors in this operation. All the rescue equipment belonging to SCDF were made available for use at the disaster site at short notice. A number of equipment belonging to the SAF, SFS and those that were donated and loaned to the rescuers by private owners were put to good use.
During the operations, decision on mode of rescue techniques to be adopted were was made after consultation with the experts from the organisations such as: Public Works Department Structural Engineers, Mass Rapid Transit Engineers, Chief Medical Officer from the Singapore Armed Forces, Pathologist and SFS. Meetings and briefings were conducted as and when needed, with ground commanders, other agencies, site commanders and experts, not only to brief them but to plan and co-ordinate the next phase of the rescue operations.
The recovery operations were terminated only when all the survivors had been rescued and dead bodies removed.
The CD civilian volunteer capability within the community was put to a real test in the Hotel New World disaster. 146 CD volunteers from Moulmein, Cairnhill and Jalan Besar constituencies were among the first CD rescuers on the scene. They worked hand in hand with CD rescuers of the Construction Battalion, CD regulars and reservists, firemen and soldiers to clear the debris from surrounding areas of the disaster site during the initial phase of the rescue operation, in an attempt to locate possible survivors.
Later, more CD volunteer Units from other 36 constituencies came to organize the support facilities to provide food and refreshments for the rescuers deployed at the disaster site. In addition to the above, 96 volunteers from another 19 constituencies, without waiting to be mobilized, also turned up on their own accord to render their assistance. Some CD volunteer instructors and volunteers stayed on, day-after-day, to provide medical assistance or render specialist service as supervisors of heavy equipment. Subsequently, three Civil Defence volunteers namely, Dr Edward Pang, Mr Henry Han Liang Kwang and Tengku Abdul Rahman were given national honours for their part in the Hotel New World rescue operations. All three of them received the Public Service Medal from former President Wee Kim Wee at Singapore Conference Hall that year.
It was unfortunate that the rescue forces had to gain such valuable experience from a disaster of this magnitude. This experience, however enabled the SCDF to re-examine its doctrine of rescue operations, the suitability of its equipment and the operating procedure in conducting rescue operations.