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Nicoll Highway Cave-In


Part of Nicoll Highway caved into the MRT Circle Line tunnel construction underneath on Tuesday, 20 April 2004. The cause of the incident was attributed as incidental. Although most escaped unhurt, there were three casualties and four fatalities.

Description of Operations

The first SCDF responders from the Central Fire Station arrived at 1542 hrs and were greeted by a chaotic sight of construction wreckage and the remains of a broken highway. Huge piles of concrete slabs, thick steel beams and construction vehicles filled the approximately 15,000 metres square chasm. Close to the Golden Mile Complex, a broken underground pipe was releasing a column of gas into the atmosphere.

As firefighters and paramedics raced to locate and rescue surface casualties, back-up SCDF support and the Related Agencies were activated. By 1610 hrs, the first live casualty with leg injuries was located and was rushed to the SGH within minutes. Two more casualties were found shortly after and conveyed to Tan Tock Seng Hospital by 1625 hrs, and reinforcement from specialist SCDF units, such as, the Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (DART) and Search Platoon arrived. Swiftly the additional forces and nearly 20 rescue appliances including the Heavy Rescue Tender and the Command Vehicles were deployed strategically to manage the operation. The information gathered at the site revealed that four persons were still unaccounted for.

By nightfall, it was clear that the operation would stretch for days, requiring stamina and strategy. Arrangements were made for rescuers to work on shift, and off-duty personnel were activated to sustain the search and rescue operation over a protracted duration.

Teams of rescuers with search dogs sent to comb the incident site were thoroughly briefed about the instability of the mangled mass of debris. At 1807 hrs, the search operation yielded results as the first body of the four missing workers was located and extricated. He was submerged in water and mud, between an office container and a 5-tonne tipper truck 20 metres below ground level.

Close to 0100 hrs on 21 April 2004, the DELSAR Life Detector system was used, but unfortunately, no sign of life was detected. Nevertheless, DART rescuers and the Search Platoon continued to plow the ruins in small groups.

The second victim’s body was extricated by DART personnel at 2338 hrs on 21 April 2004. Though the body was found some five hours before, extrication was difficult as it was wedged between the rear wheels of a truck submerged in murky water. It was a delicate operation as any major movement at the rubble area could consequentially lead to a landslide of rubbles and debris. In addition, it was foremost on the minds of the rescuers to ensure that the body was recovered whole and intact.

On 22 April 2004 at 1215 hrs, the third victim's body was extricated. It was a few metres away from the location of the second victim’s body, and was pinned beneath the undercarriage of a 5-tonne tipper truck. Like the second victim’s body, it was submerged in murky waters where visibility was zero. Rescuers had to dig vertically downwards through a stack of rubbles and debris in three cavities, two of them flooded with water and obstructed by mangled steel beams and struts. But the operation proved to be extremely daunting as the cavities had little room to maneuver and visibility in the flooded cavities was zero.

Search was suspended at 0105 hrs on 23 April 2004 as the Land Transport Authority (LTA) detected stability problems. Grouting was immediately carried out to stabilise the site. Operations for the rest of the morning had to be disrupted whenever there were signs of danger. At dawn, following the grouting work, water was pumped out from the cavities and this allowed the rescuers to descend into the pit to conduct search.

At 1300 hrs, heavy rain caused significant soil erosion and though the rescuers were anxious to locate the last victim, the painful decision to halt the operation had to be made. The rescue operation ceased at 1530 hrs as sending rescuers back into the giant trough risked burying them alive, and further delay to grouting operations by the LTA could affect the structural stability of nearby buildings.

By the end of the 4-day operation, three lives were saved and three bodies were uncovered.