The gnawing, cracking sound of bulging plywood was heard by the singers at the
Universal Neptune Night-Club and Restaurant in Singapore's Hotel new World,
situated at Little India. The noise was an unfamiliar one which was soon
dismissed by the singers once it was muffled by the music.
It was only the first in a series of
subtle hints that might have possibly prevented the tragic disaster.
Other odd events followed the very next day. The fateful morning of 15 March,
1986, began with passers-by noticing cracks on the outside of the hotel building
and also inside on a third-floor wall. A customer at the Industrial and
Commercial bank located at the building's ground floor told two young clerks
that there were several cracks on a column in the basement parking lot. As in
the previous night, however, these signs were also ignored until they
could be no longer ignored.
The hotel building soon began to tremble violently. For no apparent reason,
there was a loud crack and at 11.26 a.m., the unthinkable happened. Singapore is
not a country that is prone to natural or man-made disasters since independence.
There are no earthquakes, explosions or tornados to cause terrible damage. yet,
the six-storey hotel collapsed in less than one minute. Solid concrete columns
snapped into two and fragments were flung from walls. The noise was deafening as
floors gave way and then piled up upon rubble and a growing number of bodies.
Singaporeans going about their lives on the higher floors of the hotel were
more fortunate than others. Chambermaid, Tan Siew Bee, for instance, found
herself sinking down on her coffee-break in the staffroom on the fifth-floor of
the hotel. When the hotel collapsed, this floor was reduced to street level and
she and her colleague were able to scramble to safety relatively
unscathed. Those on the ground floor,
however, were the hardest hit. Mr Lim, a customer at the bank, had been coming
through the front door when parts of the ceiling rained down on him. The floor
broke open and he found himself falling forward, only to be trapped as his right
foot caught against something. Hanging upside down, Mr Lim began to scream for
help. His shouts were joined by several others, including those of bank clerk,
Suresh Balan, and security guard, Zainal Ali, who were lying side by side
beneath the crushing weight of walls and ceilings. While some held on to their
strength to scream for help, other simply could not take the pressure and soon
gave in to what they thought was inevitable.
To most people, the most shocking part of the tragedy was that it could
happen in Singapore. Singapore is a very unlikely spot for hotel collapses. As
Dennis Jacobs, an American engineer who was temporarily residing here, put it,
"In Singapore, buildings don't fall over. They go up."
Indeed, many of us have grown accustomed to seeing trees chopped down to make
way for skyscrapers and office blocks. That morning, however, Singaporeans were
forced to come to terms with something that very few would have expected or
anticipated. The sight of one of our very own buildings lying completely
destroyed unnerved many, but from the tragedy, Singaporeans shared community
spirit as hundreds of volunteers came forward to help total strangers who were
buried deep within the piles of rubble.
A Commission of Inquiry was soon set up. The findings included the building's
grossly inadequate structure and sloppy construction work. The main cause for
concern, however, was the fact that many people persistently ignored the warning
signs that were lurking all around them.