Worst building collapse in Singapore’s history

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30 years have passed since the collapse of Hotel New World and yesterday (15 Mar) marked its 30th anniversary.

It was one of the worst disasters since post-war Singapore and the catastrophe left 33 people dead, 17 survivors and the whole of Singapore devastated.

Here are 15 facts you did not know about the tragedy that took place in 1986:

1. In 1975, the building had a toxic carbon monoxide leak

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On 19 Aug 1975, the building appeared on the papers for having a toxic carbon monoxide leak which poisoned 35 hotel guests. As luck would have it, all 35 of them survived.

2. Two of the supporting pillars cracked the night before the disaster

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16 hours before the collapse of Hotel New World, one of hotel’s nightclub hostess realised that one of the supporting columns cracked. She called the building owner and workmen came to fix the cracks.

On the very same night, another bar hostess was checking her makeup in the mirror and the mirror cracked. The mirror was attached to another supporting pillar which cracked as well.

3. 75 mins before the collapse, debris was found in the basement

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The building collapsed at 11.25am and about an hour before, workmen were seen propping up wood against a cracking supporting pillar.

Terry W. Hulme, a structural engineer and Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Project director (the building of MRT underground tunnels was in the works then) then said:

Oh believe me, any structural engineer would immediately say you need to evacuate the building (referring to all the cracked supporting pillars as signs of an impending disaster).

If only the building’s owner had informed the authorities that the supporting pillars were cracking instead of engaging workmen to fix them — 33 lives could have been saved.

4. Rescue teams were not trained to deal with such a large-scale tragedy


Rescue personnels and firemen were not trained in this field to commence the rescue mission.

Tunnelling experts from Britain, Ireland and Japan who were working in nearby construction for the MRT were called in to help with the rescue.

A few of these men volunteered to assist.

5. The use of heavy machinery was not feasible

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The tunnelling experts were incredibly worried that the involvement of heavy machinery will cause the rubble to fall on people who are trapped.

They resorted to a risky method — to reach the trapped survivors by digging tunnels through the rubble.

6. The first tunnel caved in

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It took seven hours to tunnel through nine metres before the tunnel they were digging collapsed and the Irish workers scrambled out in the nick of time.

They restarted and dug an alternative tunnel and did not even catch a wink throughout the whole rescue mission.

In total, they dug 4 tunnels for almost two days and rescued eight people who were trapped.

7. The injured were taken to the hospital in a helicopter


During the course of the rescue mission, helicopters were based at Farrer Park to fly the injured to the hospital.

8. The tunnelling experts found a death trap

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As they reached the basement of Hotel New World — which was the carpark — it reeked the smell of petrol and they knew that a single spark could cause an explosion.

Water and petrol were then pumped out of the carpark before they could continue.

9. A piano company was transformed into a command center


Opposite the disaster site was Eagle Piano Company and it was used by authorities to carry out the rescue mission.

10. Singaporean ministers were there for the people when disaster struck


Many Members of Parliament (MPs) came to the scene after the collapse and the most notable ones were then-PM Lee Kuan Yew and then-Home Affairs Minister, Professor S Jayakumar.

Executive Group’s commander of rescue operations, Col. Chng recounted the incident and said that Professor S Jayakumar was always present and even slept in that area.

11. The building’s collapse was suspected to be caused by a bomb


However, further investigations revealed that there was no evidence proving that the collapse of the hotel was caused by a bomb.

Lab results proved that it was not because of the concentration of the cement; the cement was strong enough to be considered safe when tested.

Investigations also showed that the land where Hotel New World was built on was not the cause ( the piece of land Hotel New World sat on used to be a swamp).

New MRT tunnels were built nearby the hotel, but they were hundred of yards away and were unlikely to have caused the collapse of the whole building.

12. Live load of the building


Investigators took out blueprints of the building and calculated the live load of the building.

The live load of a building essentially means the added-on weight — including furniture, air-conditioned towers a building can support.

Investigators found out that the owner of the building added a total of 100 tonnes worth of live load throughout the years, which was not in the original plan.

These included a strongroom for a bank in the building, 3 air-conditioned towers and heavy duty glazed ceramic tiles on the surface of the building.

13. A startling discovery

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Investigators were shocked that even though there was an addition of over 100 tonnes of live load, calculations showed that the building was able to support the weight.

The investigators dug deeper and were shocked by the results.

The draftsmen of the building made a huge mistake when it came to calculating the dead load of the building (which means the weight of the building itself).

They found out that the building could not even support its own weight and the supporting columns of the building were stressed to the point of failure after 15 years.

It was only a matter of time before the building would collapse.

14. Supporting columns caused the building to collapse

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The failure of three supporting column burdened the rest of the columns and the other supporting columns could not withstand the extra weight of the building.

Mr Hulme referred to the collapse as the structure of a house of cards — when one card is knocked down the rest follow suit.

15. Some survivors made it out alive with only bruises

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One of the survivors of the collapse who was buried at the basement of the building was only found to have suffered a black eye.

Another survivor managed to crawl out of the building himself through the tunnels the tunnelling experts made.


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Featured image via Days of Disaster: Hotel New World Collapse
With reference to Singapore Infopedia, Wikipedia, Singapore Civil Defence Force, Seconds From Disaster Documentary