Remembering the hero of Nicoll Highway collapse whose body was never found
He died saving the lives of eight workers.
On April 20, 2004, a cave-in at the then Circle Line work site caused a section of the Nicoll Highway to collapse, killing four men.
The collapse of a temporary retaining wall of the tunnel at the Circle Line at Nicoll Highway caused the disaster.
Three of the bodies were found. They belonged to:
- Crane operator Vadivil Nadeson from Malaysia, who was in his 40s
- 37-year-old construction worker Liu Rong Quan from China
- 56-year-old site inspector John Tan Lock Yong from Singapore.
Only the body of local foreman Heng Yeow Pheow was never found.
He left behind a widow and two children.
He was reportedly 40 years old at the time of the accident.
On the morning of April 20, the construction workers on site at the excavation pit heard strange noises coming from the steel struts.
The workers quickly evacuated the work site.
In the afternoon, some workers were sent into the excavation pit to try to stabilise the structure with cement. It didn’t work.
At 3:30pm, the steel supports over the tunnel started to fall over causing a section of Nicoll Highway to cave in.
At the same time, surrounding buildings such as Golden Mile Tower, Golden Mile Complex, The Concourse and Suntec City encountered blackouts.
Tremors were felt at the nearby Golden Mile Complex and its residents were evacuated.
A total of 75 Singapore Civil Defence Force’s Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (SCDF DART) men accompanied by their rescue dogs were sent in to the disaster area at 3:40pm.
They ascertained that there were four men who were unaccounted for, and proceeded to search for these men.
By 6.15pm, Vadivil’s body was found.
Over the next couple of days, the bodies of Liu and Tan were also found.
On the third day, the search for Heng’s body was called off because it had become too risky.
It was assumed that Heng died.
It was later found that Heng, who was employed by a sub-contractor Kori Construction, stayed behind when the temporary walls at his work site were toppling — just so that he could make sure that his eight Thai co-workers managed to escape.
The families of each of the deceased received S$30,000 in compensation by construction firm Nishimatsu-Lum Chang to tide over the difficult period.
The family left behind
Heng left behind a widow, known as Mdm Poa, who was 34 years old at that time, and two children — an eight-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl.
The lack of a body for the family meant that there was little closure afforded to them:
“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.”
– Mdm Poa, in a The New Paper interview.
Outpouring of public support
Their plight prompted an outpouring of public support.
Other than the S$380,000 in compensation and S$30,000 in legal costs from the three construction firms involved, more than S$630,000 was also raised through public donations.
A trust fund was also set up for Mdm Poa by former Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng.
It will help sustain the family until 2019, when the children reach working age.
Heng’s ex-workers also praised him for his friendliness:
“We would drink coffee and Ah Heng would give fruit to everyone to eat during tea break. I used to visit his home during Chinese New Year. But (after the accident), I didn’t… The family always cries (because they are reminded of Mr Heng) when I visit. So I try not to go so often.”
– Ex-colleague Mr Phornamdaeng in a The New Paper interview
The same TNP article also mentioned that every year on April 20, Heng’s ex-colleagues would gather at the open field behind Golden Mile Complex to offer prayers and incense to him.
They also set up a small plaque and a commemorative stone at the spot where they believe his body is.
A commemorative bench was also installed at Tampines Tree Park because it was the late Heng’s favourite park.
Fifteen years on, they are the only reminders of a true Singaporean hero.
Top photo via