SINGAPORE: They were working round the clock for four days under conditions described as the most difficult and dangerous operation since the Hotel New World collapse in 1986.
The Nicoll Highway cave-in, which happened 10 years ago, left an indelible imprint on Singapore's elite Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (DART).
Since then, the team has enhanced its capabilities for under-water search and rescue operations.
Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Kadir Maideen, commander of 2nd Division at the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), said: "This is the same helmet that I used, cleaned up a bit, but many of the scratches are still here, the knocks that I had on the top of my head and all that."
LTC Kadir remembers vividly the day his team was activated on 24 April 2004. He was then commander of the DART team.
LTC Kadir said: "It was only upon reaching the edge of Nicoll Highway and when we saw the whole cavity created by the collapsed MRT structural works, then it dawned upon me... this is what we are going to work in, it's not really a bridge collapse but a collapse of a construction site, with the MRT tunnel and the beams and all that."
What greeted the team was a cave-in spanning the six-lane highway, resulting in a 30-metre deep cavity.
It was unlike any other structural collapse the DART team had faced.
LTC Kadir said: "We've done search and rescue operations in an urban setting, collapsed building and all that, but this... we've got a tide coming in, at that time the Marina Barrage was still under construction, so the tide was in, there's water, sea water."
The rescuers had to work in chest-high, turbulent, muddy water, amidst unstable sharp exposed metal and concrete structures.
At that time, they were not equipped with proper equipment to conduct underwater search and rescue operations, so they improvised by using masks worn for fire-fighting operations to dive into the murky waters.
They used their bare hands to try and search for bodies.
LTC Kadir said: "As you work, everything around you was creaking, the i-beams were moving and creaking and these were all safety challenges for us, the specialists on site took lots of calculated risks to perform the operations.
"The breathing apparatus sets, the cylinders are composite cylinders and they tend to float so we couldn't be having them harnessed to our backs. We had to again improvise, having longer hoses, have the cylinders somewhere else, the hose transports air to the face mask, so the user only has a face mask on him so that he can go under-water without having a composite cylinder push his body up."
Since then, the SCDF has implemented several measures to enhance its search and rescue capabilities. These include certifying all DART specialists in diving and water rescue skills, investing in sonar equipment to track its divers and detect drowned victims, as well as purchasing water pumps powerful enough to suck out silt ridden, muddy waters.
LTC Kadir said: "When you improvise, you may not work optimally but when you have good specific equipment for that work, then you can operate optimally in that situation."
Beyond enhancing its operational capabilities, LTC Kadir said the Nicoll Highway incident has left a deep impression among Singaporeans of the work the SCDF does.
LTC Kadir said: "One of the impact was the public perception of what SCDF is doing. We've always responded to many fire incidents locally, it's always featured in the media but for these three, three-and-a-half days, there was a lot of media focus on it and the public really got to see what SCDF could do. They also understood that we had specialist teams able and capable of doing specialised operations like the operations we did at Nicoll Highway.
"Over the years, post-Nicoll Highway, I also thought that people came and joined SCDF, made it their career because of what they saw at Nicoll Highway, they were inspired by the work that we did."
One stone located just a few metres away from Nicoll Highway was laid by the construction company involved in the Circle Line project.
It was placed there in memory of the victims who lost their lives during the Nicoll Highway collapse.
It bears the name of Mr Heng Yeow Peow, the 40-year-old foreman, whose body was never recovered. - CNA/de
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