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Home / Features / In-the-Know / “It was quite painful, but I knew that I had a job to do so I put the pain aside... ”  
Published: 02 Aug 2012 05:22PM (Singapore)
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“It was quite painful, but I knew that I had a job to do so I put the pain aside... ”
Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (DART) members share with Home Team News how they searched for two missing workers at the Downtown Line scaffolding collapse incident in Bugis and sustained injuries.
By Daniel Govindan

SCDF DART Personnel trying to extricate the two missing victims trapped under the collapsed scaffolding. PHOTO: SCDF

All the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) rescuers knew when they first responded to the distress call was there were two missing workers somewhere under the rubble of a collapsed scaffolding.

The tangled mesh of metal bars scaled up to about two-storeys high and spanned an area with twice the length of a basketball court and is 5m wide.

As SCDF Captain (CPT) Benny Ong, 31, approached the scene he knew it would be a challenging mission.

 “The extrication was challenging because of the depth of the tunnel, coupled with the scaffolding collapse which resulted in a mess of debris and tangled reinforced bars. There was wet cement that ranged from ankle to waist-deep and all these hampered our rescue efforts,” said CPT Ong.

Time was not on their side as every moment could reduce the survivability of the victims.

He told his team to spare no effort and leave no stone unturned to find the workers.

CPT Ong and his team of eight personnel were from the SCDF’s elite Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (DART).

They were the first DART team to reach the scene of the collapsed scaffolding.

On 18 July 2012 at 6.50am, the temporary scaffolding used for the construction of a roof at the new Downtown Line (DTL) Bugis station construction site gave way.

The structure, which is located between the new DTL Bugis and the current Bugis Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Station, was built to form an underground linkway between the two stations.

It is believed that cement was being poured into the structure when it gave way.

Eight workers were injured and two were missing.

SCDF was alerted at 7.20 am and SCDF personnel arrived on site five minutes later.

To help rescuers, construction workers removed as much of the surface debris as possible and used pails to scoop away wet concrete.

For DART rescuer Staff Sergeant (SSG) Sofyean Hairum, 35, the gravity of the situation and the need for expediency hit home immediately.

SSG Sofyean and his fellow DART personnel waded through waist-deep cement and used their hands to sieve through the wet concrete in search of the two victims.

“We really can’t see where the missing workers were drowned or trapped in the cement. So the only way to locate them was to use our hands to feel every inch of it while we wade through waist-high cement,” said SSG Sofyean.

DART Commander Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Alan Toh said: “The retrieval operation was a delicate one as we want to ensure the bodies are intact after the extrication operation. So we have to remove the debris and cement covering the bodies bit by bit in order to see for ourselves how the limbs of the victims are being trapped and then cut the mangled steel bars trapping the bodies one by one in order to extricate the bodies. Such an operation takes time.”

What made matters worse was the gradually hardening cement.

Staff Sergeant (SSG) Lim Han Kwang said: “Initially when the cement was soft it was easy to put your hand through. Over time, when it hardened it became more difficult.”

“It felt as though you were putting your hand through sand in a playground. I wouldn’t say it was painful but when you wiggle your hand through the cement the rocks in the cement will rub against your arm,” he said.

Even though they used gloves, the pebbles in the cement caused abrasions on the hands and arms of the rescue personnel after awhile.

To help prevent the wet concrete from drying up and permanently trapping the two accident victims, the SCDF continuously pumped water from two high-pressure water jets into cement.

After searching for three hours, SSG Sofyean found one of the workers.

“I noticed an area that was previously not searched; it was covered with wooden planks and pinned down by heavy reinforced steel bars. I used all my strength to slowly lift up the wooden planks to a 90 degree angle and I thought I saw the shape of a head, so I felt around and I could feel soft flesh, thereby confirming the first body,” added SSG Sofyean. 

The first body was fully submerged under the wet concrete.

Amid hardening cement and debris, the Singapore Civil Defence Force's (SCDF) Disaster and Rescue Team (DART) had to race against time to find two missing workers after the Downtown Line scaffolding collapsed in Bugis. Staff Sergeant (SSG) Sofyean Hairum (extreme left), Captain (CPT) Benny Ong (centre) and SSG Lim Han Kwang (right) from Paya Lebar Fire Station share their experience.

“The discovery of the first body pushed the whole team to double the pace of the rescue efforts,” said SSG Lim, 37.The discovery of the second body an hour later was a more sombre experience.

“When the second body, which was located 1m away was found, blood oozed out through the cement,” recalled SSG Sofyean.

Trapped in partially hardened cement, the body was pinned down by intertwined scaffolding metal rods.

SCDF rescuers had to first cut through the rods before retrieving the body.

As rescuers tried to beat the clock to find the workers, they did not realise the search was putting their lives at risk.

“After a while I started to feel a warm sensation on my body and blisters began to appear on my body, mostly on my lower limbs,” said SSG Sofyean. 

The additives in the cement caused chemical burns to the rescuers who had to spend an indefinite amount of time canvassing for the victims.

Wearing gloves, rescue boots, helmet and the standard SCDF No.4 uniform did not deter the solvent from the cement seeping through their clothing and causing injuries through the prolonged exposure.

“It was quite painful, but I knew that I had a job to do so I put the pain aside,” said SSG Sofyean matter-of-factly.

SSG Sofyean Hairum showing some of the chemical burns he received while trying to locate and extricate the two victims. PHOTO: Matthew Wong

CPT Ong gave a few of his men time to rest as they were in pain.

The rescuers only took a short break and insisted on carrying on with recovery efforts.

“The second DART team had not arrived yet, so they took it upon themselves to carry on the rescue while awaiting the arrival of the second team despite being in pain,” said CPT Ong.

Nine DART members suffered chemical burns on their lower arms during the extrication process due to the chemical additives in the wet cement they were wading in.

They were treated at the construction site by SCDF Paramedics and conveyed to Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

The men’s stoic commitment was not lost on SCDF Commissioner Eric Yap, who was extremely proud of the DART rescuers’ work.

He learnt from SCDF’s Chief Medical Officer that doctors said the DART members’ conditions were quite serious.

However, the DART members did not want any medical leave and requested to be allowed to carry out light duty instead.

This is because they did not want to be a liability to their team.

That impressed the doctors who felt the rescuers demonstrated pride in their work.

“I am definitely very proud as to how disciplined an organisation we are. Despite their condition, they still think of their colleagues. It is a good feeling, the camaraderie they have built over the years,” said Commissioner Yap.

For CPT Ong and SSG Lim, being a part of DART is a matter of personal satisfaction and pride.

“To save lives and do good deeds while we are still alive is important,” said CPT Ong.

“My kids go around telling people of the rescues I have done and they tell people that I am a hero. This makes me feel very happy,” shared SSG Lim.

Speaking to Home Team News, DART Commander LTC Alan Toh said the unit has come a long way since its formation in 1993 and has grown from strength to strength in terms of enhancing its capabilities.

“These guys are really awesome. They are very passionate about what they do and I am really proud of them. My job as a commander is to ensure they continue to stay relevant to SCDF’s core mission and that they continue to serve those in need with pride and professionalism,” he said.

On 27 July 2012, Mr S Iswaran, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Second Minister for both Home Affairs and Trade and Industry met with the 120 SCDF personnel who were involved in search and rescue efforts for the scaffolding collapse incident and the 16 July 2012 East Village Hotel fire.

Speaking to the SCDF personnel involved during a chat, he said: “What you do may not always be significant to others but to extricate the body of a loved one is significant to the family of the victims.”

At the end of the private event, DART Commander Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Alan Toh addressed his men with pride.

“Good job everyone, our work is never over. Now we must move on and we must be ready for the next operation,” he said.

Members of DART breaking fast together during Second Home Affairs Minister Mr S. Iswaran's visit, showing their strong camaraderie. PHOTO: Matthew Wong.


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