This morning I woke up remembering the father whose body was never recovered in the Nicoll Highway collapse. I don’t know how and I definitely don’t know why, but I just did. It seems like the unfortunate incident happened just not too long ago, but in reality, the traumatizing collapse of the Nicoll Highway which resulted in 4 deaths took place more than 3 years ago.

(to see enlarged copy, click here)

I can still remember how it was like in late April 2004 when the unpredicted (at least to the commoners uninvolved in the project like me) collapse took the nation by surprise. In a country where the people do not experience any natural disaster of any kind, nor many commercial accidents (not like China where collapse of mines takes place on a daily basis), incidents considered as minor to foreigners like the recent burning down of the market at AMK can provide a great shock to us. Let alone a highway collapsing on us. In Singapore, practically everything is safe. The airport is safe, the flights are safe, the roads are safe, the schools are safe and the streets are safe. You are safe in an apartment on your own even if you leave the door wide open most of the time. I guess that’s what makes us unsafe.

Every single day during that period of time, I heard news on TV regarding the rescue efforts. I flipped open the newspapers and that was what I saw on pages and pages. I still remember vividly how my tears had flowed when I read about the death of the 40-year-old foreman Mr Heng. I remember him the most because he, the sole breadwinner, has left his young wife and two young children. Because according to survivor accounts, he had selflessly hurried his workers to safety but was himself trapped when the collapse occurred. And I think mainly because the saddest thing was that his body was never recovered.

It’s always difficult for the family to accept a loved one’s death without seeing the body for themselves. When you see the body, there’s no way you can deny the fact. But when you don’t, you always cling onto this hope that he or she is still out there, alive but unable to come home for some reason or another. For this family, I think it was particularly hard because they knew that he would still be underground in the collapse zone. As the days passed, they knew that his chance of survival was very low. Deep down inside, they might know that there was no way he was still alive, but it was a hope that they would cling to nevertheless. So imagine the pain, anguish and desperation of the family when the rescue efforts were called off 3 days later because of the low chance of survival by that point, the danger to the rescue teams and the increasing need to stabilize the ground around the accident site to reduce the risk of further collapses.

I can still remember how the wife cried and cried uncontrollably on national TV when she announced her agreement in filling up the collapse hole without finding her husband’s body first. If he was still alive, it would be as good as burying him alive. Murder. But that’s only an “if” because logically he should be dead by then. However, that’s also the power of “if” – it opens up a possibility. Now come to think about it, the burial had also served as a concluding ceremony. If there was an “if”, it hadn’t matter anymore now.

The human brain is the most puzzling and enchanting part of Man. 3 years ago, I had been quite upset over this incident. Now, I don’t think about it except for once in a blue moon. We can be saddened by things that happen around us, sympathize the victims, empathize them, cry with them, but at the end of the day, the brain is capable of forming a protective barrier around us. There’s an extent to which we can feel the pain of others, but the brain won’t let it go beyond the boundary. Because when it does, it’ll break us and drive us crazy. If there’s no such barrier, the 911 incident would have made USA a Woodbridge Hospital.

Just like how fainting is actually the brain’s way to revert the body to a horizontal position so that blood and oxygen can flow to the brain. It’s a resuscitative effort. And how some people faint when they are traumatized. When an experience is too traumatizing for an individual and risks driving the person insane, the brain “shuts down” immediately so that the person can stop thinking about it (and sleep). The brain is utterly amazing, which is no wonder why Man (currently) rules the Earth.

The Nicoll Highway re-opened on 8 months later after reconstruction efforts and the first phase of the Circle MRT line will be completed in 2010. Millions of cars have driven over where Mr Heng laid hopefully in peace, and in 2010, you will sit in MRT trains that may fly past the spot where 4 had laid their lives during their contributions to this great project. But how many will remember them? Well, at least you and I do, even if just for now. Take a moment and remember the man who sacrificed his own life to save the lives of others.   


Ask not what your country can do for you,

ask what you can do for your country. 

– John F. Kennedy