Memorial set up in Tampines for Nicoll Highway hero
10 years after Nicoll Highway collapse, survivor remembers how his life was saved when his boss asked him to buy coffee for his co-workers
It is a simple gesture but one he has marked religiously for 10 years.
Whenever the workers he supervises are tired, he gives them a treat.
That same gesture by his boss saved his life in 2004 when a part of Nicoll Highway collapsed that year, said Mr Phornamdaeng Thiticha, 46.
That boss was none other than the construction foreman The New Paper dubbed Hero Heng.
Mr Heng Yeow Peowtreated his workers with dignity and respect, said Mr Phornamdaeng.
And he was always giving them a treat to help them get through a tough day.
Just 20 minutes before the collapse, Mr Heng asked Mr Phornamdaeng to buy coffee and fruit for his colleagues.
Then 36, he went to get the drinks and food for their daily tea break.
After his errand, Mr Phornamdaeng resumed work on the surface of the MRT on the Circle Line worksite instead of entering the tunnel where Mr Heng and the rest of his co-workers were.
He said in Thai, through a translator: "Ah Heng saved my life. If it wasn't for him sending me to buy coffee, I would have been in the tunnel and I might not be alive. Thank you, Ah Heng."
He was not the only one Mr Heng saved. Even as the site started falling apart at 3.30pm, he got eight of his workers to rush out ahead of him.
BODY NOT FOUND
He was to have been the last man out, but fate intervened. His body was never found.
The father of two children, then aged 10 and 8, was a foreman with Kori Construction, a sub-contractor for the MRT Circle Line project.
Those he saved never forgot him.
On Sunday, three of them turned up during a ceremony to reveal a memorial bench at Tampines Tree Park dedicated to the valiant foreman.
Mr Phornamdaeng and two co-workers whom Mr Heng had ushered to safety - Mr Suphathip Sanya, 37, and Mr Kabkaew Suriphon, 52 - attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The three Thai nationals still work for Kori Construction and are now involved in the construction of the new Downtown Line, which will be completed in three years.
Speaking through an interpreter, they said they are still moved by what Mr Heng did for them, not just on April 20, 2004, but before that when he was their foreman.
Mr Phornamdaeng, who had worked with Mr Heng for about four years before the accident, said: "We worked closely together.
"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."
Every year on April 20, Mr Heng's former colleagues gather at the open field behind Golden Mile Complex - where the accident happened - to pay their respects, and offer prayers and incense.
Former colleagues even set up a commemorative stone and a plaque with Mr Heng's name and placed it at the spot believed to be where his body was buried.
Mr Hooi Yu Koh, managing director of Kori Construction, said: "We go every year to offer our prayers and burn incense. Sometimes, the workers will bring fruit."
Mr Kabkaew said: "He always bought fruit for us. And he would treat us to coffee. He always reminded us to work safely."
Shaking his head, Mr Suphathip said: "Ah Heng was more than a boss. He was family to us. Losing him was like losing family."
Memorial bench at Tampines Tree Park
REMEMBER: Mrs Sally Heng, the widow of Mr Heng Yeow Pheow, on the bench dedicated to her husband's memory. PHOTO: ST
The memorial bench is at Tampines Tree Park because Mr Heng used to visit the park often with his family.
His widow, Mrs Sally Heng, 45, and children Daniel, 20, and Joann, 18, attended the ceremony with former colleagues and friends.
Mr Phornamdaeng, who has not seen Mr Heng's family for four years, said: " I'm happy that his children have grown up and are so well behaved... It's sad they had to grow up without Ah Heng, but I'm glad that they have grown up well."
The 2004 Nicoll Highway collapse is one of the worst construction accidents in Singapore's history.
The steel support for the tunnel that was being built for the Circle Line collapsed and the highway caved in, resulting in a 30m-deep cave-in that spread across six lanes of Nicoll Highway.
Construction foreman Heng Yeow Peow, 40, lost his life helping his workers escape the chaos of the collapse by shepherding them to safety.
Mr Suphathip Sanya, 37, and Mr Kabkaew Suriphon, 52, two of the eight workers whom Mr Heng helped to rescue from the MRT tunnel, said that all they remember of the day was the sound of beams falling.
The last thing they heard was Mr Heng shouting for them to run to the surface.
Mr Suruphon said in Thai: "I remember panicking, and climbing up the ladder.
"By the time we got out, we were exhausted because we had run 100m out of the tunnel and climbed 35m up the ladder to the surface."
Mr Heng was one of four men who died in the accident.
His body was the only one never found as rescuers had to call off the search due to the unstable ground.
Mr Heng was posthumously awarded the Medal of Valour during the 2004 National Day Awards.
Commemorative stone near Golden Mile Complex
Ten years may have passed but their respect for Hero Heng has never faded.
On Tuesday, as Mr Phornamdaeng, Mr Suphathip and Mr Kabkaew led TNP to the commemorative stone, they bowed in respect and laid their hands on the stone.
This way, they get to greet an old friend again.
For months after the accident, the men would often drop by after work to sit there and 'hang out' with Mr Heng. They would also talk about their former colleague and share fond memories of him.
Even now, whenever they are near Golden Mile Complex or pass Nicoll Highway, they take some time to remember Mr Heng and "visit" if they have the time.
But without fail, every year on April 20, the men turn up at the site and spend time with their boss.
The lessons their friend taught them have not left them.
All three men have been promoted to construction foreman, leading teams of workers, the same way Mr Heng led them.
Mr Phornamdaeng said: "When our workers are tired and work hard, we do what Ah Heng did for us. We treat them to 'kopi' and fruits."
Mr Suphathip said they want to continue Mr Heng's tradition of buying "kopi" and fruits for their workers.
He said: "Ah Heng treated us well, so we have also learnt to treat our own workers the same way."