SINGAPORE: On her Sunday off, Ms Luz Balanon Rivera would head to her usual spots to meet her friends: The open space near Somerset MRT, or the walkway near the Lucky Plaza taxi stand.
On Sunday (Dec 29), Ms Rivera, 52, had been invited by her best friend, Ms Laila Laudencia, to an informal party at the Lucky Plaza walkway. It was a popular gathering place and was crowded that day, with people singing and dancing.
The group of about 10 people – including Ms Laudencia’s niece, Jean, and her friends Abigail Leste and Arlyn Nucos, were sitting on the walkway, chatting and enjoying Filipino food such as adobo and pinakbet, a stir-fried dish with pumpkin.
At around 4pm, she left the party to accompany another friend, Sahle, who wanted to buy some chocolate in the mall.
"When I left, they called me back to eat the food, but ... I wasn’t hungry," Ms Rivera told CNA. "I walked past Abigail and Arlyn. I wasn’t as close to them, but we smiled at each other."
She told them she would be right back, but that was the last time she saw Ms Leste and Ms Nucos alive.
"I LEFT HER MORE THAN 20 MISSED CALLS"
Abigail Leste, 41, and Arlyn Nucos, 50, were killed on Sunday in a car crash at Lucky Plaza that also left four other people injured: the latter's sister Arceli Nucos, 56; cousins Egnal Limbauan, 43, and Demet Limbauan, 37; and Ms Laudencia, 44.
All of them were Filipinos working in Singapore.
A 64-year-old male driver was arrested on Sunday for dangerous driving causing death, police said. He is a driver-partner with ride-hailing firm Grab and he has been suspended while investigations are underway.
Ms Rivera told CNA that she would have stayed with Ms Laudencia at the walkway, if not for her friend Sahle, who was intending to return to the Philippines and wanted to buy some chocolate for her family.
“On that day, she was not feeling well and wanted to leave early, and she wanted me to accompany her to buy the chocolate," she said. “She kept nagging at me to go with her."
After buying the chocolate, they visited a remittance shop on the third level of the mall. It was there that she heard about the accident.
"We were all shocked," she said.
She called Ms Laudencia, who didn’t pick up her phone, and she started to panic.
“I left her more than 20 missed calls,” she said.
"WE WERE ALL CRYING"
Ms Rivera heard "a lot of shouting and screaming” from inside the mall, but did not know what had happened. Together with her friends, she tried to go to the accident site, but was blocked by the police cordon.
"I heard someone call Laila’s name, and said she was among the injured,” she said. “We were all panicking and crying."
She cried with her friends and they comforted each other in the mall. By then, it was late and she had to return to her employer’s place.
She only managed to get in touch with Ms Laudencia’s niece, Jean, hours later, at around 8.30pm.
That was when she found out that Ms Laudencia had been sent to the hospital with a fractured leg, and that Ms Leste and Ms Arlyn Nucos had died.
"Jean told me she was holding Laila’s phone, but was shaking so badly she couldn’t pick up my calls," she said.
A VERY GOOD FRIEND
Ms Rivera was in shock the whole evening and took time off work on Monday to calm down.
Ms Laudencia and her niece were her neighbours in the Philippines and she knew them well, she said.
“I thanked God Laila was okay and that nothing happened to Jean,” she said. “But I was worried for her – once you are injured, you cannot work, and then what would happen to her family?"
"She's a very good friend to me, always sharing her food because she’s a very good cook," she added. “She was also working very hard because she is ... supporting two children in the Philippines."
Ms Laudencia, she said, had introduced her to Abigail Leste and Arlyn Nucos. Though she didn’t know them well, she said they were always happy to share their food with her whenever she met them.
She was sad to hear about their deaths but also grateful for her own narrow escape.
“I’m so thankful I went with Sahle,” she said. “I don’t know what would have happened to me otherwise.”