A 60-year-old woman, Madam Goh Seow Whay, was previously reported to have been killed by smoke inhalation following a fire that broke out at a flat in Bukit Batok on 1 November 2019.
State coroner Adam Nakhoda delivered his findings on her death on 8 November and declared her death an unfortunate misadventure, according to Channel NewsAsia.
She was a karang guni who was known to hoard items around her flat, following a fire that was likely to have been caused by a cigarette butt.
Her neighbours, with whom she had disputes with over the years, had tried to help her put out the fire but when they tried to access the fire hose reel, discovered that it was padlocked.
They then accessed the fire hose reel on another floor instead and to their dismay, there was no water supply because a technician had forgotten to switch the pump selector mode from “manual” to “auto” when servicing it a few weeks prior.
The SCDF later arrived at the scene and face the same problems as the residents, and the fire was eventually put out using hoseline jets via the dry riser.
Mdm Goh ultimately suffered a prolonged smoke inhalation injury due to the length of time she spent breathing in the smoke, and was hospitalised after the fire before she eventually died on 9 December 2019.
Likely to have been caused by a cigarette fire
The Straits Times reported that Assistant Superintendent (ASP) Zameer Khan, a police investigation officer, testified in court that the fire was likely to have been caused by cigarette embers that could have ignited items (cardboard pieces and plastic bags) that the deceased hoarded outside her flat on the 13th floor of Block 210A Bukit Batok Street 21.
He added that the fire then spread into her flat, which was cluttered, and burned the items inside in the early hours of 1 November 2019.
The deceased’s son, 30-year-old Maverick Chia, told the investigators that he was a smoker, but he always put out his cigarettes with an ashtray.
Escaped through the kitchen window
At the time of the fire, Chia was with her late mother and her boyfriend; 81-year-old Ho Swee Lum, inside the flat when the fire broke out.
The two men escaped by climbing out of the kitchen window and standing on a ledge before being rescued, but the deceased remained inside the flat because she had collapsed inside the toilet.
Their neighbours were awakened by a burning smell at about 4.30 am and the authorities were then alerted, with firefighters putting out the fire at about 5.15 am.
The three of them were sent to Singapore General Hospital conscious, but Madam Goh subsequently died on 9 December.
Fire hose reel cabinet was locked and couldn’t be accessed
Investigators interviewed the deceased’s neighbours and were told that nobody was smoking in the corridors before the fire, and no cigarette butts were found after the fire; although the court did hear that the fire could have destroyed the cigarette butt(s), if any.
ASP Khan also added that no foul play was suspected, and the deceased’s family had not been targeted by anyone linked to loan sharks.
When the fire broke out, the neighbours had tried to access a fire hose reel near the burning unit but found the cabinet (where the hose was) was padlocked, other similar cabinets in the block were also locked.
SCDF officers later arrived at the scene and managed to access the hose by cutting the padlock, but no water came out of the hose when one of the firefighters turned on a valve that was linked to the hose.
They then used their hoses and water from another dry riser nearby to extinguish the fire.
Town council staff messed up
ASP Khan also testified that two staff members from the Jurong-Clementi Town Council (JCTC) had agreed to lock the cabinets to prevent vandalism.
SCDF Lieutenant-Colonel Vincent Ho testified that fire hose reels should be accessible at all times and should not be obstructed and that notices were sent to JCTC to not lock the cabinets.
The two staff members who locked the cabinets were then issued stern warnings.
Technician forgot to set pump switch to auto, resulting in no water in hose
The court also heard that water didn’t flow into the fire hose reel because the pump selector in the pump room on the rooftop of the HDB block was set to manual instead of auto.
In manual mode, somebody must be present in the pump room to press a button to allow the water to flow through the fire hose; but in auto mode, water would be automatically dispensed when the valve is open.
A technician, who performed a maintenance check in October 2019, had apparently failed to make sure that the selector switch was set to auto.
The technician, then-51-year-old Malaiyappan Mayalagu, was fined $2,700 in September 2022 after pleading guilty to offences, including a negligent act that endangered human life.
He was a technician with J. Keart Alliances, which was hired by JCTC to perform fire protection system work.
JCTC has since installed a buzzer at the fire control panel, which will send alerts to the workers if they forget to turn the switch back to auto.