SINGAPORE: A woman known for her hoarding tendencies met an untimely demise in a tragic series of events following an accidental fire outside her flat in Bukit Batok.
State Coroner Adam Nakhoda, in his findings on Wednesday (Nov 8) declared the death of Madam Goh Seow Whay, 60, an “unfortunate misadventure.”
She lived in a flat on the 13th floor of Block 210A, Bukit Batok Street 21 with her partner and son.
Previously, her partner had tried to discourage her hoarding habit, but the attempt was unsuccessful.
In addition to complaints about her tendency to hoard, she engaged in multiple disputes with neighbors, leading to occasional police intervention.
However, despite the longstanding disputes with neighbors and complaints from the Jurong-Clementi Town Council about her hoarding habits dating back to 2017, there was no evidence to implicate any neighbors in the incident.
The neighbors, in fact, attempted to extinguish the flames, but were thwarted by padlocked fire hose reel cabinets and a technician’s error that left the firefighting equipment without water.
The fire incident
The tragic incident occurred on October 31, 2019, when a fire, likely sparked by a cigarette butt, engulfed the hoarded items outside Madam Goh’s flat.
According to Channel News Asia, several neighbours had varying recollections, with one stating no signs of fire when leaving at 4 am, while another heard shouts to run at 4 am.
However, the coroner suggested that these recollections may have been mixed with their perceptions, asserting that the fire likely began with items outside Madam Goh’s flat as early as 4:05 am.
Meanwhile, three neighbors said they detected a burning smell, and two actively went outside to check, discovering the fire at around 4 am.
The coroner acknowledged the evidence provided by the fire investigator, suggesting that the fire might have originated at 4 am or earlier, as indicated by the fire’s size at 4:23 am.
During that period, Madam Goh’s son awoke to “popping” sounds and observed the hoarded items along the common corridor in flames.
Neighbours tried to help fight the fire
Despite neighbours smelling burning as early as 4 am, efforts to fight the fire were hindered by locked cabinets by town council staff in a bid to prevent vandalism, and a technician’s oversight in servicing the firefighting equipment.
At 4:33 am, a resident from the 14th floor attempted to reach the fire hose reel on the 13th floor.
Discovering the padlocked cabinet, he shattered the glass, extracted the hose, and requested a neighbour to activate the water valve. Unfortunately, no water was dispensed.
Subsequent investigation revealed that a technician responsible for maintaining the firefighting equipment had recently serviced the system on the rooftop.
In the course of this service, he had inadvertently switched the pump selector mode from automatic to manual but neglected to revert it.
As the fire grew, the family attempted to escape through the kitchen window.
While the son and partner were eventually rescued, Madam Goh succumbed to prolonged smoke inhalation injuries in the cluttered flat.
The initial firefighting team arrived at 4:42 am, approximately 11 minutes after the first emergency call, a response time deemed by the coroner as “reasonable” with no attributable delay from the Singapore Civil Defence Force.
Upon arrival, the firefighters encountered challenges. They couldn’t deploy their hoseline jets immediately, requiring a connection to the dry riser on the 13th floor, which necessitated charging before water supply.
Attempts to use fire hose reels were also hampered by padlocked cabinets and a lack of water, mirroring the obstacles faced by the neighbors.
However, the fire was eventually extinguished around 5:15 am using hoseline jets through the dry riser.
Due to prolonged exposure to smoke, Madam Goh suffered severe smoke inhalation injuries, leading to complications such as pneumonia, systemic inflammatory response, hypertension, and acute kidney injury.
She was hospitalized until her demise on December 9, 2019.
The coroner suggested that strong winds might have blown a cigarette butt or embers onto the hoarded items outside Madam Goh’s flat.
Despite her prior assertion to her son about residents above dropping cigarette butts, investigations failed to identify the culprit.
Foul play was ruled out by the police, who found no evidence implicating neighbors in initiating the fire.
The State Coroner emphasized the inherent dangers of hoarding highly flammable materials and noted the challenges faced by neighbors due to malfunctioning fire hose reels.
He offered condolences to the grieving family.
Town Council takes action for fire safety enhancement
In the aftermath, the Singapore Civil Defence Force issued an abatement notice to the Jurong-Clementi Town Council over the non-functional hose reels.
Two town council officers received stern warnings for their past actions, which involved padlocking the fire hose reel cabinets in 2016. They used small locks, assuming that they could be easily cut in emergencies.
Simultaneously, the technician responsible for the equipment error was fined S$2,700 in 2022 for his negligence.
The town council has since improved its fire protection system, addressing the issues that contributed to the tragic incident.
The town council bolstered its fire safety measures by installing a buzzer on the fire control panel.
This serves as a reminder for maintenance staff, ensuring they are alerted if they overlook switching the mode back to automatic.
Additionally, they also took steps to improve security by replacing the locks on the fire hose reel cabinets and seeking guidance from an independent safety consultant.