Man fights factory fire till he blacks out
Fast action by in-house rescuers helped prevent more casualties, says burnt laboratory's boss
When the alarm was raised, the in-house firefighters of a Jurong factory sprang into action.
At least 10 members of the Company Emergency Response Team (Cert) at medical gas manufacturer Leeden National Oxygen on Tanjong Kling Road, near Jurong Shipyard, rushed to a laboratory where a huge fire had broken out at around 9.20am yesterday.
A woman chemist was killed and seven other employees, including four Cert members, were injured in the blaze.
One of them, Mr Nelson Poh, an operations executive, was said to have been the first to arrive at the scene after cycling 600m from another part of the plant.
The Cert leader, who is in his 50s, rode a bicycle to investigate after hearing the first explosion and reached the lab within three minutes.
Leeden's chief executive officer, Mr Steven Tham, said that Mr Poh tried to prevent the fire from spreading to the nearby storage area before the rest of the team arrived.
He later blacked out from excessive smoke inhalation as he was not wearing a mask. He was taken to hospital.
The in-house team's quick action helped to evacuate the plant's staff members to safety and, more importantly, rescue trapped colleagues in the 7m-by-5m laboratory.
Once inside, they tried to contain the fire before the arrival of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).
Meanwhile, witnesses reported hearing up to 10 explosions.
Mr Tham later praised the team for their efforts.
The 64-year-old told The New Paper: "Normally, people run away from fires. But they rushed inside bravely."
The Cert members, who are trained to respond to such emergencies, had reacted urgently and decisively.
"One of them tried to bang the door open with his hands, I was told," added Mr Tham.
"According to SCDF, the Leeden's firefighters did a good job in trying to control the spread of the fire."
Leeden's chief operating officer and managing director, Mr Kelvin Lee, 63, commended Mr Poh in particular for his efforts, adding that he is known for taking the lead in any crisis, big or small.
Mr Tham described Mr Poh, who used to be with the Singapore Navy, as approachable, friendly and a hardworking in his 10 years with the company.
Mr Lee added that the bravery of the Cert members helped to prevent more casualties.
Tragically, a laboratory chemist was declared dead at the scene by paramedics.
Mr Tham said the 30-year-old woman had returned from maternity leave a week ago. She had worked for Leeden for a year and leaves behind a husband and a six-month-old daughter.
Four in-house rescuers and three laboratory employees suffered injuries including lacerations, smoke inhalation and burns, said the SCDF.
Six are Singaporeans and one is Malaysian.
Five of them were taken to National University Hospital (NUH) and the other two to Ng Teng Fong Hospital (NTFH).
The two in NTFH and one from NUH were discharged yesterday evening. One of the four warded in NUH underwent an operation for lacerations on his right forearm
Mr Tham said the company will "do its best" to help the families of the dead and injured.
Leeden produces and distributes medical gases. It also equips hospitals with vacuum and gas pipelines, and "distribution systems for oxygen, nitrous oxide and compressed air", according to its website.
The laboratory employees were responsible for analysing, calibrating and mixing of chemicals, said Mr Lee.
But he did not know what type of chemicals or gases were being used when the fire started.
Mr Lee also said the authorities were advising the company on what to do in moving forward and taking care of the injured.
"People are always the most important," he added.
The Manpower Ministry has issued a stop-work order for the areas affected by the fire.
When TNP arrived at the scene at about 10.30am, 300 of the Leeden staff members had been evacuated to a parking area opposite the plant.
About an hour earlier, the area was rocked by the sound of explosions.
A safety coordinator from a nearby factory, who gave his name only as Mr Hanafi, said he was doing his inspection rounds when he heard an explosion.
He then saw a fireball and heard nine more explosions.
The 34-year-old said: "We all came out to get a better look.
"We saw smoke coming out near a cylinder tower at Leeden. We could feel the shockwaves from the 10 explosions."
Mr Hanafi and 70 of his colleagues were immediately evacuated from the area.
Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, who visited two of the injured in NUH yesterday evening, told reporters: "All we can say to the families of the injured workers and the deceased is that we are truly sorry that this has happened.
"Our responsibility and our commitment to our workers have always been that we want every worker to go home safely every day.
"So, to these workers affected today, we are sorry this has happened.
"We just want to keep doing our very best to keep improving."
One of them tried to bang the door open with his hands... According to SCDF, the Leeden's firefighters did a good job in trying to control the spread of the fire.
- Leeden National Oxygen's Chief Executive Officer Steven Tham on the Company Emergency Response Team
More risks in fighting industrial fires
Fighting an industrial fire involving toxic or flammable gases is riskier than fighting normal fires, says an Australia-based firefighting expert.
Asia Pacific Fire magazine editor Neil Bibby told The New Paper last night that several factors have to be taken into consideration before fighting industrial fires.
These include wind direction, the types of gases present and the combustibility of toxic substances in reaction with other chemicals.
The chief fire officer, who has 40 years' firefighting experience, said: "The onus is on the factory to inform its in-house firefighters what kind of risks they're dealing with.
"Gases like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide are less threatening than combustible gases that can irritate throats and eyes."
Breathing apparatuses are mandatory in some cases. So is protective attire.
Mr Bibby said: "Breathing apparatus keeps the lungs clear so that you can continue to fight the fire safely."
The Singapore Civil Defence Force's (SCDF) deployment of water jets to contain the fire within the Leeden National Oxygen laboratory is common practice, he added. The water helps to "cool down" the surrounding area and prevent the fire from spreading.
Next to the laboratory in Tanjong Kling Road is a production and storage facility housing flammable cylinders.
Twenty SCDF rescue vehicles were deployed.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Past industrial fires
Sept 28, 2011
A fire at Shell's refinery facility on Pulau Bukom raged for 32 hours before it was put out.
The fire was caused by maintenance works on a pipeline connected to a tank of naphtha, a volatile chemical liquid.
More than 100 firefighters were involved. No deaths were reported.
May 3, 2007
Two industrial fires occurred that day.
The fire at ExxonMobil Singapore oil refinery on Jurong Island claimed two lives and injured two others.
In another fire at a Jurong oil and chemical plant, a man suffered 70 per cent burns.
Jan 13, 2004
An explosion, followed by a fire, occurred at a second-storey office unit at Toa Payoh Industrial Park in Lorong 8, killing four people. Two others managed to escape.
At least one liquefied petroleum gas cylinder was found at the scene, together with containers of solvents and paints.