SINGAPORE: A formal Board of Inquiry (BOI) has been convened by the Singapore Army to investigate a training incident in December that left a full-time national serviceman with a cervical spine injury.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said this in a written parliamentary reply to Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh, who had asked for the facts and interim findings surrounding the Dec 18 incident in Taiwan involving PTE Joshua Quek.
The BOI, said Dr Ng, will "comprehensively ascertain the detailed circumstances and possible contributory factors for the incident". "It will examine all existing safety processes and procedures, whether they were adhered to and recommend areas for review and enhancement where needed," he added.
Static line parachute jumps, such as the one undertaken by PTE Quek that night, are suspended until the completion of the formal inquiry. They will only resume when the recommendations have been implemented.
In his response, Dr Ng said that PTE Quek was taking part in a night static line parachute jump as part of the Basic Airborne Course when the incident occurred.
The activity is standard airborne training conducted by militaries to teach soldiers the fundamentals of parachuting for combat deployment, he said.
The jumpers' parachutes are attached to the aircraft by a cord called a static line. As jumpers exit the aircraft, the static line becomes taut and deploys the parachutes automatically.
During PTE Quek's jump, he experienced "static line interference", with the static line sweeping across his neck as he exited the aircraft. This can happen when the line is too slack, said Dr Ng.
PTE Quek successfully landed within the designated landing area but sustained injuries to the neck during the course of the jump.
"He was attended to immediately by SAF's on-site medical officer and subsequently evacuated by the on-site ambulance to the nearest tertiary hospital," the minister said.
This is the first known static line interference incident resulting in serious injury, said Dr Ng, adding that there are established drills and safety protocols in the training manuals and training safety regulation for both the jumper and Jump Master, who ensures that such interference does not occur.
All jumps require the presence of a qualified jump instructor with two qualified Jump Masters at the exit door to check that the required measures are adhered to.
PTE Quek had successfully undergone the requisite pre-jump qualifications, training drills and safety briefs prior to taking part in the series of live static line parachute jumps. The incident occurred during his fifth and final jump for the course, after he had successfully completed the previous four jumps just days before.
The minister said that based on preliminary findings, the static line was not pulled taut as required.
"Detailed investigations are underway to determine why this occurred and if adequate supervision was given during PTE Quek's jump," he added.
PTE QUEK'S CONDITION
When PTE Quek arrived at the hospital on Dec 18, a Magnetic Resource Imaging (MRI) revealed a cervical spine injury.
PTE Quek has since undergone two successful operations, one on Dec 19 to relieve the pressure on his spine and another on Dec 21 to stabilise his cervical spine.
He is currently still in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for close observations.
The injury had resulted in neurological deficits, including weakness of PTE Quek's upper and lower limbs, said Dr Ng.
There has been some partial recovery of motor functions since the second operation, but PTE Quek will require continued rehabilitation and physiotherapy for long-term recovery, as well as to reduce the damage from the injury.
He is currently able to breathe on his own, and is conscious and alert and able to talk with his family.
PTE Quek's family was informed of the incident on the night of the jump and his mother was flown to the hospital the next day. His father and brother joined them a few days later, said Dr Ng.
SAF personnel are on site to provide PTE Quek and his family with medical, counselling and logistical support, the minister said, adding that a team of SAF doctors are working closely with the specialists at the hospital to monitor and assess PTE Quek’s condition.
"While his condition is stable now, the medical opinion is that he stills needs close monitoring over the next few weeks. He will be brought back to Singapore when the specialists deem it safe to fly.
"All of us, of course wish PTE Quek a continuous and progressive recovery," said Dr Ng.
"Our prayers and hopes are with him and his family. MINDEF and SAF will continue to extend our full support to PTE Quek and his family on his road to recovery."