SINGAPORE: With fire crackling all around him and the hissing sound of pressure escaping from highly flammable gas cylinders, Major Navin Balakrishnan squared his shoulders and walked through the bottling and storage facility of Summit Gas Systems.
He and his team had a crucial task – to cut the supply of gas from two large LPG “bullet” tanks, each about 60 tonnes in size, at the back of the facility.
To do so, they would need to shut off 12 valves. Once done, that would cut the supply of gas from the bullet tanks to the other parts of the facility.
It was a risky task – and so he decided to scope out the situation alone first before getting the rest of the team.
“When I entered (the area with the bullet tanks), the distinct sound of hissing was everywhere,” Major Balakrishnan, who is the commander of Bukit Batok Fire Station, told reporters.
It was a “calculated risk” going in on his own first, but he wanted to assess the risks before exposing his men to them, said Major Balakrishnan.
“Safety was the first consideration, very much the first consideration,” he said.
FLYING GAS CYLINDERS
Flying gas cylinders, raging heat and huge plumes of thick black smoke were what greeted the first responders from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) when they arrived at the scene of the fire on Friday.
According to Jurong Fire Station section commander Second Warrant Officer Syed Yazid Syed Nasiruddin, the “towering smoke” was visible all the way from Jalan Boon Lay as they drove in, with “explosions like thunder” as gas cylinders blew through the air, accompanied with a “bright orange colour every time it exploded”.
The hissing sound escaping the highly flammable gas cylinders reminded the rescue team of the need to quickly gain control of the fire.
“When we got closer, we saw projectiles flying. We saw the cylinders exploding on the scene itself – they were flying towards our vicinity so we had to come up cautiously to the area. Safety was a big concern for (an incident) of this magnitude,” said Second Warrant Officer Syed Yazid.
The heat from the flames was so intense that it radiated through the responders’ protective jackets and inner T-shirts.
For many of the first responders, the Jalan Buroh fire was one of the biggest they had ever encountered. It also involved hundreds of LPG cylinders - the largest number the force has seen in a fire.
FIRST MEN ON SCENE
One of the first men on the scene, Third Sergeant Ahmad Kafee Azman recalled that he had been resting with his colleagues at Jurong Pier Fire Post when they received a call for a “fire large” at about 5pm.
He only realised how serious the fire was when he got closer to the location and saw the “thick black smoke”.
“When I heard the explosion, I (knew) that this thing was totally different from other calls,” he said.
“Honestly, I was scared, because we are only (a) four-man crew, and furthermore there are my NSF… So the first thing like I said, is safety.”
Retreating to a safe position, Third Sergeant Kafee and his crew decided to locate the nearest fire hydrants and wait for reinforcement to arrive.
Lieutenant Tan Chun Hui, Second Warrant Officer Syed Yazid and Corporal Thio Zheng Yang of Jurong Fire Station were the next group of people to arrive.
“The flames were about 20m to 30m high; I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Lieutenant Tan.
With Singapore Petroleum Company (SPC) located right next to the burning facility, Lieutenant Tan’s first priority was to contain the fire and preventing it from spreading even further.
Employing boundary cooling measures, their task was to reduce the radiant heat and cut off the fire's path from spreading to the SPC facility.
In all, a total of 35 emergency vehicles and about 120 firefighters were deployed to tackle the blaze.
At 7.30pm, SCDF managed to bring the fire under control. Six hours after receiving the call, the firefighters finally extinguished the blaze.
For many of the first responders, there was a sense of accomplishment in a job well done.
“You can see a lot of tired faces, but they were all smiling,” said Major Balakrishnan.
“We didn’t have any injuries on our side. We went in as a force and came back together as one.”