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Bukit Batok HDB fire that led to woman's death likely ignited by cigarette, spread to hoarded items: Coroner's court

The 60-year-old fainted in the kitchen toilet, while her son and husband climbed out onto a ledge outside the kitchen window where they were eventually rescued.

Bukit Batok HDB fire that led to woman's death likely ignited by cigarette, spread to hoarded items: Coroner's court

Photos from the Singapore Civil Defence Force depicting the rescue of the men from the ledge, as well as the cluttered interior of the flat.

SINGAPORE: A fire that led to the death of a 60-year-old woman who was trapped in her Bukit Batok flat was likely accidentally ignited by a cigarette butt and spread to hoarded items piled up outside the unit, a coroner's court heard on Tuesday (Apr 4).

Madam Goh Seow Whay's husband and son were later rescued by firefighters from a ledge outside the kitchen window, but Mdm Goh had fainted in the kitchen toilet.

She died in hospital more than a month later of smoke inhalation injuries.

When neighbours and firefighters tried to access the fire hose reels, they found that the cabinets were padlocked three years ago by town council staff to prevent vandalism.

Even when the fire hose reels were finally accessed, there was no water due to a technician's error a few weeks before when he left the water pump selector switch in the pump room on the rooftop of the block on the “manual” function instead of “auto”.

This meant that water did not flow out of the hose reels.

The inquiry into Mdm Goh's death opened on Tuesday, with police and fire investigators taking the stand.

Mdm Goh lived in a flat on the 13th floor of Block 210A along Bukit Batok Street 21.

In the wee hours of Nov 1, 2019, a fire broke out along the common corridor outside her unit.


Neighbours tried to access the fire hose reel cabinets on the floor, but found that they were padlocked. Even when one neighbour managed to break the glass, he could not retrieve the hose reel.

The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) received a call about the fire at about 4.30am that day. Firefighters arrived at the scene 11 minutes later, which was within their response time of eight to 11 minutes.

They found that the fire hose reel cabinets on that floor were padlocked, and took about two minutes to cut the lock. However, the hose reels did not discharge water.

Firefighters eventually put out the blaze at about 5.15am. They did so using hoseline jets via the dry riser and put out the fire within seconds.

During the blaze, the fire had spread from the corridor to the ceiling and into Mdm Goh's flat.

Items that were piled up near the window of the flat were on fire and the firefighters faced difficulties manoeuvring inside the flat as it was heavily cluttered with items.

They found Mdm Goh's son and husband perched on a ledge outside the kitchen window and eventually reached them after clearing a pathway to the kitchen.

However, both men were unable to climb into the flat or be carried in as they were completely exhausted and in pain.

They were eventually rescued via a combined platform ladder with an officer rappelling down from the unit above to assist them.

Mdm Goh was found in the toilet and all three flat occupants were taken to hospital.

However, Mdm Goh died of her injuries and complications that arose from the smoke inhalation on Dec 9, 2019.


Fire investigators ruled out three possible sources of the fire: A fire of electrical origin, praying activities or altars, or spontaneous combustion.

They concluded that it was most probably caused by an accidental drop light from cigarette butt embers.

The police ruled out foul play after conducting house-to-house visits from levels eight to 16 of the block.

They also identified smokers from 13 different households from levels 14 to 16 and interviewed them about any smoking activity close to the time of the incident.

All of the smokers denied smoking along the corridor at the time of the incident.

They also said that they smoked within their homes and did not throw their cigarette butts over the corridor ledges.

Mdm Goh's son, Mr Maverick Chia Yat Hwee, who was 30 at the time, also smoked. However, he said he smoked inside or outside the flat and would extinguish his cigarette using an ashtray.

No cigarette butt was found at the scene, but it could have been burnt up by the fire, the court heard.

While embers from a cigarette butt are believed to be the ignition source, the cardboard, plastic bags and other combustible materials outside Mdm Goh's flat were the primary ignition fuel.

A weather report indicated that there was strong wind during the incident, which would have aided in the smouldering and accelerated the spread of the fire.

Even though investigators found that Mdm Goh had several disputes with neighbours, these neighbours were interviewed thoroughly and there was nothing to suggest they were involved.

There was also no indication of vandalism or fire-related harassment at the block, nor any signs of malicious intent to cause a fire.


In the wake of the incident, SCDF issued an abatement notice to Jurong-Clementi Town Council over the lack of water running through the hose reels.

Stern warnings were administered to two officers of the town council for their actions.

One of them had formed the idea to padlock the fire hose reel cabinets in 2016, using small locks so they could be easily cut in emergencies.

He informed his supervisor only after the padlocks were installed, the court heard. 

His supervisor was uncomfortable with the idea at first, but was eventually convinced that it was a workable solution to prevent vandalism.

Later, a contractor was hired to install hinges and padlocks on all hose reel cabinets at the block in May 2016.

The technician who had negligently left the water pump selector switch to manual mode instead of auto was fined S$2,700 in 2022 for his crime.

Since the fire, the town council has enhanced its fire protection system by adding a buzzer at the fire control panel to alert maintenance staff in case they forget to turn the switch back to automatic mode.

The town council also replaced the locks on the fire hose reel cabinets and engaged an independent safety consultant.

A lawyer representing Mdm Goh's next of kin questioned the investigators and got one of them to say that the residents might have been able to put out the fire before firefighters arrived, had there been water flowing through the hose reels.

Findings will be issued at a later date.


Source: CNA/ll(zl)


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