Death of NSF Liu Kai: Bionix driver continued reversing despite stop commands, police investigating comms between crew
SINGAPORE: The Committee of Inquiry (COI) which investigated the death of full-time national serviceman Liu Kai found that the Bionix driver involved in the incident continued reversing despite commands to stop, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament on Monday (Feb 11), adding that ongoing police investigations are looking into the communications between the Bionix crew, and whether this was affected by the equipment.
“The COI noted that the rear guide had repeatedly given the order for the driver to stop reversing through the intercom via his helmet. The COI noted that the intercom system was working earlier in the exercise. They have asked for an independent technical assessment report on whether the intercom system was working properly all the time,” said Dr Ng.
“In parallel, police investigations too are also focused on the communications between the Bionix crew, and whether this was affected by the equipment. This is an important point that needs to be resolved but we will have to await the outcome of police investigations.”
READ: ‘I am deeply sorry’: Ng Eng Hen on recent NS training deaths, vows accountability for every soldier
CFC Liu, 22, died on Nov 3 last year, after a Bionix vehicle that was moving away from simulated enemy fire reversed into the Land Rover the full-time national serviceman was driving.
The COI was chaired by a civil servant, and included members such as a consultant doctor from the public sector, a member from the External Review Panel on Singapore Armed Forces safety, a senior-ranked national serviceman and a member of the Workplace Safety and Health Council.
Based on the Land Rover’s front camera and in-vehicle video recordings of the incident and statements from multiple witnesses, the COI was able to piece together a “detailed chronology” from these recordings, said Dr Ng.
The COI’s investigations also found that the Land Rover CFC Liu was driving was “short” of the safety distance of 30m stated in the training safety regulations (TSR) during its final position, he added.
While the Land Rover was initially not in the Bionix’s path when it reversed, according to the COI findings, the Bionix had “drifted” in reversing and the driver made a slight steer to correct the drift. This brought it into the path of the Land Rover.
“The COI made several findings in their report: first, the COI noted that ensuring the safety distance is the responsibility of the vehicle commander of the Land Rover. In this case, the Land Rover ended up in a position that was less than the required safety distance from the Bionix; second, the reversing of the Bionix from the simulated enemy encounter brought the Land Rover into the path of the Bionix,” said Dr Ng.
READ: Enhancements to Bionix safety among measures put in place following COI findings into NSF Liu Kai’s death: Ng Eng Hen
CHAIN OF EVENTS
Sharing details on the incident, Dr Ng said that the 42nd Battalion Singapore Armoured Regiment was conducting a two-sided company mission exercise at the Jalan Murai training area. During the exercise, trainers from the Active Unit Training Centre were assigned to evaluate exercise troops.
CFC Liu was assigned to drive a trainer, an SAF regular captain, who was the vehicle commander of the Land Rover.
CFC Liu and the trainer were following an assigned Bionix, whose crew consisted of four personnel - all full-time national servicemen - a vehicle commander, a Bionix specialist who was the rear guide, a driver and a gunner.
The exercise began at 7am and at around 9.58am, the Bionix crew spotted several exercise vehicles passing by at the junction ahead of it and stopped as ordered by the vehicle commander. Responding to this, the Land Rover driven by CFC Liu also stopped.
As instructed by his trainer, CFC Liu moved his Land Rover forward to overtake the Bionix. But upon hearing the shots which were fired as part of the exercise, CFC Liu stopped the Land Rover in its final position without overtaking the Bionix.
“Based on the COI’s calculations, this final position of the LR (Land Rover) would have been at a distance of ‘at most 19.8m from the Bionix, but short of the safety distance of 30m stated in the TSR (Training Safety Regulations),’” said Dr Ng.
Four seconds after the Land Rover had stopped, the Bionix started to perform an extrication drill ordered by its vehicle commander, carried out to get away from an enemy encounter as “fast as possible”.
The Bionix had to reverse as part of the drill so that its guns could continue to fire forward at the enemy. As the driver of the Bionix is unable to see behind, the rear guide directs the driver in reversing the vehicle.
“The COI acknowledged the need for this type of training, even though it is high risk,” added Dr Ng.
As the Bionix reversed, the Land Rover was initially not in its path.
"The COI found that the Bionix had ‘drifted’ in reversing and the driver made a slight steer to correct the drift. This steer brought the Land Rover into the path of the Bionix,” said Dr Ng.
“Almost immediately” after the Bionix started reversing, the rear guide issued stop commands repeatedly into his helmet set, said Dr Ng. But, the Bionix continued to reverse.
“The COI found that the rear guide issued stop commands into the intercom of his helmet set when the Bionix started reversing and did so repeatedly,” Dr Ng added. “The intercom of the helmet is the rear guide’s only means of communication with the other crew members in the Bionix. However, the Bionix continued to reverse.”
The video recording from within the Land Rover showed the trainer “tapping” CFC Liu and signalling for him to reverse the Land Rover, said Dr Ng.
“From the beeping sounds, it also indicated that CFC Liu did engage the reverse gear,” he said. “Both the trainer and CFC Liu also shouted and gestured with their hands for the Bionix to stop and the trainer also attempted to reach for the handset of the radio set to communicate with the Bionix crew.”
Close to eight seconds after Bionix started reversing, it reversed into the Land Rover and mounted the driver's side before coming to a stop.
While the trainer managed to extricate himself, CFC Liu remained trapped. The trainer notified the conducting officer of the exercise, who immediately ordered the exercise to stop.
A medic on board a nearby Bionix tended to CFC Liu, while the SAF emergency ambulance service, unit medical officer and Singapore Civil Defence Force were activated and arrived on site.
CFC Liu was pronounced dead by the unit medical officer on site at around 10.35am. A post-mortem found the cause of death to be traumatic asphyxia.
COI’S ADDITIONAL FINDINGS
Servicemen involved in the exercise were “qualified” to participate, the COI found, and had undergone the requisite training for their roles.
The day before the incident, the trainer had met the Bionix vehicle commander to understand their manoeuvre plan for the next day's exercise. The trainer and CFC Liu again met on the day itself before moving out for the exercise.
“The COI was of the view that the servicemen involved had had their rest in accordance to the Training Safety Regulations (TSR), and that their mental and physical states were fit for participation in the activity and did not appear to have an effect on their attention to safety protocols,” added Dr Ng.
The Land Rover that CFC Liu driving was also found to be serviceable and the COI also concluded that a safety management plan was included as part of the exercise support, in accordance with standard practice.
In addition, there was also adequate deployment of medics and medical equipment as part of this plan for medical response.
Police investigations are also ongoing independently from the COI to determine culpability, said Dr Ng. Thereafter the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) will decide if any persons should be prosecuted.
“Internally, MINDEF will conduct its own investigations and may charge persons who breach military law in the Military Court, even if AGC does not file criminal charges,” he added.
Dr Ng said the COI will take into account findings from these separate judicial processes before finalising its report.
On Oct 25, an SAF officer was charged in court over CFC Liu's death, while five people accused of leaking photographs of the incident were charged with wrongful communication of information under the Official Secrets Act.
Captain Ong Lin Jie, who was the vehicle commander of the Land Rover, was charged with one count of committing a rash act causing death.
He is accused of failing to keep a safe distance of 30m between the vehicle and the Bionix.
The Bionix reversed and mounted the driver's side of the vehicle, causing CFC Liu's death, court documents said.
Muhammad Arif Azman and Mohamad Haikal Mohamad Zainal Abiddin face charges over sending photographs of the incident to 23 people in a WhatsApp group chat.
The other three accused, Brandon Tan Jien Jet, Thng Yu Xuan, and Muhammad Zaki Haji Mokhtar, received the photos and shared them, despite knowing that they were "sensitive official information", according to the police.