SINGAPORE: A 66-year-old man who died after being rescued from a fire in his flat had likely fallen asleep in bed while smoking, a coroner's court said in findings into his death that were made available this week.
Mr Ng Bock Swee, who lived alone in a one-room flat in Ang Mo Kio, died of severe burn injuries with smoke inhalation in February last year, after embers from his lit cigarette ignited a fire in the living room.
In the findings, State Coroner Kamala Ponnampalam advised against smoking in bed, while the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) recommended that flat occupants should try to mitigate fires that have just started or are small.
If they cannot do so, they should evacuate immediately or seek refuge in a room with a closed door if the former is not possible.
The court heard that Mr Ng lived in a flat at Block 123, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6. He was last heard singing by a neighbour on the night of Feb 12, 2020.
A fire broke out in his flat the next morning, and multiple members of the public called the SCDF at about 8.10am.
When the firefighters arrived about four minutes later, they forced their way into the flat after finding that the metal gate was padlocked.
It was filled with smoke, with embers at a corner of the living room. Mr Ng was lying near the doorway in badly burnt shorts and was taken unconscious to Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
He suffered extensive third-degree burns to his face and body, with about 90 per cent of his body surface area sustaining burns. Despite treatment, he died at 1.55pm that same day.
An autopsy certified his cause of death as severe burn injuries with smoke inhalation, and no drugs that caused or contributed to his death were found in him, said the findings.
The SCDF's investigation report found that a cigarette pack was near the burnt mattress in the living room, with lighters on a table and inside a cabinet. An ashtray filled with cigarette butts was on a table in the living room, while cigarette packs were placed on a cabinet. There were also opened beer cans on the table next to the ashtray.
There was no suicide letter or note in the flat, the report found, and Mr Ng's neighbour said the man had lived there for more than 20 years, describing him as a smoker and someone who spent most of his time alone at home.
Mr Ng's younger brother told the court that he last saw Mr Ng during Chinese New Year in 2019, and said that his brother was a heavy smoker.
The SCDF's report stated that the fire damage and burn patterns were consistent with a fire that started at the mattress in the living room. There were no signs of an electrical short circuit, and remnants of a cigarette pack found near the mattress suggested that he had a tendency to smoke at or near the mattress.
A fire due to cigarette embers is likely, said the SCDF in its investigation report. Alcohol was not detected in Mr Ng's blood samples, and it could not be determined if it had impaired his ability to detect the fire and evacuate. The main door handle was found to be faulty.
SCDF concluded in its report that Mr Ng could have smoked at or near the mattress before the incident. When the lit cigarette came into contact with the fabric-covered mattress, it likely initiated smouldering embers that turned to flames.
Mr Ng was likely woken up by the fire, but the smoke-logged environment and the malfunctioning door handle hindered him from fleeing the flat.
The coroner ruled Mr Ng's death as an unfortunate misadventure, saying there was no basis to suspect foul play.
Mr Ng had likely fallen asleep while smoking, resulting in the lit cigarette igniting a mattress fire, said the coroner. She repeated the SCDF's advice that flat occupants should try to put out fires that have just started or that are small.
If they cannot do so, they should evacuate immediately. If they are unable to evacuate, they should seek refuge in a room and close the door to slow the spread of smoke inside.
"In this instance, as it was a one-room flat, one possibility was for Mr Ng to have barricaded himself inside the toilet," said the coroner. "Whether this would have been adequate, would depend on how much smoke had accumulated within the unit."
"As with most home fires, the best course of action is of course to prevent the fire from starting. Do not smoke in bed, as there is a real risk of falling asleep with a lit cigarette," she added.
"Be sure to put out the cigarette completely, as smouldering cigarette butts are often known to ignite soft furnishings and floor coverings in the home."
She conveyed her condolences to Mr Ng's family for their loss.