‘At the end of the day, it’s still a life’: How SCDF tried to save 14 cats from burning Fajar Road flat
SINGAPORE: When Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) firefighters forced their way into a burning maisonette at Fajar Road last Thursday morning (Apr 21), they saw a distressing sight through the thick black smoke.
No one was home, but littered every two to three steps along the hallways and in the living room and kitchen, were the limp bodies of cats.
“It’s actually very sad, because when you see stray cats, they are usually running around or happily licking themselves,” said Lieutenant (Lt) Juliet Oh, a rota commander and one of the first responders on scene.
“But when we went into the unit, all of them were lying on the floor, not really responsive already.”
The firefighters, decked in bulky breathing apparatus and compressed air foam backpacks, quickly carried the cats outside and laid them at a staircase landing.
But with a pressing need to put out the flames, not all of them could go out. In almost zero visibility conditions, the firefighters continued to search for the source of the fire.
The firefighters were speaking to reporters at Bukit Batok fire station on Thursday (Apr 28), a week after SCDF’s Facebook post on the rescue of 14 cats from the unit drew praise. The 20 firefighters involved in the operation managed to bring out all the cats, but one did not survive.
Back in the unit that day, Lt Oh held a thermal imager that showed the hottest parts of the house, leading her team to the fire source in the service yard. She noticed brighter ovals on the imager, evidence of even more cats sprawled around the house.
Lt Oh had attended to pets trapped in flat fires before, but not in such large numbers and the condition the Fajar Road cats were in. She knew that the firefighting and animal rescue had to take place at the same time.
“You see animals lying around, you wouldn’t just kick them away and continue fighting the fire,” the 29-year-old said. “It wouldn’t be right.”
As the firefighters battled the flames in the service yard, four of them formed a human chain that led out to the staircase landing, which by then had become a makeshift triage area. More cats were passed along the chain to safety.
In the thick of the action was Corporal (Cpl) Marco Lim, a 25-year-old full-time national serviceman. “The fire wasn’t really big, but there were burning embers and a lot of smoke,” he recalled.
Amid the commotion, new information filtered in. Police officers outside, who had managed to contact the home owners, shouted that they had 14 cats. The firefighters tallied the numbers at the triage area and yelled at their colleagues inside to tell them how many were still missing.
Staff Sergeant (Ssgt) Mohammad Yazid Mohammad Yusof, a section commander, was among those who were sent in to scour the two floors of the maisonette. Some areas were more well-lit because they were near windows. Others closer to the service yard were smoggier, he recalled.
“Some cats were easier to find, some were not and needed the help of the thermal imager later on,” the 39-year-old added. “So, we took them out one by one using the cradling method through the human chain up to the staircase landing.”
Lt Oh said the flames were extinguished in about 10 minutes. Cpl Lim had used up all of his compressed air foam, so he carried a few more cats outside. “They weren’t really big-sized, so it was quite manageable for me,” he said.
IMPROVISING MEDICAL TREATMENT
At the staircase landing, all 14 cats were accounted for, but there was still work to do. The picture in the viral Facebook post, taken by an eyewitness early in the operation, showed firefighters kneeling around the cats and giving them medical attention.
Cpl Lim jumped into action after getting a clearer look at the felines. “They were just freshly evacuated and their faces had a lot of soot. So, I think it’s only right to give them clean air,” he said.
Without proper medical equipment at the time, Cpl Lim took off his face mask and put it near the cat’s head, giving it crucial fresh air. Prior to enlistment, he had worked a pet hotel for six months, so he was comfortable handling them.
Ssgt Yazid decided that the large face masks were not the most suitable for this purpose, so he called for emergency medical technician (EMT) bags to be brought to the staircase landing. These bags contain an oxygen mask and tank, used for human casualties.
The firefighters took these masks and strapped them on the cats. Many regained consciousness within a few minutes and some even started walking again. But three did not move. Ssgt Yazid, trained as an EMT, knew what was needed.
The firefighters were trained in human but not animal cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Yet, the guiding principles were the same: “To have compression on the heart and maintain blood circulation, so as not to starve oxygen to the brain,” Ssgt Yazid recited.
Similar to performing CPR on babies, some of the firefighters used two thumbs to press on the cat’s chest. Others cupped their palms to apply the compressions.
The focus on reviving the cats was so singular that the firefighters did not notice that the eyewitness was taking a picture, Lt Oh said.
“It was instinctive, like second nature,” Ssgt Yazid said when asked how they were so quick to improvise. “I didn’t feel any (stress), I just focused on the task at hand.” And how did they know how hard to press? “Roughly,” came his reply.
Despite these efforts, one of the three cats did not respond. The firefighters checked for a pulse on its hind leg, but there was nothing. The cat did not pull through.
The home owners had also arrived on scene, clearly distraught. “Imagine owning so many cats and seeing them lying on the floor, knowing that one of them couldn't make it,” Lt Oh said.
The firefighters turned their attention to the other cats and cleared soot off their faces and paws. They fed the cats water, given by neighbours, using syringes from the EMT bags. By then, many of the cats were fully conscious, hiding in a pen near their owners.
The owners were tearing and repeatedly thanked the firefighters for rescuing their cats, Lt Oh recalled. “They were saying that we don’t only save human lives, but also cats’ lives, and so many of them,” she said.
When the Facebook post went viral, Lt Oh said the SCDF crew did not think much of it. “We’re actually more worried about whether the cats were healthy,” she said. “We just wanted to do whatever we could, because we went there to save lives and property.”
Lt Oh spoke to the home owner a few days ago and said the 13 cats were “well”, although a few needed further treatment. “Due to the thick smoke inhalation within the unit itself on that day, it will take some time,” she added.
While Ssgt Yazid said he is grateful the firefighters managed to intervene, he still wishes that all of the cats survived.
“At the end of the day, it’s still a life,” he added. “Even though they are non-human casualties, we will still treat them as living beings.”