SINGAPORE: The driver of the car involved in the fatal crash on Tanjong Pagar Road that claimed five lives last year was drink-driving and speeding in the lead up to the collision.
This was according to evidence given by a Traffic Police investigation officer on Thursday (Jun 9), the first day of a coroner's inquiry into the deaths.
The driver, Jonathan Long Junwei, and four passengers – Eugene Yap Zheng Min, Elvin Tan Yong Hao, Teo Qi Xiang and Gary Wong Hong Chieh – died in the collision at about 5.40am on Feb 13, 2021.
Based on the Health Sciences Authority's (HSA) forensic investigations, the car was going at speeds of up to 148kmh when Mr Long was driving. The speed limit on Tanjong Pagar Road was 50kmh.
Toxicology reports also showed that Mr Long's blood alcohol level was at 86mg per 100ml at the time, which is above the legal limit of 80mg.
According to autopsy reports, all five died of severe burns in the fire that engulfed the car and shophouse into which it crashed. Two of the passengers, Mr Teo and Mr Wong, also died of a cervical spine injury and pelvic injuries respectively.
The men knew each other as they were colleagues, while Mr Wong was their former colleague.
Three next-of-kin were present at the hearing: Mr Long's father, Mr Yap's brother and Mr Wong's sister.
BEFORE THE CRASH
Senior staff sergeant Mohd Firdaus Sulaiman said that before the collision, the five men had gathered at a house in Ang Mo Kio for Chinese New Year celebrations.
After drinking alcohol at the gathering, they decided to have supper at Tanjong Pagar Road as it was a common hangout area for them.
As all the eateries in the area were closed, they decided to go to Hong Jjajang restaurant owned by Park Se Jin, as he had the restaurant's key.
Mr Park opened up the restaurant and the group went there, where they continued drinking alcohol.
Aside from the five men and Mr Park, three women were also present, among them Raybe Oh and Phoo Yi Lin.
Ms Oh suffered burns when she later tried to help the people in the burning car, while Ms Phoo took a video of the collision that was entered into evidence.
At about 4am, the group decided to leave the restaurant as Mr Long wanted to show his friends his new car. Based on evidence from the witnesses, the group was "excited" to feel how the two-door car drove, said SSS Firdaus.
The four passengers followed Mr Long and got into the car voluntarily, according to evidence Ms Oh gave police.
Ms Michelle Wong, Mr Wong's sister, asked for clarification on whether the three passengers apart from her brother were Mr Long's subordinates who reported to him.
SSS Firdaus responded that they were unable to determine such relationships within the group, and reiterated that all five were colleagues who worked together before or at the time of the accident.
The car was driven on three rounds, with a different driver each time, until Mr Long took the wheel on the fourth round and the crash occurred.
The route saw the car go from the restaurant on Tanjong Pagar Road towards Keppel, before it made a U-turn at Enggor Street after Amara Hotel to return to Tanjong Pagar Road towards Maxwell. It then made another U-turn near 37 Tanjong Pagar Road to return to the restaurant.
The car completed this route without incident during the first three rounds. Mr Yap drove the car on the first round, followed by Mr Park and then Ms Phoo.
While standing outside and watching the first three rounds, Mr Long was "very persuasive" and "insisted" on competing to see who could drive faster, SSS Firdaus said according to evidence from Ms Phoo.
During the fourth and final round driven by Mr Long, he lost control of the car, which skidded on its side towards the shophouse at 37 Tanjong Pagar Road, mounted the kerb and rear-ended a pillar. Seconds later, flames engulfed the car.
HSA's speed analysis showed that the speed of the car was up to 88kmh during the first round, up to 59kmh during the second round and up to 130kmh during the third round.
Skid marks were seen on the road surface in both directions of Tanjong Pagar Road, said SSS Firdaus.
He read out evidence from witnesses who described hearing and feeling vibrations from a car travelling at high speed moments before the crash.
A witness staying on the 23rd floor of Tanjong Pagar Plaza, near the accident location, told police that she was woken by the loud revving of a car in the early morning of Feb 13, 2021.
In a police statement, she described the revving sound as "extraordinary" and "like someone doing a drag race", said SSS Firdaus.
CONDITION OF THE CAR
Due to the damage to the car, investigators were not able to determine its mechanical condition and whether any mechanical failure could have contributed to the crash.
They observed that the car's original charge pipes had been replaced with an aftermarket version, made of a stronger aluminium material with a heatproof coating.
However, no modification that could have resulted in a car malfunction was found.
SSS Firdaus said investigators were only able to determine that Mr Wong was wearing his seatbelt as the buckle was found still fastened in the receiver.
The other seatbelts melted in the fire and investigators could not tell if the others in the car were wearing them.
SSS Firdaus also informed the court that the airbags were not activated in the collision because the airbag sensor was at the front and sides of the car, while the crash was at the car's rear.
The second witness, senior fire investigator Major Huang Weikang, was asked whether the car doors were locked.
He said this was inconclusive for the door on the driver's side as the handle and locking mechanism were badly damaged.
As for the car's passenger door, it was obstructed by the shutter of the shophouse when first responders arrived.
CAUSE OF THE FIRE
MAJ Huang Weikang, told the court that the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) received multiple calls reporting the fire at 5.42am.
SCDF first arrived at the scene at 5.46am and saw that a fire had engulfed the rear and top of the car. The passenger cabin was also on fire.
The crew was unable to approach the car due to the intensity of the heat, SSS Firdaus told the court.
Unable to see inside the car due to the flames and smoke, they shouted to check for responses, but did not hear anything.
Firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze at 6.08am, and the bodies were subsequently extricated from the vehicle.
Through investigations, SCDF concluded that the fire originated from the BMW car's undercarriage, said MAJ Huang.
The collision severely damaged the car's exhaust system and also ruptured its fuel tank, causing petrol to leak and vaporise.
As vaporised petrol accumulated in the narrow space under the car, it likely ignited after coming into contact with the hot surface of the exhaust system.
Combustible plastics in the vehicle's undercarriage could also have been another source of fuel for the fire.
MAJ Huang said that this hypothesis was supported by the way the fire spread rapidly, in line with the behaviour of a petrol fire, as seen in video evidence of the crash.
He added that the modified charge pipes were unlikely to have had a significant impact on the fire because they were located in the engine, relatively far from the point of origin.
Car safety features that were supposed to kick in if a crash was detected were also observed to have been triggered, said MAJ Huang.
Before the hearing began, State Coroner Adam Nakhoda reminded those present that a coroner's inquiry is a fact-finding process to look into the circumstances leading to a death.
The Coroners Act specifically prohibits the coroner from framing a finding to determine any question of criminal liability, according to the Attorney-General Chambers' website.
At the end of the hearing, Judge Nakhoda said he would consider if there was a need to call more witnesses to testify, before issuing his findings at a later date.