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HomesingaporeHoarder with neighbour disputes died following Bukit Batok fire in unfortunate misadventure:...

Hoarder with neighbour disputes died following Bukit Batok fire in unfortunate misadventure: Coroner

SINGAPORE: A woman who was known to hoard items inside and outside her flat died in a series of unfortunate events after an accidental fire was sparked outside her flat, likely by a cigarette butt.

Even though she had disputes with her neighbours going back several years, her neighbours tried to put out the blaze but were hindered by padlocked fire hose reel cabinets and a technician’s error that meant no water was pumped through the reels.

The State Coroner declared the death of Madam Goh Seow Whay, 60, an unfortunate misadventure in his findings on Wednesday (Nov 8).

Mdm Goh lived in a flat on the 13th floor of Block 210A, Bukit Batok Street 21 with her partner and son.

According to Mdm Goh’s partner, he had tried to dissuade her from hoarding, but she did not pay him any heed.

The Jurong-Clementi Town Council had received complaints about Mdm Goh’s hoarding from as early as 2017, the court heard.

Other than complaints about her hoarding and other behaviour that some neighbours felt was inconsiderate, Mdm Goh had several disputes with her neighbours and also with her partner.

Some of these disputes degenerated into shouting, threats and use of vulgarities, with the police called in on some occasions to mediate, the coroner said.

THE FIRE

On Oct 31, 2019, Mdm Goh and her partner went to bed at about 10pm, while her son followed suit past midnight.

The recollections of several neighbours were inconsistent, with one of them saying he had not seen any signs of fire when he left his flat at 4am, and another saying he had heard shouts calling for others to run at 4am.

The coroner said it was likely that the recollections had been conflated with their perceptions of the fire, and that the fire had actually started in the items outside Mdm Goh’s flat from as early as 4.05am.

Three neighbours said they smelt something burning, and two stepped out to check and noticed the fire at around 4am.

“What would be inexplicable would be – why, if they had seen a fire or smelt burning, they made no efforts to fight the fire or call 995 for fire engines to be dispatched at that time,” said State Coroner Adam Nakhoda.

He said it was all the more inexplicable as one of the neighbours subsequently tried to fight the fire about 20 minutes later.

He said the neighbours would also have a vested interest in trying to put out the fire in order to prevent it spreading to their homes.

The coroner said it was possible that their recollections of the time they had perceived the fire was incorrect, and that they had become aware of the fire closer to the time when calls were made to 995.

He accepted the fire investigator’s evidence that the fire could possibly have started at 4am or earlier, based on the size of the fire at 4.23am.

At that time, Mdm Goh’s son woke up due to popping sounds and saw that the hoarded items along the common corridor were on fire.

NEIGHBOURS TRIED TO FIGHT FIRE

The neighbours swung into action, calling for help and trying to put out the fire. 

They were hindered firstly by the padlocked fire hose reel cabinets. The cabinets had been padlocked three years prior by town council staff in a bid to prevent vandalism.

At 4.33am, another neighbour from the 14th storey tried to access the fire hose reel on the 13th floor. He broke the glass when he found that the cabinet was padlocked and pulled the hose out, asking another neighbour to turn on the water valve.

However, no water came out. It later emerged that a technician hired to maintain the firefighting equipment had serviced the system at the rooftop a few weeks earlier.

He switched the pump selector mode from automatic mode to manual mode to carry out his servicing, but forgot to switch it back.

The coroner said this had far-reaching consequences during the fire, as the error meant that the fire hose reels in the block could not discharge water.

When Mdm Goh and her loved ones realised they could not escape via the front door because of how large the fire had become, they tried to climb out via the kitchen window.

Mdm Goh’s son and partner managed to climb out onto the metal laundry rack and parapet where they were later rescued, but Mdm Goh did not.

She fell back into the kitchen where she remained until she was rescued.

The first firefighting vehicle arrived at 4.42am, about 11 minutes after the first call was made. The coroner found the Singapore Civil Defence Force’s response time “reasonable”, with no delay on their part.

When the firemen arrived, they could not use their hoseline jets as they had to be connected to the dry riser on the 13th floor, and the equipment had to be charged before it could supply water.

The firefighters tried to use the fire hose reels but similarly faced the same obstacles the neighbours had faced of padlocked cabinets and no water supply. 

The fire was put out at about 5.15am using hoseline jets via the dry riser.

Firefighters had to clear a pathway through the heavily cluttered flat before reaching Mdm Goh’s son and husband, who were perched on the ledge outside the kitchen.

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

Because of the amount of time she had spent breathing the smoke in the flat, Mdm Goh suffered a prolonged smoke inhalation injury.

She was hospitalised until she died on Dec 9, 2019, with complications including pneumonia and a systemic inflammatory response that resulted in hypertension and an acute kidney injury.

The coroner found that strong winds at the time may have blown a cigarette butt or embers onto the hoarded items outside Mdm Goh’s flat.

While Mdm Goh had informed her son in the past that she had seen residents above her dropping cigarette butts down, investigations could not identify who had dropped the cigarette butt that likely caused the fire.

The police ruled out foul play, with thorough investigations unearthing no evidence to suggest that any neighbours were implicated in starting the fire.

“This case highlights the inherent dangers of using a home to store large amounts of hoarded items,” said the coroner. “Often they comprise flammable materials such as cardboard, paper, plastics and woods, which by their very nature are a fire hazard.”

While he noted that the fire could have been put out earlier had the block’s fire hose reels been functioning, he made no finding on whether the neighbours’ ability to fight the fire earlier would have resulted in a different outcome, as this would be speculative.

He conveyed his condolences to Mdm Goh’s partner and son, who attended the hearing, for their loss.

AFTERMATH

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.

The technician who had negligently left the water pump selector switch in 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.

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