Emergency team overcame fear to fight blaze

Mr Nelson Poh (in yellow shirt), who leads Leeden National Oxygen's emergency response team, and his colleague, Mr Lee Mun Hong, yesterday visiting the building where the fire took place. They were among the first to respond at the scene on Monday an
Mr Nelson Poh (in yellow shirt), who leads Leeden National Oxygen's emergency response team, and his colleague, Mr Lee Mun Hong, yesterday visiting the building where the fire took place. They were among the first to respond at the scene on Monday and helped to control the blaze until SCDF firefighters arrived.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

When Mr Nelson Poh rushed to the scene of a fire at Leeden National Oxygen, his gaze immediately swung to two trailers containing hydrogen gas.

Hydrogen gas is highly flammable, and the trailers - which carried 16 hydrogen tanks in total - were parked some 15m from the burning laboratory.

Fearing they would ignite, the 58-year-old safety officer, who leads the company's emergency response team, immediately got people to move the trailers.

The fire on Monday morning at the gas manufacturing firm in the Jurong industrial area killed chemist Lim Siaw Chian and injured seven others. The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

The company had credited its emergency response team with controlling the fire before firefighters arrived. Four of 10 team members at the scene, including Mr Poh, were taken to hospital.

  • At-risk sites must have in-house team

  • Premises storing more than five tonnes of petroleum and flammable materials are required to have a company emergency response team (Cert).

    The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) said yesterday that it has more than 300 such premises registered in its database.

    Cert members are trained by accredited firms in incident management and responding to fire and hazardous material emergencies.

    "It is the responsibility of the premises' owners... to ensure that a Cert is formed, adequately trained and sufficiently equipped," a spokesman said.

    The SCDF also conducts audits for Certs annually through a simulated exercise and a full evacuation drill.

    "This exercise will serve to validate the company's emergency response plan," it added.

    Lim Yi Han

Speaking to reporters at Leeden National Oxygen's other facility in the Jurong industrial area, Mr Poh said: "When we were fighting to contain the fire, there were multiple explosions. I would be bluffing if I said I was not scared. But I kept thinking, I must not let the fire spread... I must not let it get worse."

There were at least four explosions, he said. He heard the first explosion at around 9.20am, when he was checking his e-mail.

He did not spot anything amiss at the 1 Shipyard Road premises, so he called his colleague, Mr Lee Mun Hong, who is based at 21 Tanjong Kling, about 300m away.

Once he was told about the fire, Mr Poh immediately cycled over.

"When I got there, people were already evacuated... While I was setting up the fire hydrant, I saw (the trailers with) hydrogen and I told them, remove these because it's very explosive," he said.

Mr Poh worked in the Republic of Singapore Navy for 30 years as a communications specialist, where he was trained in firefighting. The father of two joined Leeden National Oxygen about nine years ago.

He said the explosions on Monday were deafening, and he was choking from the smell of gases.

He wanted to enter the lab, but it was too dangerous as he did not have protective gear.

"From far, when you hear the 'boom' sound, it's very loud. Imagine if you're standing right in front of it," he said. "There was a guy behind me, holding onto the hose; he was shivering. I told him to stay put. That was the fear we had."

Meanwhile, Mr Lee, 45, a safety manager and another member of the company's emergency response team, called the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and activated the carbon dioxide suppression system to help put out the fire.

Mr Lee, who was taken to Ng Teng Fong General Hospital for smoke inhalation, dehydration and exhaustion, said: "I saw fumes coming out from the ceiling (of the lab) and noticed that part of it had flown off... It was very smoky inside the lab, so I could not see the deceased."

Both Mr Poh and Mr Lee fainted as SCDF officers arrived. Mr Lee was discharged on Monday, while Mr Poh was discharged yesterday.

When asked about Ms Lim, who died, Mr Poh teared up and said he wished he had arrived earlier.

"I'm sad because we couldn't do anything to help her. My heart sank when the paramedic told me there was a fatality. That is my only regret," he said. "But from the bottom of my heart, I know my colleagues and I have tried our best."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2015, with the headline 'Emergency team overcame fear to fight blaze'. Print Edition | Subscribe