SINGAPORE – When he heard on the radio that there was a big fire at Robinsons department store in Raffles Place, Mr Sivalingam Sundaresan immediately rushed to the scene.
His older brother – Mr Sivasundaram Sundaresan, 33 – was working in the three-storey building, which had a basement, as a lift attendant. The fire had started just before 10am, and it took about two hours for firefighters to bring it under control.
Mr Sivalingam, now 79, refused to leave the area. He waited till 5pm, wanting to make sure his brother was all right. He never saw him again.
“I waited, waited and waited. I had a little bit of hope he had returned home.
“The day after the fire, I was still crying. Then the reporters came to my home and asked about my brother. They confirmed he was gone,” said Mr Sivalingam, who has a younger brother.
A few days later, he was told to pick up his brother’s remains from Outram Road General Hospital, now Singapore General Hospital. All he got was a fragment of a hip bone and the Seiko watch his brother wore that day.
Mr Sivalingam and his father later held a private ceremony at Choa Chu Kang cemetery. His mother was in India then.
But Mr Sivalingam still has his brother’s watch, which he keeps in a drawer in his bedroom.
“I don’t even dare to look at (the watch) sometimes. Can you imagine the suffering he and the others went through and the pain? I try to forget it,” said Mr Sivalingam, who is no longer in touch with his brother’s wife and two children.
Nine people died that day. Eight, including Mr Sivasundaram, died after they were trapped in the lifts which stopped working as a result of a power failure.
Madam Lee Jow Keng, a 37-year-old cleaner who was scrubbing the toilet on the second floor before the fire, was also found dead. She had refused to leave the building.
Ms Jenny Chan, now 74, survived the tragedy. Just before the fire spread, she was painting a Christmas backdrop next to one of the display windows on the ground floor.
Ms Chan, then 24 and working in the dress material department, recalled the first sign of trouble was when the lights went off suddenly at about 9.50am.
Multiple eyewitnesses, who gave evidence before a commission of inquiry into the Robinsons’ fire, said that by that time, thin, grey smoke had started pouring out from the ladies’ underwear section on the first floor.
Speaking to The Sunday Times, she said: “I thought it was just a power failure. There was no rush to leave the building. We walked out. It was only much later when I heard there had been a fire.”
Meanwhile, Mr Robert Tan, then 19, was in the men’s outfitting department serving an Indonesian tourist who had paid for shirts using foreign currency.
To process the customer’s payment, Mr Tan, who was a part-timer, took the lift from the ground floor, where the department was located, to Robinsons’ main office on the third floor.
As he did not want to keep the customer waiting, Mr Tan decided to run down the stairs instead of waiting for the lift.
Mr Tan, now 69, told ST: “As I was going down to the ground floor, I saw one of the wires on the ceiling burst into flames. Then the sparks shot across the wire like a dynamite fuse.”
Mr Tan rushed to inform his manager, Mr Aw Chin Hu, about what he saw but moments later, Mr M.C. Marsh, Robinsons’ fire officer, sounded the fire alarm.
He said: “As we left the building, the smoke was grey but it later turned black. Some of the staff who tried to put out the fire could not go in.”
Both Mr Tan and Ms Chan escaped to the garden above the Robinsons underground carpark, which was where employees were told to evacuate to during a fire.
It was only later in the day that Ms Chan realised her colleague, Ms Ainon Mohamed Tahir, then a 22-year-old working in her department, was missing.
Ms Ainon, who was seven months pregnant, was later confirmed by the police to be among the nine casualties. Ms Chan said: “Nobody knew where she was. When her mother and husband came down to find us, she asked us why we did not take her with us. Her mother was very distraught and crying. It was heartrending.We also cried. Of course we wanted to save her but we couldn’t find her.”
Meanwhile, Mr Tan Wee Him, then a 24-year-old photographer with The Straits Times covering the fire, had sought refuge from the intense heat by standing behind the pillars of the John Little department store across the road from Robinsons.
The fire was so intense that it melted a statue of the Roman god of commerce, Mercury, which was on the roof of Robinsons building, said Mr Tan, now 74.
According to a report of the fire published the next day, 18 fire engines were dispatched.
There were reports of fire hoses popping out from hydrants because they did not fit. In other places, the water pressure was too low and the firefighters were forced to pump water from the nearby Singapore River.
The fire was brought under control by 12.20pm, but people were not allowed to enter the premises.
Wisps of smoke were still billowing from the smouldering ruins the next day when Mr Jamal Singh, then a 24-year-old police inspector with the Central Police Division, visited the site as part of investigations.
Mr Singh, who is now 74, said: “When we made our way into the Robinsons building, the structure was still standing except the floors, which were wooden. They were all gone.”
Mr Singh, who was on duty that day, helped to retrieve the remains of nine people from the ruins of Robinsons.
Mr Sivalingam said: “They were burned to death, it must have been very painful.
“I feel sorry for my brother and the others who lost their lives. Such incidents should not happen again.”