Lighted joss sticks and candles may have sparked fire which killed elderly hoarder

SINGAPORE - A home fire which killed an elderly woman was most likely caused by lighted joss sticks and candles near her massive collection of cardboard and other flammable materials, a coroner's court heard on Wednesday (April 19).

A resident called police at 4.36pm on Oct 31 last year after he noticed smoke pouring out of a 10th storey flat at Block 640 Rowell Road, across from his block.

An inquest into the death of Madam Wong Siew Lan heard that firemen found it difficult to make their way into the smoke-logged and cluttered unit.

After the fire was extinguished, they found the 77-year-old in the kitchen toilet, conscious but drowsy and unable to speak.

Her clothes were "full of black ash patches". She was taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital and transferred to the Singapore General Hospital Burns Centre the next day. She died two days later from smoke inhalation.

An investigation by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) found the fire originated from near the entrance to the kitchen where lighted religious paraphernalia sat on a small table.

SCDF found joss sticks and candles in the living room and kitchen that were not completely burnt. This suggested Mdm Wong's last act may have involved her lighting the religious paraphernalia.

Investigators also found combustible material close to where the fire originated.

Mdm Wong may have been in the kitchen when she discovered the fire, the investigation concluded.

In his findings, State Coroner Marvin Bay said: "The clutter created by her hoarding within the unit, the location of the fire at the entrance to the kitchen, and the ensuing smoke from the fire are all assessed to likely to have been contributing factors to Mdm Wong's inability to evacuate from her apartment."

The court heard it is likely that she had sought refuge in the kitchen toilet where she collapsed, and sustained injuries related to smoke inhalation, which proved fatal.

Coroner Bay found her death to be from a "tragic misadventure".

He said her death underscores the serious inherent dangers posed by indiscriminate and disorganised hoarding of cardboard and other combustible materials.

"The clutter created by these materials go far beyond the aesthetic effect of making a dwelling place unsightly, but may carry the hidden, but very real, danger of making a home a veritable fire-hazard," he said.

When inadvertently lighted, these materials will feed and grow a fire. He also said haphazard storage may cause hoarded stacks to collapse and inhibit escape of occupants from the burning premises.