Tuas blast inquiry: Hard questions, 15 witnesses over two weeks

Stars Engrg boss Chua Xing Da (left) and project engineer Lwin Moe Tun have been of particular interest to the inquiry. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Their cries of agony as they ran from the workshop at 32 E Tuas Avenue 11 engulfed in flames drew others in the vicinity, who rushed to douse the burning workers with water.

A total of 10 workers were injured in the explosion at Stars Engrg at about 11.20am on Feb 24, and three later died in hospital.

An Inquiry Committee, chaired by Senior District Judge Ong Hian Sun, was appointed on March 2 to look into the causes of the fatal explosion and fire, which involved a mixer machine used by the fire protection company to create a clay-like substance for its products.

The judge is assisted by Mr Lucas Ng, the Petrochemical Corporation of Singapore general manager of plant, and Dr Peter Nagler, chief innovation officer at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

The first tranche of the inquiry began in the State Courts on Sept 8 with a minute of silence in remembrance of the three men who died.

A State Counsel team, led by Ms Kristy Tan, has been leading evidence at the hearings.

Stars Engrg is also participating, and is represented by Mr Thong Chee Kun and his team from Rajah & Tann Singapore.

In the span of two weeks, a total of 15 people have testified, including the seven workers who were injured but survived.

Five of them worked for Stars Engrg, and two for P3 Project, which occupies the unit opposite the Stars Engrg workshop.

Other Stars Engrg employees who were not at the workshop when the explosion happened have also testified. They include company welder Molla Md Nasim, project manager Pandi Muruganantham, safety coordinator Sarkar Shibu, and general manager Chua Shi Yong.

A former employee who helped set up the machine, Mr Imam, also testified. But of all the witnesses, two have been of particular interest to the inquiry.

(Clockwise from top left) Mr Molla Md Nasim, Mr Pandi Muruganantham, Mr Sarkar Shibu, Mr Chua Shi Yong and Mr Imam. ST PHOTOS: KELVIN CHNG

Mr Chua Xing Da, 37, the company director, and Mr Lwin Moe Tun, 31, the project engineer, were questioned over three days each. None of the other witnesses were on the stand for more than a day.

They were each grilled about a series of red flags beginning months before the explosion which included smoke emissions, leaks and fires involving the mixer.

Mr Lwin Moe Tun also admitted to deleting a photo of the damaged mixer from a dead worker's phone, sent to him minutes before the explosion, and two messages he had sent in response.

Mr Chua admitted to saying "ok" when Mr Lwin Moe Tun had asked whether he could delete the content on his own phone as well.

The mixer machine is of key interest in the inquiry.

Questions have been raised over whether the mixer had been operated properly, with the level of oil being disputed.

Ms Sharon Lee Sio Cheng, the sales manager at Ming Hup Trading, testified to selling a total of 200 litres of oil to the company.

In the State Counsels' opening statement, Ms Tan called the incident an "absolute travesty".

The back wall of the affected unit that was damaged by the explosion on Feb 24, 2021. PHOTO: ST FILE

She said: "There will no doubt be many important lessons to learn from this tragic accident, to ensure it is never again repeated."

The first tranche of the inquiry continues until Friday, with investigators from the Ministry of Manpower and Singapore Civil Defence Force expected to take the stand.

A second tranche of hearings to review recommendations to prevent such accidents from happening again will be held from Nov 15 to 19.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.