'We were screaming in pain': Workers recall Tuas explosion at inquiry hearing

Mr Hossain Jitu (left), whose scars were visible beneath his mask in court, suffered burns to 54 per cent of his body and had difficulty breathing and closing his eyes.
Mr Hossain Jitu (left), whose scars were visible beneath his mask in court, suffered burns to 54 per cent of his body and had difficulty breathing and closing his eyes.PHOTOS: KELVIN CHNG, ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Moments after an explosion shook a Tuas industrial building and blew out its window panels, the eight workers who were in the workshop at the time ran to a nearby open field screaming in agony.

Workers from neighbouring units went to splash water and hose down the badly burnt workers.

The brutal experience of the Feb 24 blast at 32E Tuas Avenue 11 was recounted by two of the injured workers, Mr Hossain Jitu, 32, and Mr Molla Md Yousuf, 28, both Bangladeshi nationals, before an inquiry committee on Tuesday (Sept 28).

"We were screaming in pain at the open field, and workers from neighbouring units came out and started throwing and spraying water on us using a water hose," Mr Jitu testified.

"I realised my shirt was on fire and part of it had already burned off. I removed what was left of my burning shirt using my left hand."

Mr Jitu suffered burns to 54 per cent of his body and had difficulty breathing and closing his eyes.

"The skin beneath my eyes was burnt and I was unable to close my eyes and sleep after the accident," he said.

Three workers, Mr Subbaiyan Marimuthu, 38, Mr Anisuzzaman Md, 29, and Mr Shohel Md, 23, died from severe burns that covered 90 per cent of their bodies, while seven other workers, including two who were not in the workshop, were injured.

The inquiry committee, chaired by Senior District Judge Ong Hian Sun, had earlier heard that the explosion is believed to have been linked to a mixer machine.

The workers in the workshop were employed by Stars Engrg, which made an insulation material called fire wrap using the mixer machine. The machine heated up oil in a jacket, which then heated ingredients including potato starch in the mixer component.

Stars Engrg's sole director, Mr Chua Xing Da, testified earlier that the temperature in the oil jacket was not monitored after the machine was tested on June 12 last year. He separately estimated the temperature of the machine to have been around 700 deg C before the explosion.

Both Mr Jitu and Mr Yousuf, whose scars were visible beneath their masks in court on Tuesday, said that when the machine was left on for some time, they would hear bubbling, boiling sounds inside it. 

On the day of the explosion, between 11am and 11.30am, Mr Jitu was at an assembly table, while Mr Yousuf was packing completed fire wraps at a packing machine near the front shutters of the workshop.

"Suddenly, I felt hot oil splash on my face and the top part of my chest. I also heard oil splashing onto the wall above or behind me... I looked up and the whole workshop was on fire and filled with black smoke," he said.

Mr Yousuf said he heard a loud explosion from behind him.

"I felt an extremely intense heat accompanied by an impact across my whole back, and I fell about 2m forward to the ground. I also felt pain," he added.

Both men ran out of the workshop through the front shutters to an open field. They were later taken to Singapore General Hospital's burns unit and warded in intensive care.

Mr Jitu suffered burns on areas including his back, face, neck, chest, arms and thighs, and underwent multiple skin grafting and plastic surgery procedures.

Mr Yousuf had burns to his hands, face and back. A skin grafting procedure was performed on his hands.

Both of them continue to receive outpatient care, including physiotherapy.

Mr Jitu said he lost strength in his hands after the accident, and cannot open his mouth fully, which has affected his eating. A doctor said that he may have to undergo further surgery on his mouth.

"I could not sleep for many days after I regained consciousness, especially when I heard about my co-workers who passed away. I constantly thought about the fire and got nightmares about it every time I closed my eyes," said Mr Jitu.

Mr Yousuf said: "I worry whether I will be able to work and live my life as a normal person again given my injuries... I have been spontaneously awoken from my sleep by sudden jerks and my whole body shaking."