While Private Joshua Quek was doing his fifth and final jump for his Basic Airborne Course at night, the cord that attached his parachute to the aircraft interfered with his jump when it was not pulled taut as required. The cord, called the static line, swept across his neck as he exited the aircraft.
This caused a neck injury, even as the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) full-time national serviceman (NSF) landed within the designated zone.
The incident in Taiwan on Dec 18 last year occurred as a result of a known risk for static-line parachute training termed "static-line interference", Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday.
It was the first such known incident to result in serious injury since the Basic Airborne Course started in 1974, he said, adding that investigations are under way to determine why this interference occurred and if adequate supervision was given during the jump.
He was giving preliminary findings in response to a question from Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), who had asked the minister for the facts and interim findings surrounding the incident.
In his written reply, Dr Ng said the SAF conducts about 6,000 static-line parachute jumps every year. Since 1974, about 27,000 trainees have graduated from the SAF's Basic Airborne Course.
To ensure that static-line interference does not occur, Dr Ng said there were established drills and safety protocols in the training manuals for both the jumper and the jump master.
"For all jumps, a qualified jump instructor is required to be on board the plane with two qualified jump masters at the exit door to check that these measures and other safety aspects are adhered to," he said.
Pte Quek, 21, was doing a static-line jump, where a static line becomes taut and deploys the parachutes automatically as jumpers exit an aircraft.
The static line attaches the parachutes to the aircraft.
This training activity is standard airborne training conducted by militaries to teach soldiers the fundamentals of parachuting for combat deployment, said Dr Ng.
Pte Quek had completed the previous four static-line jumps successfully in the days prior to the incident, and had successfully undergone the required pre-jump qualifications, training drills and safety briefs before taking part in this activity, he added.
Upon landing, Pte Quek was attended to immediately by SAF's on-site medical officer, and later evacuated by the on-site ambulance to the nearest tertiary hospital. At the hospital, a magnetic resource imaging scan revealed he had sustained a cervical spine injury. The next morning, he underwent surgery to relieve the pressure on his spine.
A planned second surgery on Dec 21 to stabilise his cervical spine was also successfully completed without complications, said Dr Ng, adding that the soldier was currently still in the intensive care unit for close observation.
Dr Ng did not say which unit Pte Quek was from. A previous Mindef statement on Jan 2 said the Chief Commando Officer, Colonel Kenny Tay, had visited and spoken with him and his family at the hospital.
Pte Quek's family was informed on the night of the incident, and his mother was flown to the hospital the next day. His father and brother joined him a few days after.
The cervical spine injury he sustained resulted in neurological deficits, including weakness of his upper and lower limbs, said Dr Ng.
He added that Pte Quek is now able to breathe on his own and talk to his family, but he will require continued rehabilitation and physiotherapy for long-term recovery, as well as to reduce the damage from the injury.
While Pte Quek's condition is stable, close monitoring is needed over the next few weeks, and he will be brought back to Singapore when the specialists deem it safe for him to fly, said Dr Ng.
A formal Board of Inquiry, supported by the SAF Inspector General's Office, has been convened by the Singapore Army for a full investigation of this incident, he said. In the meantime, all static-line parachute jumps have been suspended, pending the board's findings.
"The Board of Inquiry will comprehensively ascertain the detailed circumstances and possible contributory factors for the incident.
"It will examine all existing safety processes and procedures, whether they were adhered to, and recommend areas for review and enhancement where needed," said Dr Ng.