SINGAPORE: Drone batteries left to charge overnight are a “major suspect” in the case of a fatal fire that broke out at 6A Parry Avenue last June, a Coroner’s court heard Thursday (Feb 11).
The fire killed 74-year-old Ian Johnson, an Australian, and Singaporean Angeline Tan Poh Chu, 64. Their bodies had been “reduced to a charred state” by the fire that had burned through the roof of the house by the time the Singapore Civil Defence Force and police arrived.
Mr Johnson, a business partner and friend of Mdm Tan’s husband Tang Hui Jen, had travelled to Singapore for a business meeting, and had been staying at the Parry Avenue house.
One of the family’s two domestic helpers, Noemi Corpuz, was the first to be awoken by the smell of smoke at about 3am on Jun 9, 2015. Ms Corpuz found the sofa area on the first floor living room on fire, and rushed to the second floor to alert the Tangs’ son, Mr Alvin Tang, his wife, their two children and the other helper, Any Pangilinan, to the fire by knocking on the door of their bedrooms.
Ms Corpuz returned to the first floor, where she roused the Tangs’ grandfather from sleep, and brought him to safety via the back door. But none of the family on the second floor had fled the house, so Ms Corpuz used her mobile phone to call Mr Alvin Tang’s wife, Ms Liew Ee Lin, to alert her to the fire.
Mdm Liew said she could not understand what the panicking Ms Corpuz was saying, but was able to smell smoke and woke her husband. The couple climbed out of their bedroom window and jumped onto the roof of a shed located at the side of the house.
Their two sons also managed to escape, with the help of Ms Pangilinan, who climbed out of the children’s bedroom onto the air-conditioner compressor, and lowered the boys onto the first floor before she jumped down herself.
Mr Alvin Tang and Mdm Liew then helped their children, the two domestic helpers and their grandfather climb over the wall into their next-door neighbour’s property. They were aided by the domestic helper of their neighbour, Romiyati, who extended a step-ladder to receive them.
Mr Tang Hui Jen later testified that he and Mdm Tan had been awoken by a burning smell, and had covered their faces with wet towels. The elder Tang said he told his wife to stay put in the toilet of the master bedroom while he took a pail of water to put the fire out. But upon realising the ferocity of the fire, he jumped from the balcony of the bedroom onto the porch below.
It was then he realised his wife was still in their room. Her body was later recovered from the toilet, and Mr Johnson’s body was found in the corridor near the guest bedroom. A forensic pathologist testified that the two died from extensive burns.
Their bodies had been “reduced to a charred state” and could only be identified via DNA matching and dental records, State Coroner Marvin Bay said. Mdm Liew’s two cats also died in the fire. They had been caged so as to keep them away from a battery charger.
The fire was eventually put out hours later at 6.45am. Two firemen sustained minor smoke inhalation and heat-related injuries.
DRONE BATTERIES SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN LEFT TO CHARGE OVERNIGHT: MAKER
Mr Tang Hui Jen, who sustained a fracture from his jump off the balcony, testified that he saw Mr Johnson place three drone batteries on the carpeted floor of the living room to charge overnight. The two were friends of 30 years, and in business to promote a drone product in Singapore, which they had procured from a German company.
The managing director of the German company gave evidence in court that that the drone batteries were “resilient and not easily damaged” but should not have been left to charge overnight. He also added that if the battery was “damaged by forceful means … or handled improperly, the battery might explode”.
CCTV footage from the house across the road from 6A Parry Avenue showed faint flashes “leading to an apparent explosion” around 2.55am, Mr Bay said. However, the investigation into the cause of the fire also revealed the living room had been “crowded by assortment of electrical devices, appliances and furniture items”, including an electrical reclining sofa, CCTV system and an electronic organ, added Mr Bay.
Though the evidence against the drone batteries is “primarily circumstantial”, Mr Bay called for the charging of batteries of drones and other similar devices to be done “in the presence of persons who can intervene” in the event of an emergency, such as when the battery is overcharged or damaged.
The State Coroner also lauded the actions of the helpers of the two households of 6A and 8 Parry Avenue, whose “courage, quick-thinking, resolve and immediate action” had saved the family and mitigated the potential of further loss of life at the house.