Firefighters assessing the situation at East Village Hotel. PHOTO: SCDF
Thick black smoke licked up the 12-storey East Village Hotel after a fire broke out at its retail annexe at 8.50am on 16 July 2012.
The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) Operations Centre was abuzz with numerous calls.
People were trapped on the ninth and fourth floors of the East Village Hotel.
As Major (MAJ) Tan Teck Ming, 38, rushed towards the scene his mission was clear—save lives and battle the blaze at the same time.
As the first senior officer to reach the scene, the Commander of Tampines Fire Station immediately split the 70m by 70m incident site into sectors.
This meant that fire-fighters and rescuers were divided into two separate and concurrent operations—one to contain and put out the fire and another to evacuate guests, employees and casualties.
80 fire-fighters with nine water jets attacked the blaze from all sides.
Hampered by stacks of construction material fire-fighters tried to get to the source of the fire in the basement.
MAJ Tan led evacuation efforts.
Fire bikers, the first responders to the incident, managed to safely evacuate a group of24 hotel guests congregated in a room.
MAJ Tan and a team of fire-fighters made their way to the fourth floor to rescue a stranded hotel worker who had called SCDF’s Operations Centre for help.
It was a race against time.
They had to comb through an area the size of about two basketball courts in their search for the survivor.
With the building engulfed with thick black smoke, visibility was so poor that they could not see past their hands.
The search was further hampered by the construction materials on the fourth level.
They finally found the man taking refuge behind some scaffolding.
For MAJ Tan, the most poignant moment of the operation was seeing the sheer relief on the face of the anxious hotel worker.
“The worker was distraught and it was my top priority to calm him and reassure that he was in safe hands. Looking back, my team and I had a sense of satisfaction in knowing that we had made a difference to the worker’s life.”
MAJ Tan’s first words were to reassure the hotel worker that the SCDF will do their utmost to get him to safety.
|A firefighter risking his life to enter the burning building. PHOTO: SCDF|
In all, 50 people were evacuated, and a total of 11 casualties were conveyed by SCDF ambulances to the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) inclusive of two SCDF personnel.
The fire was extinguished at 2 pm.
SCDF’s rigorous training was what helped Sergeant (SGT) Hafiz bin Mohd Ali, 30, and SGT Syazwan Bin Mohd Illias, 25, tackle the incident with confidence.
Both men are fire bikers from Paya Lebar Fire Station.
The blaze was their first major fire.
SGT Syazwan said: “When I was on the way to the location, I already saw thick black smoke in the distance. I saw a large crowd gathered at the location when I arrived and I must admit I was rather nervous as this was my first major fire incident.”
SGT Hafiz, who was the first person at the scene, knew he had to get up to speed with the situation on the ground immediately.
He had to single-handedly set up the staging point, account for and coordinate the fire-fighting teams as they arrived and check on the resources on site alone.
“I expected it to be tougher, but thankfully overall it went smoothly,” shared SGT Hafiz.
“Our instructors in SCDF put us through very stressful training scenarios and now I see the relevance of such tough training.”
Conditioned by demanding simulation exercises during his training, SGT Hafiz kept his composure and systematically organized and updated the teams who arrived at the incident site minutes later.
For SGT Ridzwan, 28, a Section Commander from Paya Lebar Fire Station, his six-month training in the Civil Defence Academy (CDA) came in handy.
“For a first timer, they would naturally feel worried or panicky. However, with the training I have received, we were drilled quite extensively in dealing with basement fires and overall I think we did quite well in the management of the incident,” said SGT Ridzwan.
|DART personnel entering the risk area. PHOTO: SCDF|
Looking out for one another
For both full-time National Servicemen (NSF) SGT Farhan Firdaus Darman, 20, and SGT Zaid Bin Abdul Aziz, 23, the East Village Hotel fire was a particularly harrowing experience.
This was especially so for SGT Farhan whose section-mate suffered heat exhaustion during the intense operation.
“I helped my section-mate to stretch his limbs to prevent cramps and I also called the paramedics for medical assistance,” recounted SGT Farhan.
“It is important that we stick together as a team and always do a thorough search for any casualties trapped in the area,” added SGT Zaid.
This sense of camraderie was apparent to all present.
To SGT Farhan, being a firefighter means that one becomes part of a huge and caring family.
“As a section commander, the safety of my men is paramount,” explained SGT Farhan.
Both NSFs SGT Farhan and SGT Zaid feel that although their job is risky, it is a worthwhile career because the experience of being a firefighter is not something that everyone in National Service (NS) gets to experience.
The gallant work done by the members of the SCDF was not lost on members of the public.
Mr Jeffrey Richard Gilbert, 45, Security Officer at The Seaview Condominium had this to say:
“The firefighters were pro. (he gives a thumbs up) I saw them wasting no time in doing their rescue operations in the midst of all the chaos. This was the biggest fire I’ve witnessed so far. It took place from morning at about 8 or 9 all the way to evening at around 5. The firefighters took long hours to cool down the fire and I was really impressed by their commitment and dedication.
Even though I’m a security guard at Seaview (condominium next to East Village Hotel). I also assisted the police in controlling the crowds and vehicles within the vicinity. I admire the Home Team’s efficiency in handling a huge fire,” he added.
Another onlooker, Mr Vincent See, 58, who called 995 and 999 for help, said, “I saw fire engines coming one after another and at least twenty firefighters in action, using their fire hoses and the fire hydrant. I even helped them to carry the hose to the hydrant.”
The Housekeeping Supervisor at Eastview and Eastgate Buildings continued, “They did their job, they did their part. Police also did their part in controlling traffic and stopping people from disturbing them. Everyone did their part. It was good. I admire their fighting spirit. They started their operations very quickly upon arrival.”
Being that difference in people’s lives
Echoing the public’s sentiments, SGT Hafiz added, “The reason I decided to become a firefighter was because it is a noble job, I feel proud being able to touch someone’s lives.”
“It is a privilege to serve others and at the same time earning a decent living to provide for my wife and two daughters.”
|An injured civilian getting medical attention from SCDF personnel. PHOTO: SCDF|
MAJ Tan, who switched mid-career from the private sector to the SCDF felt the same.
“In this career, what drives us is the passion for the job, I feel a sense of satisfaction in saving lives and protecting property.”
For those who are interested in joining the SCDF, MAJ Tan has this piece of advice to share.
“This is a rewarding and fulfilling job. However, you need to be hardworking in order to excel in the SCDF. But most importantly, please pursue a career that you truly love.”