‘I was burning’: Worker who survived deadly Tuas blast recalls explosion that burnt 58 per cent of his body’s surface area

Mehedi, a worker who survived a deadly blast at Tuas industrial unit, leaving the State Courts building on Sept 21, 2021 after giving evidence to a committee of inquiry into the incident. — TODAY pic
Mehedi, a worker who survived a deadly blast at Tuas industrial unit, leaving the State Courts building on Sept 21, 2021 after giving evidence to a committee of inquiry into the incident. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, Sept 21 — First, a loud explosion, then the force of a gust of hot air pushed him to the ground in the dark, smoke-filled workshop. “I realised that I was burning and that my clothes had burnt off, leaving me with only my pants.” He then crawled to an exit to make a run for safety.

One of the survivors of the deadly Tuas industrial explosion on Feb 24, 22-year-old Bangladeshi worker Mehedi, gave this account as public hearings into the cause and circumstances of the blast that claimed three lives entered their second day today.

Of the seven workers who were injured from the blast, Mehedi, the youngest of them, suffered the most extensive burns – covering 58 per cent of his total body surface area, including his face, scalp, limbs and back. After his escape, he lapsed into unconsciousness for three days.

Till today, he still has problems sleeping at night as he often thinks about the accident, he said in his statement read out in the hearing by Deputy Senior State Counsel Sivakumar Ramasamy.

“I sometimes awake in the middle of the night and am unable to fall back asleep. I feel sad I had a whole future ahead of me before the accident,” he added.

The inquiry committee heard evidence today that Mehedi’s employer, Chua Xing Da, the sole director at fire protection contractor Stars Engrg, had doubled the daily target to 32 from 16 for the main product made there, fire-rated insulation wraps, from Feb 18 onwards.

That increased target came just days after a small fire broke out at the mixer machine that was used to make fire clay, a key component of the fire wrap, on Feb 12, followed by Mr Mehedi’s discovery of a hairline crack on each of the machine’s two front bottom corners the day after.

New production targets

On day one of the hearings the inquiry committee heard that workers, including Mehedi, had alerted their superiors to oil leaks, heater damage, smoke and small fires from as early as August last year.

The issues all related to the mixer machine, which was purchased from Chinese e-commerce platform Alibaba in 2019 and installed on a platform at the workshop in June last year.

In order to meet Chua’s new target, Mehedisaid workers had to work more than 12 hours a day – from about 8am to between 8.30pm and 9.30pm at night – with only an hour-long lunch break in between.

Another Bangladeshi worker, 34-year-old Imam, had spoken out about even longer hours when he took the stand yesterday. He said he fell out with Mr Chua twice between October and December last year as he could not reach the previous target of 16 wraps a day.

On one of the days, despite having worked from 8am to 3am, a period of 19 hours, Imam said he and three other workers could only make seven or eight rolls, and had gone to sleep without the job completed. Chua got angry when he called at 7.30am to check if the 16 rolls were completed, and told him that he was no longer needed at the workshop, he added.

Improper attire

The inquiry committee, led by Senior District Judge Ong Hian Sun, also heard that Chua did not set out how workers should be dressed while working at the workshop, located at 32E Tuas Avenue 11, apart from requiring them to put on a respirator and safety shoes.

But while Mehedi said that Chua would get “very angry” whenever he spotted workers not wearing a respirator and safety shoes, not all workers were issued with respirators.

Four new workers who were added to the fire wrap production team at the workshop on Feb 18 due to the increase in workload did not have respirators, he said.

The respirators were meant to protect them against the toxic fumes produced during the manufacturing process and ensure that they do not inhale the powdered raw materials used to make the fire clay, which includes boric acid and potato starch powder, he said.

Mehedialso revealed that some of the workers decided to wear slippers despite Mr Chua’s reminders. He also wore slippers as he felt that the safety shoes were not required when he was assembling the 1.1m by 5m fire wrap since there was no danger of heavy objects falling on his feet and he was not handling metals.

He was wearing a respirator, long-sleeve shirt, long pants, slippers, socks and gloves when the blast happened.

The aftermath

Mehedisaid he was the one who put out the smaller fire that broke out at the bottom of the mixer machine at about 8.39am, just hours before the blast happened, at 11.22am. He used a fire extinguisher.

He later returned to making fire wraps at his assigned assembly table, while his colleagues –Marimuthu, 38, from India and Shohel Md, 23, from Bangladesh – handled the situation by fiddling with the mixer machine’s heaters.

At some point, he heard the sound of the mixer machine’s motor running, which meant that the machine was in the process of mixing, but it stopped again a few seconds later. That was the last time he heard the sound of its motor running, he said.

The explosion occurred about half an hour later, he noted.

After crawling out the workshop through its front shutters, he stood up and ran outside before turning to the open field at the back of the industrial estate, where he found two other workers who had already made their escape.

“We were in a very bad condition and were shouting for help,” he said. Workers who were not from the workshop then started throwing and spraying water on them, he added.

Mehedi was subsequently sent to the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), where he lost consciousness and awoke three days later in the intensive care unit of its burns unit.

Although he was discharged from Outram Community Hospital (OCH) on April 29, he said some of his burn areas are still painful and he often experiences a sharp pain to the back of his head.

He added that his skin also gets very itchy and tight, he is unable to raise his arms above his head fully, and that he feels tightness whenever he turns his body and head.

The skin on the two areas by the side of his jaw has also become hardened, and he has lost strength and mobility in his fingers such that it is difficult for him to open bottles, he said.

His eyes also suffered burns, and he now gets blurry vision on top of them being “very dry”, he added. Doctors told him his eyes will not return to their original state, and he should wear sunglasses whenever he goes out in the sun, he said.

Mehedi continues to go for follow-up outpatient treatments at the SGH Burns Centre, physiotherapy at OCH and check-ups at the Singapore National Eye Centre.

“I would like to return to Bangladesh to see my family as soon as I can, after completing my treatment,” he said.

The hearing continues tomorrow. — TODAY

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