By Terry Xu / Andrew Loh
Lt Tiffany Neo of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) was on her 24-hour shift at the Central Fire Station on 8 December 2013 when she was informed of the traffic accident that had taken place in Little India.
Upon receiving the dispatch order at 9.25pm, her team of five raced to the scene at Race Course Road and reached the accident scene in just 8 minutes.
As her vehicle, called a pump ladder (commonly termed a fire engine), arrived at the scene, she noticed that there were about 100 people standing around the bus which minutes earlier had run over Indian national, Sakthivel Kumaravelu.
Lt Neo and her officers then parked their vehicle behind the bus before disembarking to take a closer look at the scene.
She noticed that a Red Rhino, officially called a Light Fire Attack Vehicle (LFAV), used by the SCDF, had already arrived on site. She also said that a crowd of curious onlookers had gathered around the bus and some had their mobile devices out and were taking photos and videos of the scene.
Nonetheless, the “crowd did not appear to be particularly rowdy”, Lt Neo said. In fact, at one point, several Indian nationals in the crowd stepped forward and helped to push back the crowd for a while.
The Red Rhino team had used a hydraulic spreader to attempt to lift the bus in order to extricate the accident victim from underneath it.
At this point, Lt Neo was asked if the spreader was able to raise the bus. Lt Neo said that she estimated the bus to be around 12-15 tonnes and that the hydraulic jack had a spreading force of about only 9 tonnes.
She thus felt that the Red Rhino team could have only raised the bus “lightly.”
Even so, she said, the Red Rhino team did well as it tried to do what it could. This was important also because it gave assurance to the crowd that the rescuers were trying to save the person trapped under the bus.
“We will still attempt,” Lt Neo said. “Better to try than not do anything.”
Lt Neo took a look at the victim pinned under the bus and observed that half his skull had been crushed, and that she could also see some brain matter on the ground.
She deduced that the victim was most probably dead at this time.
Her team then used two hydraulic jacks to lift the bus. When it was raised, a SCDF officer reached in under the bus and pulled out the body of Sakthivel Kumaravelu.
But as he did so, the hydraulic jack gave way and the bus could be seen, in the video shown to the COI, slumping down twice.
Lt Neo said she did not know why the jack gave way at the time, but after viewing videos of the incident later, she surmised that it was because someone had climbed onto the bus, causing it to tilt to one side, resulting in the hydraulic jack giving way.
This was a different account than the one given by another SCDF officer, Senior Station Inspector Akhbar Ali, on Thursday. He had said that the reason for the hydraulic jack giving way was because the crowd had been pushing the bus from the other side.
Nonetheless, no one was hurt during the mishap.
Contrary to some news reports, the rescuer would not have been pinned under the bus as the hydraulic jack gave way, said Lt Neo.
“At most he would have been hit a bit,” she said. “He wouldn’t have been crushed.”
As they took the body out from underneath the bus, Lt Neo instructed the team to cover the body with a piece of cloth, so that the public would not be disturbed at the sight. She also wanted to show respect to the deceased.
At this point, the crowd was surging forward.
She then requested ASP Edwin Yong who was trying to keep the crowd at bay to call for more back up from the police.
She asked ASP Jonathan Tang, the highest ranking police officer on the ground then, whether they should move the body as the standard operating procedure was to leave an accident victim at the scene and hand it over to the police.
ASP Tang told her to move the body.
They then placed the deceased on a stretcher. Lt Neo, with 3 of her officers, then carried it towards the awaiting ambulance.
At this point, the crowd seemed to become more emotional.
Lt Neo said she felt the situation escalated at this point, as the crowd saw the body on the stretcher being moved away.
“The noise level was.. a lot,” Lt Neo told the COI. “Noise level sounded like people were shouting, I couldn’t tell what they were shouting about.”
When asked by COI member, John De Payva, if there were any Indian uniform officers with her at the time, Lt Neo said there was none in her team.
“I did not notice any Indian uniform officers,” she said.
As the SCDF team with the body made its way to the ambulance, projectiles were thrown at them.
One person went up to Lt Neo and tried to touch the body, crying, “Oh my brother, my brother!” Lt Neo pushed him away.
She also said she was hit twice on the back at this point but was focused on making sure they got to the ambulance.
However, when they reached the private ambulance, the paramedics did not want to receive the body as it would be against protocol. The bodies of accident victims are supposed to be handed over to the police.
The SCDF officers then placed the stretcher with the body on it, on the ground. They then formed a protective semi-circle around it to prevent it from being seized by the crowd, and from being photographed.
After considering the situation, Lt Neo, as the highest ranking SCDF officer at the site, then ordered the body to be placed in the ambulance.
When asked why she did not decide to place the body on perhaps another vehicle, she replied, “If not the ambulance then where else?” Lt Neo said the ambulance was the only vehicle which offered enough space to hold and secure the body.
At this juncture, ASP Tang told Lt Neo that there was still a lady on the bus. He was referring to the timekeeper, Grace Wong Geck Woon, who had reportedly been the target of the crowd’s anger for the accident.
Lt Neo with her team then proceeded back to the bus with the crowd still surrounding it. When she got to it, the lady was sitting on the steps of the bus.
The glass panel of the bus door had been shattered at this time.
Lt Neo could see that there was bleeding on the lady's head.
Lt Neo asked for the ambulance to be driven nearer to the bus and asked for a spare helmet so that the lady could be shielded from the projectiles while making her way to the ambulance.
As the door of the bus was jammed, Lt Neo climbed in through the shattered panel.
Wong then told Lt Neo that there was another uncle on the bus with her.
As the aisle of the bus was quite dark, Lt Neo called out to the uncle but there was no response. She then proceeded to look for him, and had to step on the seats of the bus as debris thrown by the crowd had littered the aisle.
As she did so, she stepped on a dust bin which had been thrown into the bus earlier. She did not know that the uncle – bus driver, Lee Kim Huat – was shielding himself underneath it.
As Lt Neo continued to call out for him, Lee then emerged from under the bin.
She could see that his head was bleeding.
As both of them proceeded to the front of the bus, projectiles were still being rained onto it. Lt Neo, fearing that Lee would be further hurt or injured, placed both her arms around him to shield him.
They then made their way towards the ambulance, shielded by a team of police officers.
Once Lee and Wong were safe, Lt Neo made the decision to leave the area.
Lt Neo commended her team of SCDF officers who she said showed initiative when carrying out their duties. She hadn’t had to intervene much as the operation was being carried out, she said. She was consulted only on key decisions, the COI noted.
Lt Neo also had praises for the police officers on the ground that night, who worked with the SCDF officers in carrying out the operation.
All in all, it took only 11 mins from the time Lt Neo and her team arrived to the time the body was extricated.
Nonetheless, to Lt Neo, everything felt like it was in slow motion, she said.
Why not just reverse the bus?
COI chairman Selvam noted that only the legs of Sathivel Kumaravelu were pinned under the wheels of the bus. Why didn’t Lt Neo simply had the bus reversed and freed the body, instead of having to use hydraulic jacks. Selvam said this was “common sense.”
LTA Neo replied that it was not the standard practice to do this.
Selvam shot back, “You’re going by practice, instead of common sense.”
Lt Neo replied that they do not wish to risk the possibility of further injury or damage to the victim whom they could not at the time confirm was dead.
Instead, the team would prefer to make space around the body and extricate it, she explained, rather than risk further damage or injury to the victim.
Selvam, however, praised Lt Neo for indeed using her common sense when she decided to cover the body and later have it transported by the ambulance, rather than waiting for the police and handing it over to them, as per protocol.
“That’s common sense,” Selvam said. “One must use common sense. We commend you for that.”
Stories of man still “alive” under the bus.
Selvam then raised some stories or theories which he said others had told him in the course of the investigations being carried out by the COI.
Some had told him that Sakthivel Kumaravelu was pinned under the bus and was crying for help but no help came. The accusations were that instead of helping the man, the first responders were instead protecting the bus driver and time keeper. Selvam also said others have claimed that when Sakthivel Kumaravelu’s body was extricated from under the bus, he was still alive.
“During extrication, he was still alive. Instead of attending to him, you just took him away. Subsequently, he died,” Selvam said, relating what some have told him.
“That’s not correct,” he added, referring to those theories.
Referring to the possible reason for why Lt Neo was hit twice on her back as she and her team were carrying the body to the ambulance, Selvam said this might be because the crowd might have felt that Sakthivel Kumaravelu was still alive. It was thus upsetting to them that the body had been covered up.
However he said that after hearing Lt Neo’s testimony, he is convinced that all those stories are untrue.
Selvam, however, suggested that this might be the perception the crowd had at the time.
When asked what were some of the obstacles she faced in carrying out her job, Lt Neo mentioned space constraints at the scene, and the difficulty in communicating through her radio because of the noise level from the crowd.
Lt Neo, however, also felt that if more police resources were sent to the scene at the onset that night, they would have prevented the situation from escalating.