Drone batteries major suspect in house fire that killed 2
Coroner's Inquiry into Parry Avenue house fire deaths
They had arranged to fly to Indonesia to promote their drone at a business event.
Director of Survey Instruments Services Tang Hui Jen had invited his business partner of 30 years, Australian Ian Johnson, 74, to stay at his two-storey house at 6A, Parry Avenue, near Yio Chu Kang Road, before they flew to Pekanbaru together on June 9, last year.
But before they went to bed, Mr Tang saw Mr Johnson setting up a set of drone lithium polymer batteries to be charged overnight in the living room on the first storey.
When asked if it was safe to do so, Mr Johnson assured him that the batteries had extra safety features, making them safer than normal ones.
Following a Coroner's Inquiry, it was revealed yesterday that the batteries could have caused the fire that destroyed the house and killed Mr Johnson and Mr Tang's wife, Madam Angeline Tan Poh Chu, 64.
Delivering his findings, State Coroner Marvin Bay said: "The forensic, testimonial and circumstantial evidence, all point to an accidental fire of electrical origin."
As part of the inquiry, managing director of Itchimi Asia LLP, Mr Philip Von Meyenburg, had earlier given his testimony in court on the nature of the battery used by the Multi Rotor Service drone.
Mr Von Meyenburg, who had promoted the drone to Mr Tang's company, had said the battery was designed to incorporate safety features to ensure that it would not be "destabilised by overcharging".
For instance, it had a sensor to stop charging upon detection that the battery was fully charged.
However, he added that the batteries should not be left to charge without any person in the vicinity.
Other experts The New Paper spoke to shared the same view. (See report below.)
While the batteries had been treated as a major suspect in causing the fire, Coroner Bay said the living room was "crowded by an assortment of electrical devices, appliances, and furniture items".
They included a massage chair, an electronic organ, a DVD player and a television set.
He said most of the items had been left on and energised from power extension sockets running under a carpet.
Coroner Bay added: "Mr Tang, however, stated his belief that the items connected in the living room were not overloaded."
According to the findings, 10 people were asleep in the house when the fire started at around 2.55am.
They included two maids, Ms Noemi Lozano Corpuz and Ms Any Pangilinan, Mr Tang, Madam Tan and their two grandsons.
Ms Corpuz woke up five minutes later after she smelled smoke and alerted the rest of the household.
Seven of them managed to get out of the house uninjured. They climbed over a wall and sought refuge in their neighbour's house at 8, Parry Avenue.
They were helped by their neighbour's maid, Ms Romiyati, who extended a stepladder to receive them.
Mr Tang, Madam Tan and Mr Johnson were left in the burning building.
According to the findings, after the couple woke up in their bedroom on the second storey, they went into their bathroom to get wet towels to cover their faces.
Mr Tang opened his bedroom door and was shocked when he saw the smoke and flames.
He went to a nearby balcony and jumped down, injuring his head and fracturing his right arm.
Only then did he realise his wife was still in the bathroom.
Coroner Bay said: "Mr Tang accordingly tried to re-enter his house from the door on the first storey but was unable to as the fire was too massive."
A neighbour later spotted him looking dazed near the front gate of his burning house.
By the time the police and officers from the Singapore Civil Defence Force arrived at the scene, the fire was already burning through the roof of the house.
Neighbours, on either side of the house, and the houses behind it, had to be evacuated for safety reasons.
Mr Tang was taken to Singapore General Hospital, where he was warded for 10 days.
The fire was extinguished at 6.45am.While fighting the flames, two firefighters sustained minor smoke inhalation and heat-related injuries.
The charred bodies of Mr Johnson and Madam Tan were later found on the second storey of the house.
In court yesterday, Coroner Bay said their deaths was due to a "tragic misadventure".
He commended the three maids for helping the family members escape the fire.
When TNP visited 6A, Parry Avenue yesterday evening, it was still vacated and most of the house was burnt out.
On its gate hung a Building and Construction Authority closure order stating that the building was unsafe for occupation. The houses on either side, 6 and 8, Parry Avenue, had also been vacated.
Neighbours TNP spoke to said the family living in 6, Parry Avenue moved out shortly after the incident as their roof was also damaged in the fire.
A neighbour, who wanted to be known only as Mrs Tham, said both 6 and 6A shared the same roof, which collapsed in the blaze.
The fire had also damaged one room in number 6.
She said the neighbours had been unable to renovate because of outstanding insurance claims that were awaiting the Coroner's findings.
The family at 8, Parry Avenue had moved further down to a house on the same street.
When approached, a woman declined to comment, and said Ms Romiyati no longer works for the family because her contract had expired.
"This is just something that we all want to move on from. It's over," she said.
- Additional reporting by Elizabeth Law
Batteries must be kept in good condition
All batteries, regardless of what they are used for, should be dealt with care.
Ms Claudia Ng, owner of The Drone Shop, which sells drones to hobbyists, said: "We advise our customers to always keep an eye on batteries when they are being charged.
"Batteries that have been dropped or appear out of shape should also not be used."
Ms Ng, who is in her 30s , does not encourage users to charge their batteries overnight.
She said: "Batteries can catch fire due to several reasons.
"The batteries or battery charger may be faulty, or the batteries may overheat and catch fire."
Research scientist at Temasek Laboratories Kevin Ang, 34, said that incidents of batteries catching fire are rare.
He said: "Most battery chargers have safety features that prevent overheating and explosions.
"But batteries can still catch fire if a short circuit happens within the battery's internal circuit."
Lithium polymer batteries, in particular, need to be well-maintained, he said.
These batteries are used for devices that require a higher charge, such as mobile phones and laptops.
Dr Ang said: "Lithium batteries, when left unused, bloat easily due to their chemical components.
"This can cause a gas explosion."
To prevent bloating, the batteries should be stored at half charge when unused, he said.
Dr Ang also recommends charging high-capacity lithium polymer batteries in a fire retardant pack.
The pack is commercially available and retails for about $20 at most hobby shops, he said.
Ms Ng stressed the importance of ensuring the quality of electrical appliances at home.
She said: "Even mobile phone cables are retailed at a wide range of prices.
"Besides looking for cheap deals, customers should also ensure that they purchase appliances from reliable manufacturers."
This is especially so as more people today are looking to purchase appliances from overseas retailers online, she said.
She added that if an electrical appliance often experiences a short circuit, owners should check the appliance for any electrical defect.
FIRE SAFETY TIPS
SCDF's tips on fire safety at home:
- Do not leave cooking unattended
- Do not overload electrical outlets with appliances
- Always switch off electrical appliances when not in use
- Check the condition of cables regularly. Frayed wires or cracked cords should be replaced or repaired immediately.