Wife of diver killed by stingray: 'I can't believe he's gone'

This article is more than 12 months old

Wife of Underwater World diver killed by stingray said he previously recovered after a sand tiger shark mistook him as food and bit his head

Madam Serene Tong was at work on Tuesday afternoon when she was told in a phone call that her husband was in hospital after an accident at Underwater World Singapore (UWS).

The clerical officer was not told the details of the accident, and assumed it was not serious.

In his 25 years of working at UWS, Mr Philip Chan had ended up in hospital only once, after a shark attack.

But this time, Mr Chan, the head of UWS' diving unit, had a fatal encounter with a stingray.

The 62-year-old, who was also the senior supervisor of UWS' curatorial department, was taken unconscious to the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), where he died.


Madam Tong, 59, told The New Paper yesterday evening: "Many years ago, a sand tiger shark mistook him as food and bit his head. He had to be stitched up and was hospitalised for a few days.

"He managed to recover. So on Tuesday, I didn't think the accident was serious, and didn't rush to SGH."

When she got there, her two daughters, aged 26 and 32, hugged her and told her the terrible news.

Madam Tong, who has a 15-month-old granddaughter, broke down several times when she recalled the painful incident at her husband's wake at the void deck of Block 52, Lengkok Bahru, near Jalan Bukit Merah.

"I wasn't told during the phone call that he had been stung by a stingray. We were married for 34 years. I can't believe he's gone. He loved his animals very much."

About 100 friends and family members were paying their last respects to Mr Chan when TNP was there.

His diving suit was displayed beside his casket and photographs of him in his younger days were displayed.

SEASONED DIVER: (Above) Mr Philip Chan's diving suit displayed at his wake. TNP PHOTO: PHYLLICIA WANG

Madam Tong said: "He was a very straightforward, honest and hard-working man. He was a loving father and husband. He loved diving. It was his passion."

She cracked a slight smile when she recalled how Mr Chan had encouraged her to take up diving.

She said: "My daughters also know how to dive. I went diving with him in Malaysia less than five times. I was not a very good diver, but he loved the water."

SEASONED DIVER: (Above) Mr Simon Chan said his brother was a very experienced diver. TNP PHOTO: CHOO CHWEE HUA

Earlier yesterday, Mr Chan's older brother, Mr Simon Chan, 64, told reporters outside the mortuary that he received the bad news at around 4pm on Tuesday from his niece.

He said in a mix of Mandarin and English: "She was crying when she told me, 'Uncle Simon, my father is dead'.

"I was the one who identified his body because I didn't want his wife and daughter to see him in such a state. He had two bandages on his chest, a bigger one on his right and a smaller one on his left."

SEASONED DIVER: Mr Simon Chan said his brother (above) was a very experienced diver. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ERIC KO

Mr Chan was impaled by the barb of a stingray as he was transferring one of the last batches of his beloved sea creatures at around 2.20pm. It was one of his last tasks at the now-defunct UWS.

Mr Chan, who joined UWS when it opened in 1991, had stayed back to care for the remaining marine animals after UWS closed in June.

The sting from the leopard whipray - a rare stingray - left him unconscious, and Singapore Civil Defence Force paramedics performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on him on the way to SGH.

His brother added: "We are still in shock that he died in such a horrible way. It was nearly the last stage of his job and I knew that he had been tired over the past weeks from moving the sea animals."

TNP understands that Mr Chan was working with a group of colleagues and was transferring the last stingray in a large tank when the accident happened.

The Ministry of Manpower has instructed UWS to stop all activities associated with the transferring of sea animals after the incident.

Mr Simon Chan, a construction project manager, said: "My brother was a very experienced diver. He knew that these animals were dangerous."

Like Madam Tong, Mr Jack Png, 47, who knew Mr Chan from their days of working together at Sentosa's Coralarium in 1992, also thought that his friend had been involved in a minor mishap.

"Unforeseeable situations like this have happened before many times - it could be the sting of a puffer fish or getting hit by the tail of a shark.

"Although he experienced some dangerous or difficult situations when it comes to the animals, he never complained. He always tried to solve the problem," added Mr Png, who runs his own commercial diving company.

It seems like Mr Chan will remain deeply entwined with the underwater world, even in death.

Mr Simon Chan said in between tears: "He had told his wife that he wanted his ashes to be scattered at sea. His whole life revolved around the ocean, he will never leave it."

Many years ago, a sand tiger shark mistook him as food and bit his head. He had to be stitched up and was hospitalised for a few days.

- Madam Serene Tong (above)

About the Leopard Whipray

The leopard whipray, sometimes called the leopard stingray, can be recognised by its pattern of leopard-like spots.

It can grow up to 4.1m in length, including its tail, and 1.4m in width.

The tail is long and slender (up to three times the body length), tapers to a fine point and has a single barb.

It feeds on crabs, shrimp and shelled invertebrates.

The leopard whipray ( above) can be found in the Indo-West Pacific region from the Bay of Bengal to New Guinea, north of Japan's Ryukyu Islands and south of northern Australia.

Source: Georgia Aquarium website

SingaporeWorkplace AccidentDiving