The fire that razed a waste management plant in Tuas yesterday was not the first one there. A smaller fire at Eco Special Waste Management five years ago required 25 employees to be evacuated safely.
Since that incident, the company had invested $70 million to upgrade its facilities with new machinery, said chief executive Rick Reidinger.
"But it didn't prevent this, unfortunately," he told The Straits Times around midday yesterday, as he gestured from a safe distance at the smoke coming from the firm's treatment plant.
Soon after the fire was detected at around 6.15am, the 20 staff on the night shift at the 24-hour facility were evacuated safely. The fire was put out after four hours by 200 firefighters, one of whom suffered heat exhaustion and had to be taken to Ng Teng Fong General Hospital.
Mr Reidinger said investigations into the cause of the fire are still ongoing, but the most important thing was that nobody was hurt.
"Obviously something went wrong, but we can't pinpoint the root cause, or whether it was a human error or equipment malfunction until the authorities complete investigations," said Mr Reidinger, who joined the company in 2010.
Referring to the past fire, he said: "That was a long time ago, completely different source, different outcome as well. It was a different facility. So we made a lot of investment and upgrading in fire safety and all that."
Eyewitnesses recalled the thick smoke billowing in the sky, charred vegetation and the choking smell of burning chemicals.
Read also: Fumes from Tuas fire may be carcinogenic
Said driver Muhammad Firdaus, 29, who was travelling along Tuas South Avenue 3 at around 8am yesterday when he spotted the blaze: "It was like the scene of an apocalypse, there was nobody in sight. When I got off my truck to take a look, I was hit by the strong smell of burning chemicals and could hardly breathe."
He added that he could feel the heat radiating from 500m away.
Mr Firdaus, who has worked in Tuas for four years, said the roads were unusually empty as most people had chosen to avoid the area due to the fire.
Another eyewitness, Mr Mohamad Danial, 28, was wrapping up the night shift at a nearby power station when a security guard alerted him to the fire.
"You could hear explosions every few seconds from the fire, I'm glad nobody was trapped inside," said the technical officer, who added that it was the first time he had seen such a big blaze.
Eco Special Waste was founded in 1998 and is licensed by the National Environment Agency as a toxic industrial waste collector.
Mr Reidinger said it has about 500 clients and is currently talking to five or six competitors to see if they can take over Eco Special Waste's work for the next few days.
He expects the plant to be out of service for at least a week, after which it can get the plant operating at 30 per cent capacity, and at 50 per cent capacity within a month.
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This article was first published on Feb 24, 2017.
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