Rifle Range Road fire: Dad's attempt to save son ends in death embrace

Metres from safety, he could have fled from the burning house.

Instead, he covered his nose with a grey cloth, armed himself with a small black torch and dashed into the flames to save his son.

Both did not make it out alive.

When the fire was put out, the father was found on top of his son, in a tragic embrace.

The fire, which occurred at a semi-detached house at Jalan Gaharu, off Rifle Range Road, last November, had started at about 4am.

It was so intense that The New Paper reported that the heat had damaged nearby property and melted bicycles.

Mr Tan Boon Chong, 53, and his son, full-time national serviceman Chee Phang, 22, died in the fire.

Their bodies were found in their bedroom by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) firefighters, who extinguished the fire after two hours.

These details emerged yesterday during a coroner's inquiry into their deaths.

The court heard that Mr Tan Boon Chong had been a tenant of the house for three to four years. The house was owned by a Ms Mary Lee.

Mr Tan Boon Chong's younger son would stay with him during the weekends.

His wife and elder son live in Malaysia.


The house was also occupied by Ms Lee's godmother, Madam Ng Moi Yong, 63, a nun who has a temple in Malaysia, and three other Filipino tenants.

The court heard that Madam Ng had set up several altars inside for her own prayers and for Singaporeans who had visited her temple in Malaysia.

The investigation report said that the night before the fire, Mr Tan Boon Chong was talking to Madam Ng and her helper before they returned to their rooms to sleep.

Mr Tan Chee Phang had turned in only later. At about 11pm, one of the Filipino tenants saw him using his mobile phone.

At about 4am on Nov 17, Madam Ng was woken by the smell of smoke.

She came out of her room and spotted a fire near the living room where her altars were.

She immediately knocked on Mr Tan Boon Chong's bedroom door, which was the closest to the burning altar, and told him to evacuate the house.

She then alerted the others.

Madam Ng and the other occupants tried to put out the fire with water from the kitchen, but stopped after they found it difficult to breathe.

They ran to the kitchen at the rear of the house and climbed to safety over a low wall.

It was then that one of the Filipino tenants realised that Mr Tan Boon Chong was missing.

She tried calling him on his mobile phone, but there was no response, said the investigation report.

Many of the occupants also said that they did not know that the younger Mr Tan was around that night because they did not see him before the fire.

SCDF investigation officer, Captain Yazeed Abdul Rahman, who took the stand yesterday, said that Mr Tan Boon Chong could have inhaled excessive carbon monoxide while attempting to rescue his son.

That could have rendered him unconscious, Captain Yazeed said.

Mr Tan Boon Chong was found face down on top of his son's body.

The two men died from smoke inhalation, the investigation report showed.

Captain Yazeed added that the fire is believed to have started from the wiring that powered the array of electrical lights around one of the altars in the house.

The fire was fuelled by other wiring and combustibles in the house, Captain Yazeed said.

He added that the fire was relatively big, given that the entire roof structure collapsed.

In his findings, State Coroner Marvin Bay said the electrical fire could have arisen from a short circuit.

The state coroner ruled out foul play and said it was an "accidental fire".

'Noble and selfless gesture'

It was a tragic end to a selfless act.

Since Mr Tan Boon Chong had sufficient warning of the raging fire, he could have saved himself.

But he chose to run back in an attempt to rescue his son.

The two men died from smoke inhalation.

But Mr Tan's heroic act did not go unnoticed by State Coroner Marvin Bay.

"It is clear that the father... had ample notice of the peril but ran back to find and attempt to save his son... apparently putting aside all thought of saving himself," he said.

Mr Tan did not join the other occupants in attempting to put out the fire. Instead, he armed himself with a small torch and a small piece of cloth to cover his nose.

"Plainly the only motive for doing so would be to look for his son, who... was still in their bedroom.

"It is also probable to judge where they fell that they were quickly overcome by smoke well before they could exit the room, and eventually succumbed to smoke inhalation," he said.

Mr Tan was later found dead and face down on top of his son's body.

He also said that both men were alive at the time of the fire and had inhaled fumes containing carbon monoxide.

"Mr Tan Boon Chong's death is a truly unfortunate and tragic outcome from his noble and selfless gesture," he said.


This article was published on May 9 in The New Paper.

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