It turned out to be one expensive cigarette.
A single butt flung down from the upper floors of a Bukit Batok warehouse in January 2010 caused a raging fire and $1.4 million in losses.
The affected companies had tried to sue the firm in charge of the hose reel system, Rhythme Technology, claiming that it had not maintained the hoses properly.
But a judge has ruled that the inferno had blazed so out of control that even if nearby hose reels were working, it would not have made a difference.
Justice Choo Han Teck noted that firemen took three hours to merely bring the fire under control, and five hours to douse the flames completely.
According to eyewitness accounts, winds blew smoke and flames towards staff who were trying to fight the fire, and they abandoned the nearest hose reel and rushed to retrieve another from a neighbouring unit at Bukit Batok Street 23.
The judge dismissed warehouse operator Union Concept Manufacturers' claim that Rhythme Technology was negligent in fire hose maintenance.
Union and another tenant sharing the affected premises had sued Rhythme for losses amounting to some $1.4 million.
Union claimed that Rhythme had failed to ensure there was any water or sufficient water, in the fire hose reel nearest to its premises, and alleged that Rhythme's failure had prevented it from using the fire hose to stop the fire and salvage the property.
But Rhythme's lawyer R. Nandakumar countered that its staff had conducted a physical test on the hose reel nearest to Union's premises in September 2009, and found the various components of the system were in order. The results had been recorded.
Union's lawyer M. Ramasamy argued that, in addition to the absence of water, the non-return valve was installed in reverse, which affected the flow of water in the fire hose.
But key witnesses who had tried to use the fire hose on the day of the incident failed to turn up to give evidence in court.
"Without their evidence, it is extremely difficult for (Union) to prove that at the time the fire hose was used, there was practically no water in the hose reel, and that this was the result of (Rythme)'s breach of duty," wrote Justice Choo in decision grounds released on Tuesday.
The fire was caused by a lit cigarette that fell from the upper floors of the block and landed on pallets of polystyrene foam packing material outside the premises.
Fed by the combustible material and strong winds, it quickly spread into Union's premises.
The judge ruled there could have been other factors, for example, if the hose was not properly disentangled, for the lack of water from the hose.
Even if Rhythme had breached its duty of care, the fire was caused by large combustible materials stacked by Union outside its warehouse, which posed a high fire risk, he noted. The flames had gone out of control so quickly that human efforts would have been futile, he said.
This article was first published on May 7, 2015.
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