SINGAPORE - The commander of a rescue squad was shocked when rioters turned on her team even as they were evacuating victims from the scene of the fatal accident in Little India on Dec 8.
"I was quite perplexed - why were they throwing projectiles at responders?" said Lieutenant Tiffany Neo from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). "It was quite confusing and a bit disheartening because we were trying to help."
Testifying on the eighth day of the public hearing into the riot, Lt Neo told the Committee of Inquiry (COI) how the violence had unfolded and hindered her 10-man team from Central Fire Station while they conducted rescue operations.
Rioters who had initially been lobbing projectiles at the bus turned their attention onto the first responders, after they had extricated the accident victim's body and were trying to move it from the scene on a stretcher.
"Some in the crowd shouted, and others also joined in the shouting," said Lt Neo. "It was really, really noisy - even though I was able to communicate with my operations centre, I couldn't hear if they communicated back. I had to shout to my team almost at the top of my voice."
The 26-year-old officer added that when the SCDF officers started to move the body away with the help of police escorts, the crowd began hurling projectiles towards them.
"I also got hit twice on my back by a member of the crowd using his hand, but I did not turn back to look as I was focused on getting the body to the ambulance," she said.
After they had done that, Lt Neo and a fellow SCDF officer boarded the damaged bus to rescue the timekeeper and bus driver. But the mob did not stop lobbing items at them, even while they were in the bus.
Video footage taken from a camera inside the bus showed Lt Neo covering bus driver Lee Kim Huat's head with her arms, as items such as beer bottles and stones whizzed by.
As Mr Lee ducked for cover, Lt Neo could be seen standing over him and shielding him with her own body.
She handed Mr Lee a helmet before the group left the bus, protected by police officers holding shields.
The missiles continued to fly at them with no respite, said Lt Neo, hitting one of her men in the ribs and immobilising him.
Nonetheless, the Home Team officers managed to convey both the driver and the timekeeper, who were both injured, to a waiting ambulance.
Lt Neo told the inquiry that after they had completed the rescue, she made the decision to round up her team and leave the scene.
"I believed we had completed the task we were supposed to do, and I felt that staying there compromised me and my team's safety, so I decided to pull all of us out," she added.
This decision by Lt Neo was defended by SCDF Deputy Commissioner Jackson Lim, who also appeared before the inquiry yesterday.
"The focus really was on the road traffic accident, and to save all the injured, and we even took pains to remove the dead man pinned underneath," said Mr Lim, who testified in the afternoon.
"Even after doing all of that, our people still continued to be attacked," he added.
"The decision to withdraw, to me, was a good decision," he added, noting that it was "temporary" as the fire engines returned later to put out the fires started in the police cars and ambulance.
Another SCDF witness, Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Seet, also homed in on his subordinate's decision as an example of a "sound decision despite the lack of an established SOP (standard operating procedure)".
The committee also praised Lt Neo's decision to break with protocol when she ordered her men to move the body of the victim away from the mob before the situation worsened.
Under normal conditions, the body of a victim in a fatal accident should not be moved from the scene, but instead should be handed over to police for investigation.
She had also overruled the paramedics, who did not want the body in the ambulance as it broke with standard operating procedure.
But she reasoned that none of the nearby emergency vehicles had the space to take both the stretcher and the body.
"We didn't want other people to grab hold of it, or to take pictures of it," said Lt Neo.
This drew praise from committee chairman G. Pannir Selvam, who said: "What you decided at that time was the common-sense call: to break the practice that you had to hand over the body.
"Common sense on that day was a rare commodity, and I'm sure they (committee members) all join me in commending you." The inquiry resumes next Monday with police officers from the Special Operations Command expected to testify.
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