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Elderly couple, son electrocuted to death in Jurong flat due to damaged plug for water heater

SINGAPORE — A coroner’s court heard on Wednesday (March 9) that an overloaded fuse in a three-pin plug used to power a water heater was the main factor behind the deaths of an 80-year-old man, who was taking a shower in his bathroom, and his 66-year-old wife.

Elderly couple, son electrocuted to death in Jurong flat due to damaged plug for water heater
An overloaded fuse in the water heater's three-pin plug caused the neutral and earth cables to melt from the heat and fuse together, according to evidence heard on Wednesday (March 9).
  • Omar Manan, 80, Asmah Bujang, 66, and their son Muhamad Ashikin Omar, 45, were found dead in the couple's Ho Ching Road flat
  • An autopsy found their cause of death to be electrocution
  • A coroner's court heard that the instant water heater in the flat's toilet drew electricity from a three-pin plug with a 13-amp fuse 
  • Internal cables in the plug had fused together over time, leading to the electrocutions
  • The state coroner will deliver his findings next month

SINGAPORE — A coroner’s court heard on Wednesday (March 9) that wires fusing together in a three-pin plug used to power a water heater was the main factor behind the deaths of an 80-year-old man, who was taking a shower in his bathroom, and his 66-year-old wife.

Omar Manan and Asmah Bujang, who had gone to help her husband when he collapsed, were fatally electrocuted in their Ho Ching Road flat in the Jurong Lakeside district on Dec 10, 2020.

Their 45-year-old son, Muhamad Ashikin Omar, also tragically died after going to the flat with his teenage daughter and trying to help his parents.

Two investigation officers from the Energy Market Authority (EMA) and Singapore Police Force took the witness stand on Wednesday, the first day of a coroner’s inquiry into the trio’s deaths.

EVENTS LEADING TO THE TRAGEDY

The coroner’s court heard that Ashikin’s daughter had called him and her mother after failing to reach her grandparents on the phone.

When Ashikin and the girl went over to the Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat, they heard the sound of water flowing. Ashikin managed to break open the padlock securing the main metal gate and they rushed in, finding the elderly couple in a toilet near the kitchen.

Omar was nude and lying face-up, while his wife was slumped over with her head and chest pressed against the wall.

Ashikin’s daughter then saw her father make contact with her grandfather while calling out: “Mak (Malay for mother)!”

Ashikin then collapsed on top of the elderly man. In a state of shock, the girl called her mother who in turn contacted the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

Paramedics soon arrived and pronounced Omar dead at 5.04pm and Asmah at 5.09pm.

Ashikin was taken to Ng Teng Fong General Hospital, but resuscitation efforts failed and he was pronounced dead at 5.23pm.

An autopsy concluded that the cause of death for all three was electrocution. The police did not suspect foul play.

WIRES MELTED, NO RESIDUAL CURRENT CIRCUIT BREAKER

On Wednesday, Mr Goh Chin Fong, a senior associate engineer from the EMA, testified that the instant water heater in the toilet drew electricity from a three-pin plug with a 13-amp fuse.

This plug was connected to an extension outlet connected to a socket in the kitchen.

The operating current of the water heater was 14.2 amps, higher than what the 13-amp fuse could take.

Mr Goh said that due to prolonged heating from repeated usage, the insulation on the cables degraded over time.

This caused the neutral and earth cables, which were overlaid over each other in a criss-cross fashion in the plug head, to fuse together from the heat. This then led to the electrocution.

Mr Goh noted that because the cables had melted together, the electric current had flowed back to the copper heating tank of the water heater, which in turn energised the metallic water hose that Omar was holding.

The current then flowed from his hand to the wet ground, electrocuting him.

The accident would not have happened if a double pole switch with a standalone circuit was used, the investigation officer added. Cables in a double pole switch are spaced further apart, minimising the risk of the cables fusing together.

When questioned by State Counsel Ong Xin Jie on whether double pole switches are now installed in newer HDB flats, Mr Goh said that HDB began installing water heater connections with such switches in the late 1980s.

The couple’s flat had been built in 1971 when instant water heaters were not around, while the couple's water heater had been installed sometime after 2008.

Separately, Mr Goh further noted that the circuitry from which the water heater drew on was also not protected by a residual current circuit breaker (RCCB). This was not a requirement when the flat was built.

The RCCB would have tripped and cut off the electricity supply, but Mr Goh told the court that it was only a secondary protective measure. The main cause of the electrocution was the damaged cables in the three-pin plug.

An RCCB was installed when the flat underwent an upgrading programme in the early 2000s, but it only protected circuitry at the utility room and would not have interrupted electricity supply to the water heater, Mr Goh said.

CIRCUIT BREAKERS SHOULD BE TESTED REGULARLY

When asked by State Counsel Ong about what advice he would give to homeowners, Mr Goh told the court that they should not use such a three-pin plug or a 13-amp fuse for bathroom appliances like instant water heaters, and instead check their bathroom for connection points meant for water heaters.

If there are no such points, homeowners should engage a licensed electrical worker to install a standalone circuit for the water heater.

Homeowners can also engage a qualified technician to connect the heater to a connection point, Mr Goh said.

It is also good practice for homeowners to regularly test their RCCB by pressing the test button monthly. Electricity supply in the premises should be completely cut off — if not, homeowners should engage a licensed electrical worker to rectify the problem, he added.

State Coroner Adam Nakhoda will deliver his findings on April 29. The couple’s daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter were also present in court as next-of-kin.

CLARIFICATION: The article has been edited to clarify that insulation of the internal wires in the plug had degraded over time, which led to the electrocution.

Related topics

court coroner's court coroner's inquiry electricity electrocution

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