Pulau Merlimau refinery fire



Pulau Merlimau was one of Singapore’s southern islands off the coast of Jurong before it became part of Jurong Island.1 It used to house the refinery of the Singapore Refining Company (SRC), a joint venture between British Petroleum, Caltex Petroleum Corporation and Singapore Petroleum Company.2 A fire that occurred at the refinery on 25 October 1988 was considered the worst offshore fire in Singapore’s history.3

Background
A fire broke out at the SRC at around 1.30 pm on 25 October 1988. It was the refinery’s second major fire; the first occurred on 16 August 1984.4 Even though the 1988 fire did not claim any lives, it injured 25 people, mostly firefighters, including five who were seriously hurt.5


The fire lasted about  five days before it was completely extinguished at about 7 am on 30 October.6 Damages, loss of profit, loss of raw materials (especially naphtha) and construction costs of new tanks were initially estimated  by insurers to be between S$15 and S$20 million.7 In November 1988, then Director of the Singapore Fire Service Arthur Lim estimated damages to be around S$30 million. The fire and temporary closure of SRC caused the price of naphtha to rise by US$15 per tonne in the Far East.8

The fire also led to talks on the implementation of new safety measures. These included having in-house firefighting facilities at offshore locations, so as to reduce reliance on portable equipment which would require substantial coordinating efforts when fire-fighting supplies are depleted.9

Burning oil tanks
The SRC had a tank farm of 20 tanks that were used for storing crude oil and its by-products such as diesel and naphtha. The fire began at a naphtha storage tank which had a capacity of 120,000 barrels. According to some employees, workers were trying to repair a jammed floating roof of the tank when oil was spilt and somehow ignited, causing the fire.10

When the fire happened, around 100 non-essential personnel were evacuated from the island while some 150 to 200 technical workers stayed behind to help the firefighting team. Firemen sprayed water and foam to contain the fire, which was brought under control at about 3 pm the same day.11 However, 50 minutes later, black smoke was seen billowing from a second tank which also contained naphtha. The fire was still raging in the two tanks at 6 pm when firemen decided to drain and transfer naphtha out of the surrounding tanks into other larger crude tanks at the refinery.

By 1 am on 26 October, a third tank had burst into flames after the fire was whipped up by fierce winds which also threatened to carry the blaze to a fourth tank. The consequences would have been catastrophic if the fire had spread to other tanks storing highly flammable fuels such as kerosene. On the morning of 27 October, a fourth tank – also containing naphtha – caught fire which was quickly extinguished.12

The fire was brought under control after 53 hours. However, two tanks were still burning, and firemen used foam to contain the flames.13 The fire was finally put out at about 7 am on 30 October. Some 55 firefighters remained overnight on the island in case the fire rekindled.14

The firefighting operation involved more than 600 personnel from the Fire Service, Civil Defence, Singapore Armed Forces and 10 other government agencies.15

Fumes and ash on mainland

The first effect of the fire on mainland Singapore was the strong smell of petroleum gas, especially over the western part of the island. It was nauseating and some people fell ill after inhaling the polluted air. The Ministry of Environment gave the assurance that the pollution was well below toxic level.16 Buildings, cars and residences were also covered with black, sticky soot. At the height of the burning, the fire could be seen from many parts of the mainland.17



Author

Joshua Chia



References
1. Sim, L. (1988, October 26). Fire-fighters battle blaze in oil refinery’s tanksThe Straits Times, p. 27; Realising Jurong Island’s potential. (2009, December 1). The Business Times, p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Tong, S. C. (1988, October 26). Fire shuts down refining facility on Merlimau. The Business Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Sim, L. (1988, October 26). Fire-fighters battle blaze in oil refinery’s tanksThe Straits Times, p. 27; Refinery blaze out but firemen take precautions. (1988, October 31). The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Sim, L. (1988, October 26). Fire-fighters battle blaze in oil refinery’s tanksThe Straits Times, p. 27; Pereira, B. (1988, October 28). Fire under control after fourth tank saved from flamesThe Straits Times, p. 44; Ng, W. H. (1984, August 17). Fire breaks out at oil refinery at Pulau Merlimau. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Pereira, B. (1988, October 29). Firemen’s do-or-die bravery averted disasterThe Straits Times, p. 18; Soh, T. K. (1988, October 28). Insurers may have to pay out $15m–$20m for Merlimau fireThe Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Refinery blaze out but firemen take precautions. (1988, October 31). The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Soh, T. K. (1988, October 28). Insurers may have to pay out $15m–$20m for Merlimau fireThe Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Nair, S. (1988, October 30). 62 hot hours. The Straits Times, p. 3; Merlimau fire costs estimated at $30m. (1988, November 25). The Business Times, p. 7; Third naphtha tank on Merlimau still ablaze. (1988, October 29). The Business Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Pulau Ayer Merlimau fire sparks off new safety measures. (1989, May 6). The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Tong, S. C. (1988, October 26). Fire shuts down refining facility on Merlimau. The Business Times, p. 20; Sim, L. (1988, October 26). Fire-fighters battle blaze in oil refinery’s tanksThe Straits Times, p. 27; Sim, L., & Lim, S. (1988, October 27). Blaze at Pulau Merlimau refinery spreads to third tank. The Straits Times, p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Tong, S. C. (1988, October 26). Fire shuts down refining facility on Merlimau. The Business Times, p. 20; Sim, L. (1988, October 26). Fire-fighters battle blaze in oil refinery’s tanksThe Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Poh, A., & De Silva, T. (1988, October 28). ‘Keeping our fingers crossed’. The New Paper, p. 3; Sim, L., & Lim, S. (1988, October 27). Blaze at Pulau Merlimau refinery spreads to third tank. The Straits Times, p. 40; Pereira, B. (1988, October 28). Fire under control after fourth tank saved from flames. The Straits Times, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Pereira, B. (1988, October 28). Fire under control after fourth tank saved from flamesThe Straits Times, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Refinery blaze out but firemen take precautions. (1988, October 31). The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Pereira, B. (1988, October 28). Fire under control after fourth tank saved from flamesThe Straits Times, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Gasmier, M. R. (1988, October 26). Mysterious smell may be connected to gas leak in an off-shore oil refineryThe Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Sim, L. (1988, October 26). Fire-fighters battle blaze in oil refinery’s tanksThe Straits Times, p. 27; Liu, M. (1988, October 27). The day soot and oil rained from the sky. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2006 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Fires--Singapore
Disasters--Singapore
Accidents
Business, finance and industry>>Industry
Petroleum refineries--Fires and fire prevention--Singapore
Events>>Disasters