Spyros accident


The explosion and fire on board Greek oil tanker S. T. Spyros on 12 October 1978 was described as Singapore’s “worst post-war disaster in terms of lives lost”.1 Seven-six people died and 69 others were injured in the accident.2

Background
The S. T. Spyros was a tanker owned by Ulysses Tanker Corporation of Liberia and operated by International Operations. It was chartered to Shell Oil Company for three years from 1 October 1976 for the purpose of transporting crude oil.3

On 15 September 1978, the Spyros sailed from Anacortes, Washington D.C., United States, to Singapore for repairs at the Jurong Shipyard. The tanker had just shipped a cargo of light crude oil from Miri, Sarawak, to Shell’s refinery at Anacortes.4

The vessel entered Singapore waters on 6 October 1978 at about 10 pm.5 The slop tank – where the slop or residual oil and water used to clean the tanker is stored – was cleaned on 7 October.6 A day after the cleaning, an inspector of petroleum from the Port of Singapore Authority inspected the Spyros and issued a “gas-free” certificate to the shipmaster. The vessel was then steered to Jurong Shipyard.7 Repairwork on the Spyros commenced on 9 October.8

Explosion and fire
On 12 October, fitters Lim Hock Hoe, Ishak bin Abdul Rahman and Low Fook Kwong, were asked to fix a new cover for the drip tray of the vent pipe leading from the aft starboard tank.9 At about 2.15 pm, as Lim was heating one of the rusty nuts on the cover in order to remove it, an explosion occurred in the bunker beneath Lim and his colleagues.10

The explosion was so massive that it tore huge chunks from the tanker, resulting in a large piece landing on a nearby ship, Trade Fortitude, and injuring two people. The explosion was followed by a flash fire that swept through the engine and boiler rooms. Dockside workers tried to enter the ship to rescue their co-workers, but were held back by the fire.11

Eight fire engines were despatched to put out the fire, aided by fire-fighting tugboats. The fire was put out within minutes and the rescue teams were able to enter the ship, but were hampered by the flood of oil and water in the boiler room. The injured were immediately ferried to hospitals by ambulances and helicopters. Also called to the scene were the army bomb disposal unit, and the Criminal Investigation Department’s Special Investigation Section and Scene of Crime Unit.12

Casualties
Of the 167 people working on board the Spyros at the time of the explosion, 76 perished.13 The causes of death include severe burns, carbon monoxide poisoning, suffocation, drowning and burns-related complications.14

Fifty-seven of the 76 died on the day of the accident. The others succumbed to their injuries in hospital. Of the 76 deaths, 70 were male, while six were female.15 Sixty-nine people were injured.16

Aftermath
The victims were rushed to Alexandra Hospital and the Singapore General Hospital, where the medical staff volunteered their services and worked overtime, out of their own volition, to attend to the wounded.17 The public also responded to the disaster by turning up in record numbers at the hospitals to donate blood to the injured.18

Two days after the accident, Jurong Shipyard announced that the demised employees’ next-of-kin would be compensated S$2,000, while families of sub-contract workers would receive S$1,000 as “immediate relief”. Families of the perished workers who were members of the Jurong Shipyard Multi-purpose Cooperative Society could receive an additional S$2,000. In the same announcement, the shipyard also said that it was setting up a special committee to collect contributions from employees for the bereaved families.19

Various organisations – such as the Ministry of Labour, the Singapore Labour Foundation and newspaper companies – set up relief funds for the families and victims. Donations were also received from the Singapore Bus Owners’ Association, Singapore School Transport Association and the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now known as the Singapore Tourism Board).20 By 1 November 1978, donations had reached almost S$4 million.21

Enhanced workplace safety regulations
In the immediate wake of the accident, then secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), C. V. Devan Nair, led the charge in calling for the punishment of those responsible for the tragedy.22 He said that the NTUC would authorise its affiliates to stop work if they feel that employers were not observing workplace safety.23

Then-Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Labour) Fong Sip Chee also expressed anger over the accident in light of the government’s push for more stringent workplace safety regulations.24 There were many others who were also shocked and infuriated, and could not believe that such a tragedy had occurred, as it was the third mishap at Jurong Shipyard since 1972.25 At the time, the shipyard had the worst record of industrial accidents in terms of lives lost. Between 1972 and 1974, 17 workers died in accidents at the shipyard.26

In July 1979, Jurong Shipyard implemented a new safety disciplinary code for workers to prevent a repeat of the Spyros accident. Under the code, regular workers would be suspended or dismissed, while sub-contractors may be fined or barred from the shipyard, if they were found to have broken safety rules. It was the first such code to be introduced in a shipyard in Singapore.27

The government also tightened workplace safety regulations in light of the accident. In September 1979, stiffer penalties were imposed for breaches of industrial safety, including heavier fines (maximum S$25,000, up from S$15,000) and jail sentences (one year, up from six months) under the Factories (Amendment) Act.28 Courses and seminars on basic safety issues and the importance of safety promotion were organised by the Singapore Employers’ Federation (now known as the Singapore National Employers Federation) for workers.29

Committee of inquiry's findings and recommendations
In October 1978, then Minister for Labour Ong Pang Boon appointed a committee of inquiry to investigate the cause of the accident. The committee was headed by then Senior District Judge Michael Khoo, who was assisted by Foo See Jiok and Chua Teck Hock. Foo was a port captain with Esso Singapore, while Chua was a senior assistant director with the Ministry of Health’s Department of Scientific Services.30

The hearing lasted 20 days during which 87 witnesses testified, and 176 exhibits were presented.31 Witnesses include fitter Lim; Glen Dillon, Shell refinery’s operations superintendent; Abraham Paul, an electrician with Jurong Shipyard; workers who escaped the explosion; Captain Wong Kum Kay, commanding officer of the Singapore Armed Forces bomb disposal unit; Tan Boon Kee, senior electrical engineer of the Public Utilities Board; John Nixon of H. M. Factory Inspectorate, United Kingdom; Robert James Bann, principal surveyor for Singapore of Lloyd’s Register of Shipping; and others.32

The committee of inquiry found that the explosion and fire were caused by the failure of Jurong Shipyard’s safety system as well as the presence of explosive vapour on board the Spyros as a result of the contamination of its fuel oil with crude oil. The hot work carried out by Lim using a cutting torch during the repair process was the source of ignition that resulted in the blast and fire.33

In its report, the committee said that the contamination of the fuel oil could have occurred in four possible ways: due to contaminated loading lines in Anacortes; contamination during the loading of bunkers as a result of using the contaminated loading lines; contamination from the use of a contaminated cargo tank on board the tanker; and either a deliberate or accidental contamination due to crude oil cargo being pumped into the bunker tanks.34 After accepting evidence from expert witnesses, the inquiry concluded that the main cause of contamination of the fuel oil tanks on board the Spyros was a result of the “deliberate diversion of crude oil cargo into the bunker tanks”.35

The recommendations by the committee include: prohibiting the use of cutting torches on board vessels under repair, and restricting the use of torches to specific jobs only; carrying out a thorough review of Jurong Shipyard’s safety system and incorporating a scheme to monitor its implementation; appointing a coordinator to ensure that all safety measures would be adhered to before the start of any repairwork; and limiting the number of people allowed to work in an engine room and providing for adequate means of escape from the engine room.36

Court cases and convictions
Lim and the Spyros were placed under arrest on 5 March 1979.37 Lim was charged on 12 March that month with causing the death of 76 people by a rash act.38 He was also charged with applying heat to a part of a tank containing flammable substances before inspection could be carried out to ascertain that it was free of such substances. On 23 July 1979, Lim was found guilty on two charges – the rash act was subsequently amended to a negligent act – and sentenced to six months’ jail on each charge. The jail sentences were to take place concurrently.39  

Lim successfully appealed against the sentences in the High Court. On 20 February 1980, then Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin set aside the conviction after finding no criminal liability on Lim’s part. In overturning the conviction, Wee said that the trial district judge had depended only on the evidence of one prosecution witness, and that the prosecution had failed to make out a case for convicting Lim with an act not amounting to culpable homicide.40

In a separate hearing, Jurong Shipyard was fined S$20,000, while its repairs manager Y. Sekido was fined S$10,000.41

The tanker’s fate
No work was done on the Spyros after the accident and its subsequent arrest.42

On 29 June 1979, it was reported that the owner of Spyros had sold the tanker to Japanese trading house Nissho Iwai for S$3.9 million. The tanker was to be broken down as scrap in Taiwan.43 It left Singapore on 12 July 1979.44 The proceeds from the sale were held in trust by the Singapore High Court pending claims and further court orders.45



Author
Jaime Koh



References

1. Pow Chong, G. (1984, January 17). Singapore’s history book of disasters. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). Preface. In The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
3. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, p. 1. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
4. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, pp. 1–2. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
5. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, p. 2. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
6. Campbell, W. (1971, August 4). PSA makes a strong bid for old Esso island. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, p. 2. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
7. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, p. 2. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
8. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, p. 4. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
9. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, p. 4. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
10. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, p. 5. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
11. Wee, P., et al. (1978, October 13). 48 die in ship blast horror. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Wee, P., et al. (1978, October 13). 48 die in ship blast horror. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, pp. 5–6. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
14. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, pp. 24–27. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
15. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
16. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). “Preface”. The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
17. The light in the dark. (1978, October 15). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Byramji, N. (1978, October 15). Above and beyond the call of duty…The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Hundreds join rush to give blood to injured. (1978, October 14). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Shipyard’s $2,000 ‘immediate relief’. (1978, October 15). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. A call to give generously... (1978, October 14). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Two Chinese dailies raise $2.5 million for Spyros victims. (1978, October 28). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG ; Spyros: More donations. (1978, October 29). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
21. Spyros disaster relief funds nearing $4 million. (1978, November 1). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Wee, P., et al. (1978, October 14). Grief turns to anger. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Kutty, N. G. (1978, October 15). Safety: Devan’s ‘no work’ warning. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
24. Wee, P., et al. (1978, October 14). Grief turns to anger. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Wee, P., et al. (1978, October 14). Grief turns to anger. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Jurong has the worst record. (1978, October 14). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Indran, J. D. (1979, July 3). A new safety code for yard. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Chng, N. (1979, October 12). Shipyard safety since Spyros. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Yeo, J. (1978, December 31). SEF to launch safety campaign. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Chng, N. (1979, October 12). Shipyard safety since Spyros. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Senior district judge to head inquiry. (1978, October 14). The Straits Times, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Health Sciences Authority. (2014, December 15). Milestones: Forensic science. Retrieved from Health Sciences Authority website: http://www.hsa.gov.sg/content/hsa/en/Applied_Sciences/Milestone_of_Forensic_Science.html
31. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). Preface. In The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
32. Witness: I was told to keep it secret. (1978, December 8). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Spyros fuel is not polluted, inquiry told. (1978, December 21). The Business Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Electrician testifies at Spyros inquiry. (1978, December 7). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; How two escaped from the Spyros. (1978, December 5). The Business Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, pp. 8, 10, 13. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
33. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, pp. 8–11. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN); Davidson, B. (1979, March 4). Failure of yard's safety system, deliberate contamination of tank the main causes. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). In The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, p. 12. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
35. Committee of Inquiry into the Explosion and Fire on Board S.T. Spyros. (1979). In The explosion and fire on board S.T. Spyros, 12th October 1978: The inquiry report. Singapore: Ministry of Labour, pp. 12–16. (Call no.: RSING 623.83 SIN)
36. Davidson, B. (1979, March 4). Failure of yard’s safety system, deliberate contamination of tank the main causes. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Spyros and yard fitter under arrest. (1979, March 6). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. Fitter charged with ‘rash act’. (1979, March 13). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Spyros: Fitter gets six months’ jail. (1979, July 24). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Spyros conviction set aside by CJ. (1980, February 21). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Shipyard fined. (1979, March 20). The Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. Tanker to end up as scrap. (1979, June 29). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
43. Tanker to end up as scrap. (1979, June 29). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
44. Indran, J. D. (1979, July 13). Prayers before start of last voyage. The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
45. $3.6 m from Spyros sale held in trust. (1982, February 12). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 29 January 2015 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
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore
Events>>Disasters
Events
Spyros Accident, Singapore, 1978
Marine accidents--Singapore
Transportation
Explosions--Singapore

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