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.On 25 October 1988, a fire broke out at the refinery and is considered Singapore’s worst offshore fire.3

On 25 October 1988, a fire broke out at the SRC at around 1.30 pm. This was the refinery’s second major fire; the first occurred on 16 August 1984.4

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

Even though the 1988 fire did not claim any lives, 25 people, mostly firefighters, were injured including five who were seriously hurt.8

Burning oil tanks
The SRC had a tank farm of 20 tanks used to store crude oil and its by-products such as diesel and naphtha. The fire began at a naphtha storage tank that had a capacity of 120,000 barrels. According to some employees, workers had been trying to repair the tank’s jammed floating roof, when oil was spilt and somehow ignited, starting the fire.9

When fire erupted, around 100 non-essential personnel were evacuated from the island while some 150 to 200 technical workers remained to help the firefighters. Firefighters sprayed water and foam to contain the flames, which was brought under control about 3 pm the same day.10 However, 50 minutes later, black smoke was seen billowing from a second tank also containing naphtha. At 6 pm, the fires in the two tanks were still raging. To prevent naphtha in the surrounding tanks from catching and spreading the fire, the firefighters decided to drain and transfer the naphtha stored in those tanks to other larger crude tanks at the refinery.

However, by 1 am on 26 October, a third tank had burst into flames after fierce winds whipped up the fire, which also threatened a fourth tank. The consequences would have been catastrophic if the fire 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 but was quickly extinguished.11

It took 53 hours to bring the fires under control. However, two tanks continued to burn, and firefighters used foam to contain the flames.12 The fire was finally put out around 7 am on 30 October. Some 55 firefighters remained on the island overnight in case the fire rekindled.13

The firefighting operation involved more than 600 personnel from the Fire ServiceCivil Defence, Singapore Armed Forces and 10 other government agencies.14

Fumes and ash on the mainland

After the fire broke out, a strong smell of petroleum gas was reported, especially in the western part of Singapore. It was nauseating, and some people fell ill after breathing in the polluted air. The Ministry of Environment assured the public that the pollution was well below toxic level.15 Buildings, cars and residences were also covered with black, sticky soot. At the height of the blaze, the fire could be seen from many parts of the mainland.16

As a result of the fire, talks on the implementation of new safety measures were held. These measures included having in-house firefighting facilities at offshore locations to reduce reliance on portable equipment that required considerable coordinating efforts when firefighting supplies were depleted.17

 A 2005 study of the incident pointed at an improperly maintained tank as the initial cause of the fire. The under-serviced tank had not been maintained regularly. Heavy rainfall on 24 and 25 October had caused the tank’s roof to warp and support structures to fail. The ignition source was likely friction sparks caused by the mechanical failure of the pole supports. The foam used to extinguish the flames had been unable to form a continuous blanket around the rim seal, because of faulty equipment. The system failed to prevent the rim seal fire, which allowed the fire to escalate over the next five days.18

Joshua Chia

1. Leslie Sim, “Fire-Fighters Battle Blaze in Oil Refinery’s Tanks,” Straits Times, 26 October 1988, 27; “Realising Jurong Island’s Potential,” Business Times, 1 December 2009, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Tong Suit Chee, “Fire Shuts Down Refining Facility on Merlimau,” Business Times, 26 October 1988, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Sim, Fire-Fighters Battle Blaze”; “Refinery Blaze Out but Firemen Take Precautions,” Straits Times, 31 October 1988, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Sim, “Fire-Fighters Battle Blaze”; Brendan Pereira, “Fire under Control after Fourth Tank Saved from Flames,” Straits Times, 28 October 1988, 44; Ng Weng Hoong, “Fire Breaks Out at Oil Refinery at Pulau Merlimau,” Straits Times, 17 August 1984, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Refinery Blaze Out but Firemen Take Precautions.”
6. Soh Tiang Keng, “Insurers May Have to Pay Out $15M–$20M for Merlimau Fire,” Business Times, 28 October 1988, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
7. R. Rajendran, “Naphtha Prices Rise as Refinery Fire Burns On,” Straits Times, 27 October 1988, 29; Suresh Nair, “62 Hot Hours,” Straits Times, 30 October 1988, 3; “Merlimau Fire Costs Estimated at $30M,” Business Times, 25 November 1988, 7; “Third Naphtha Tank on Merlimau Still Ablaze,” Business Times, 29 October 1988, 20. (From NewspaperSG) 
8. Brendan Pereira, “Firemen’s Do-or-Die Bravery Averted Disaster,” Straits Times, 29 October 1988, 18; Soh Tiang Keng, “Insurers May Have to Pay Out $15M–$20M for Merlimau Fire,” Business Times, 28 October 1988, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Tong, “Fire Shuts Down Refining Facility on Merlimau”; Sim, “Fire-Fighters Battle Blaze”; Leslie Lim and Shermaine Lim, “Blaze at Pulau Merlimau Refinery Spreads to Third Tank,” Straits Times, 27 October 1988, 40. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Tong, “Fire Shuts Down Refining Facility on Merlimau”; Sim, “Fire-Fighters Battle Blaze.”
11.  Ambrose Poh and Thusitha De Silva, “‘Keeping Our Fingers Crossed’,” New Paper, 28 October 1988, 3; Lim and Lim, “Blaze at Pulau Merlimau Refinery Spreads to Third Tank”;  Pereira, “Fire under Control after Fourth Tank.”
12. Pereira, “Fire under Control after Fourth Tank.”
13. “Refinery Blaze Out but Firemen Take Precautions.”
14. Pereira, “Fire under Control after Fourth Tank.”
15. Mary Rose Gasmier, “Mysterious Smell May Be Connected to Gas Leak in an Off-Shore Oil Refinery,” Straits Times, 26 October 1988, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Sim, “Fire-Fighters Battle Blaze”; Michael Liu, ”The Day Soot and Oil Rained from the Sky,” Straits Times, 27 October 1988, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Pulau Ayer Merlimau Fire Sparks Off New Safety Measures,” Straits Times, 6 May 1989, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Thomas V. Rodante,Investigation of a Naphtha Storage Tank Fire,” Process Safety Progress 24, no. 2 (June 2005): 98–107.

The information in this article is valid as at April 2021 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.



Petroleum refineries--Fires and fire prevention--Singapore
Business, finance and industry>>Industry