Elderly couple, son electrocuted after water heater was poorly installed: expert

Block 120 Ho Ching Road. (SCREENCAP: Google Maps Streetview)
Block 120 Ho Ching Road. (SCREENCAP: Google Maps Streetview)

SINGAPORE - An elderly couple and their son died from electrocution in a flat in 2020 after the instant water heater was found to have been connected improperly, according to court testimony heard on Wednesday (9 March).

The three deceased are: Omar Abdul Manan, 80, his wife Asmah Bujang, 66 and their son Muhamad Ashikin Omar, 45. All three had died on 10 December 2020 in a flat at Block 120 Ho Ching Road, in which both Omar and Asmah had lived in since the early 1970s.

A senior associate engineer and investigation officer from the Energy Market Authority, Goh Chin Fong, was the first to testify into the death of the trio on day one of the Coroner’s Inquiry.

Goh found it likely that Omar, who had been taking a shower, had been electrocuted through a current passing through the metallic water hose due to the neutral and earth cable being fused in the plug.

As the instant water heater was operating, the electricity flowed back to the heater’s metal casing, which was connected to the metallic hose the victim was holding onto. The hose then became “energised” from the current, which then flowed through the victim’s body to the ground.

“So the deceased, when taking a shower with his hand holding on to metallic water hose, he will get an electric shock due to environment inside bathroom which is very wet and … (and he was) not wearing any shoes inside the bathroom,” said Goh.

Asmah was reportedly electrocuted while she was assisting her husband.

There had also not been a Residual Current Circuit Breaker (RCCB), an electrical wiring device that would have disconnected the circuit as soon as it detected a current leak to the earth wire. This was not installed as there had been no such requirement during the construction of the flat in the 1970s.

When investigators checked the flat, they found that only the utility room was protected by an RCCB which was installed during an upgrading programme.

The water heater had also been wrongly connected using a three-pin plug to a socket outlet rather than a double pole switch – only the latter should be used for appliances requiring a greater amount of electricity. In a double pole switch – unlike a three-ping plug – each cable has its own terminal and position, so the cables would not cross or meet. This meant that even if there was overloading or heat, the cables would still be intact and not fuse.

What likely happened during the incident was that the daily use of the water heater damaged the cables and their insulation over one to two years, causing the cables to fuse, said Goh.

Day of the incident

The second witness to testify was an investigation officer from the Singapore Police Force who read out statements recorded from the deceased person’s next-of-kin.

According to a statement from the daughter of the elderly couple, her parents' flat dating back to the 1970s had undergone the Housing Development Board’s upgrading programme in the 1990s. The toilet and storeroom were refurbished then. The daughter stated that the instant water heater could have been installed six to seven years ago, but did not know who had bought or installed it.

On the day of the incident, the elderly couple had failed to respond to their granddaughter’s attempts to contact them. The granddaughter, who is Ashikin’s daughter, then told her mother, who advised her to go to the couple’s house. When the daughter arrived, she could hear sounds of water running but could not access the flat as the metal gate was padlocked. Ashikin later arrived and managed to break into the house.

Upon seeing his parents in the toilet, Ashikin was heard exclaiming. He touched one of his parents and later collapsed on top of them. His daughter touched the back of Ashikin’s thigh and felt a tingling sensation, akin to touching an electric prank toy.

The elderly couple’s daughter and her husband later arrived at the flat and managed to pull Ashikin from the toilet. Ashikin was conveyed to Ng Teng Fong General Hospital where he was pronounced dead. The elderly couple were pronounced dead at the scene.

State Coroner Adam Nakhoda will deliver findings into their deaths on 29 April.

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