Man who set off flare in hawker centre fined $4,500

Wan Ting Koh
Yahoo file photo

A man who set off a flare in an Ang Mo Kio Hawker Centre, alarming patrons and a fruit store owner with the resulting fire, was fined $4,500 in the State Courts on Friday (14 December).

Aw Chong Loong, 50, had found the explosive object at the back of his family’s medical hall in Ang Mo Kio and, not knowing what it was, triggered it accidentally outside his shop, causing the flare to shoot into Kebun Baru Food Centre on 26 September this year.

The object was a parachute signal flare, which is commonly used in marine distress situations.

Aw, a self-employed plumber, pleaded guilty to one count of acting negligently with an explosive substance by failing to ascertain the nature of the flare and setting it off in the direction of Kebun Baru Food Centre, located at blk 226H Ang Mo Kio Street 22. One count of possessing the signal flare without a licence was taken into consideration for Aw’s sentencing.

The court heard that Aw had a habit of collecting discarded items to see if he could use them. He would keep unused items at the medical hall’s storeroom, at block 226C Ang Mo Kio Ave 1, which he and his family were in the process of vacating. That was where he found the cylindrical flare while clearing out the store for the incoming tenant at around 4.30pm on 26 September.

Aw had no idea what the object was when he found it covered beneath a layer of dust. According to the prosecution, Aw could not recall where he had picked it up but estimated it would have been more than five years ago, given the dust on it.

As the store was dim, Aw brought the object outside for a closer look. While he did not notice any diagrams on the object, which was orange with a red cap at both ends, he spotted words but did not bother to use his glasses to read them.

As he held the object, Aw opened one red cap, causing a grey disc to drop out. He later threw the disc into a nearby dustbin. He opened the other red cap and saw a rectangular button and pin which was attached to a short nylon string.

Feeling curious, Aw pressed the button, but nothing happened. With the object at waist level and pointing towards the hawker centre, Aw then decided to pull the string and pin while pressing the button, causing the object to emit clouds of white smoke and a whizzing noise. No fire was produced.

Aw was not aware that anything had shot out of the object due to the smoke. But the alarmed man returned to the shop, closed the door and threw the object onto the shelf.

At around the same time, a hawker, Tan Yong Joo, who was seated in front of his fruit stall, heard a loud boom. Upon turning to his stall, he saw a “huge ball of fire about the height of his knee” emitting sparks and smoke from the front of his stall. Tan used a long metal rod with a hook to move the burning object away from his stall. The ball wound up under a table in the hawker centre.

The fire was later put out by a passerby with a fire extinguisher, leaving behind a small pipe with a metal wire protruding from it. Another stall owner called the police.

No injuries were caused during the incident, but the flare left behind some burnt soot marks on the floor and on a wooden board in the fruit stall.

Aw, who was unaware of the incident, only saw the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) fire engine arrive some 10 minutes after he returned to his shop. He headed to the crowd gathered outside the fruit stall and saw that the ground was white with a metal piece on the floor.

He returned to the shop and resumed clearing the store. He later heard a commotion at the back door of his shop and saw police officers milling about. It was then that he realised the incident at the hawker centre may be due to the object he had activated.

Worried, Aw attempted to cut the object and later placed it in a plastic bag to dispose of it. He was approached by the police later but denied witnessing anything as he did not want to attract the attention of reporters and acquaintances in the area.

Aw remained in the shop throughout the night to clear the store and told his wife the next day (27 September) that he intended to surrender himself. He received a call from a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officer the same day and confessed to having set the object off.

A total of 65 officers from CID and Ang Mo Kio division scoured 23 blocks in a 30-hour operation to determine the cause of the flare, and seven SCDF officers were also activated at the scene.

CID officers from the Bomb & Explosive Investigation Division and Special Investigation Section identified Aw as a possible suspect through a review of CCTV footage.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Yang Ziliang sought a fine of at least $4,000 given that Aw’s act had caused alarm and required substantial resources to be dealt with. However, Aw’s culpability was low as no harm and minimal property damage had been caused by the flare, he said.

Aw, who was represented, submitted a mitigation plea to the court in which he said that he placed part of the object in a dustbin where “there was no human or animal around”.

District Judge Sarah Tan said that a “sufficiently high fine” was warranted to deter “like-minded individuals” from such offences, and that Aw had triggered the unfamiliar object without attempting to read its inscriptions.

“The hawker centre is a fairly crowded place, considering the number of witnesses. Aw himself informed that the incident drew a huge crowd. Fortunately no one was hurt and property damage was minimal,” said DJ Tan.

Aw could have been jailed one year and/or fined $5,000 for the offence.

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