SCDF ragging death: Victim might have been 'disoriented' in the well - pathologist

The Tuas View Fire Station where Corporal Kok Yuen Chin died during a celebration for his impending ORD on 13 May, 2018. (Google Street View screengrab)

SINGAPORE — A full-time national serviceman (NSF) who died from a ragging incident in a fire station pump well might have been disoriented after being pushed into the water.

If he had been disoriented, Corporal Kok Yuen Chin would likely not have been able to tell which way to swim to the surface, a forensic pathologist who conducted an autopsy on the NSF’s body some 12 hours after his death testified in court on Friday (14 June).

Kok, 22, had died after being pushed into the pump well as part of his Operationally Ready Date celebration on 13 May at Tuas View Fire Station. A group of Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officers from Kok’s rotation (Rota 3) had earlier carried him to the edge of the pump well after a cake-cutting ceremony.

While the officers egged him on, Kok removed his personal belongings and sat on the ledge of the well. He was later pushed into the water by Staff Sergeant Muhammad Nur Fatwa Mahmood, who was jailed 13 months last October for his role in the incident.

Kok, who was a non-swimmer, did not resurface and drowned in the well.

Rota 3’s commander, Lieutenant Kenneth Chong Chee Boon, 38, and deputy commander, First Senior Warrant Officer Nazhan Mohamed Nazi, 41, are each accused of one charge of helping the group to cause grievous hurt to Kok through a rash act. They had failed to prevent the group from making Kok enter the well, according to their charges.

Dr George Paul, who is a senior consultant from the Health Sciences Authority, certified the cause of Kok’s death as drowning on the fifth day of the trial. At the time of the incident, the 12m pump well had been filled with rainwater, Dr Paul said, who noted that Kok’s lungs were filled with water.

Among Kok’s injuries, there were blood stains around his eye region, multiple bruises on his head, and bloodstained froth on his nostrils. There were bruises and abrasions scattered across his limbs and back, likely sustained when Kok was struggling in the well, which was 1.8m wide, Dr Paul said.

According to the pathologist, who visited the pump well at night after the autopsy, it was possible that Kok had entered a narrower section of the well, only 1-metre wide, where he sustained the injuries from coming into contact with the well.

During his examination by the prosecution, Dr Paul was asked about the difference between how a swimmer and a non-swimmer would react coming into contact with water.

A swimmer would inhale before entering water and hold their breath to counter the pressure of the water, as opposed to a non-swimmer, Dr Paul said.

“In the case of a non-swimmer, he does not know any of this, then comes the element of surprise. If he is standing, someone pushes him from behind, there is a startled inhalatory response.

“In this case he knows he is entering water, he’s pushed in. His first response is ‘I must get some breath of air.’”

Dr Paul added that a swimmer would be able to counter the effect of water rushing into the nose by blowing it out. In contrast, a non-swimmer might react by inhaling the water in surprise.

It also made a difference if a swimmer entered head or feet first. In Kok’s case, he was pushed in the water while seated at the pump well’s edge, with his feet dangling above the water.

While Kok had likely entered the water feet first, it was possible for his body to have flipped upon his entry, noted the pathologist.

Asked why Kok had not surfaced after entering the water, Dr Paul noted the darkness of the water and said that it was possible that Kok became disoriented upon being submerged, causing him to go deeper into the water instead of surfacing.

He added that a person needed to have a “presence of mind” to tread water and push himself towards the surface.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Kumaresan Gohulabalan then asked about the risk of drowning had Kok not been pushed into the water.

Dr Paul replied that if Kok bobbed up onto the water’s surface, someone could have rescued him, and Kok could have exited the water using the well stairs or the rope if these were available.

But he noted that based on his assessment of the pump well, there was likely nothing that Kok could use to “stop himself from going down”.

The pathologist added that it was “dangerous” even for a swimmer given the confined space of the well, especially if one was “not able to instinctively do things like...inhaling or stopping air from entering the nose, or hold breath and tread water”.

The trial continues on Friday.

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