16/05/2022

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“The sadness that we had lasted way beyond the night”: Pioneer naval diver on Sentosa cable car tragedy

SINGAPORE: Almost 40 years on, retired combat diver Faustin Hogan still remembers the day vividly.

Mr Hogan, now 61, was part of the team that had been deployed for the search and rescue operation of the Sentosa cable car tragedy.

Seven people died when an oil-drilling vessel struck the cableway on Jan 29, 1983, dislodging two cable cars and sending them plunging into the sea below.

Recalling the day, Mr Hogan said it had started out as a very quiet and uneventful Saturday.  

“We were sitting down in our little corner in the camp at Pulau Brani then suddenly, we got word from the operations room that a cable car was down,” he said.

Mr Hogan was one of the dozens of pioneers from the naval diving unit that had been invited to the Republic of Singapore Navy’s (RSN) elite combat diving unit’s 50th anniversary parade held at Sembawang Camp on Thursday (Dec 9).

STRONG CURRENTS, RISING TIDES

“We couldn’t believe it so we asked them if they were sure,” said Mr Hogan, recounting the surprise he felt then as a corporal in the elite unit.

But it turned out to be true, and the team sprang into action, grabbing their equipment and racing to Jardine Steps, near Sentosa.

“When we reached, the first thing I noticed was the number of people there, I had never seen so many people on Jardine Steps,” he said.

What followed was a nearly four-hour rescue operation that would last until the wee hours of the morning, and watched closely by the nation in a live television broadcast.

“There were people on the ship that were telling us one direction, and another person pointing in another direction,“ he said. “There was a lot of noise because everyone was excited so they were pointing us in different directions.” “All that did was to confuse us,” he said.

Against strong currents and rising tides, the team had to rely on touch to navigate the murky waters as they searched for survivors and cable cars.

“I went down on the second dive and that’s when I found the cable car,” Mr Hogan said. It was blue in colour, he added.

With his tank rapidly running out of air, Mr Hogan had to work quickly to tie a line to the cable car so that he could find it again.

“I couldn’t just surface like that because I didn’t know what was above me, it could be another boat or something,” he said.

“So I had to follow the line back to my assault boat and that’s when I told my team that I thought I had found the cable car.”

A second check confirmed that Mr Hogan had indeed located the cable car and in it, the bodies of four victims.

“It was with profound sadness when we found them,” he said, adding that one of the victims he retrieved was a young and petite woman who had been a doctor.

“The sadness that we had lasted way beyond the night.”

“But we had to do a job so the diver within us kicked in and all we were focused on was to get them out,” he added.

Their perseverance and tenacity saw Mr Hogan and his team successfully retrieving the bodies of four victims.

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE 1983 SENTOSA CABLE CAR TRAGEDY?

On Jan 29, 1983, seven people died when two cable cars plunged into the sea after the derrick of an oil-drilling vessel, Eniwetok, struck the cableway.

It was the first fatal accident since the cableway began operations in 1974. This was also the worst disaster that Singapore had experienced since the Spyros accident in 1978.

Rescue operations were conducted to save the remaining thirteen passengers who had been trapped in four other cabins between Mount Faber and Sentosa.

The rescue planning team was headed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a Singapore Armed Forces colonel at the time.

Several options of retrieving the people from the cars had been considered before the team decided to use military helicopters to mount a mid-air rescue.

The plan was to lower winchmen to the cable cars to bring passengers up to the helicopters.

Despite concerns about the night flying conditions as well as the movement of the cars due to the downdraught from the helicopters’ rotor blades, the option was eventually given the go-ahead.

Rescue operations commenced at about 12.45 am on Jan 30, following a successful practice run using an empty cable car.

Two Bell 212 helicopters, each with a crew of four, were deployed to rescue the trapped passengers.

The whole operation was finally completed at about 3.45am. All those rescued were taken to the Singapore General Hospital.

The day after the collision, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew ordered an official inquiry into the causes of the accident.

The commission’s findings revealed that the accident was due to an unfortunate combination of factors that would not have caused the tragedy if they had not coincided on that fateful day.

It identified the failure of the towing mechanism as the trigger but named a few parties as being responsible for the accident, due to gross negligence.

They included the ship’s master and chief officer, as well as the Port of Singapore Authority-appointed pilot.

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JACK OF ALL TRADES

Mr Hogan is now an English language and General Paper private tutor. He told CNA that he looks back fondly at memories of his time with the naval diving unit.

He joined the unit just five years after it was set up. This, he said, meant that his team had to grapple with insufficient resources and learn how to organise themselves along the way.

“We were the jack of all trades, so I must give credit to the real pioneers, meaning the first batch of the naval diving unit,” said Mr Hogan.

“It was early days then and we had quite a bit because we had to build a unit up, had to come up with ways of doing things. When we were faced with a novel situation, we would have to find a way to do it and then share it with the other colleagues to ensure that we don’t have to learn from square one again if it happens again.

“That’s how we learnt and that’s how we progressed.”

Standing chest out, tummy in, Mr Hogan watched Thursday’s parade at Sembawang Camp – alongside former and current naval divers – with a quiet sense of pride.

“The unit has changed tremendously,” he said.

“I look at the unit with great reverence and the unit now is a formidable force to be reckoned with.”

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