Train fire officers better, says coroner

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2005, 12:00am

The rescue operation for a worker who died in a sewer is described as chaotic

A coroner called for more leadership training for senior fire officers yesterday after describing as 'chaotic' the rescue operation for a worker who fell into a sewer and died.

He made the recommendation after returning a verdict of accidental death in the case of senior fireman Cheung Chun-wai, 40, who died while trying to rescue a man from a sewer last year.

Cheung, 40, collapsed after entering the sewer through a manhole in Smiling Shau Kei Wan Plaza, on Shau Kei Wan Road, in an attempt to rescue Lai Chaobao, 31, in July.

Cheung was not equipped with breathing gear or a rope when he went underground. Three fire officers with higher ranks - principal fireman Hui Ping-fai, senior station officer Tse Lai-yiu and probationary station officer Chan Hok-leung - were present at the scene, the court heard earlier.

Coroner Michael Chan Pik-kiu returned a verdict of accidental death on both Cheung and Lai after concluding they had drowned after falling unconsciousness from inhaling hydrogen sulphide, a gas commonly present in sewers.

The coroner criticised the fact that 'it was very obvious no one was directing the rescue'.

'The firemen's rescue operation for Lai Chaobao was very chaotic,' he said, adding there was a need for a complete review of the leadership abilities of senior officers.

The coroner, at the end of the four-day inquest, noted that Mr Tse and Mr Chan did not notice that Cheung had shouted into the sewer a few times in the hope of getting a response from Lai before going underground himself.

Probationary station officer Chan had said there were many firefighters around the manhole and he did not see Cheung enter the sewer.

Principal fireman Hui had said he was beside the manhole through which Lai had fallen. He believed Cheung entered the sewer through a nearby manhole.

Fire Services guidelines clearly indicated 'rescue should never be attempted without breathing apparatus', but the coroner said the firemen did not obey them.

He said firemen were virtually doing their jobs on their own without co-ordination. He suggested firemen should be more obedient to senior officers and follow the Fire Services guidelines.

There was also a need to review the training procedures on sewer rescue and the Fire Services Department should make sure the training complied with these procedures.

The Coroner's Court heard on Monday that Lai fell into the 4m-deep sewer after stepping on wet and greasy ground at 11.30pm on July 6. Cheung and Lai, who were later pulled out of the sewer by a police diver, were certified dead at Eastern Hospital at 1.30am on July 7.

The coroner's suggestions will be sent to the director of fire services. Cheung was awarded a posthumous Gold Medal for Bravery last October.



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