Coroner surprised by ambulance breakdowns

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 December, 2009, 12:00am

A coroner at an inquest into the deaths of three elderly people who died amid ambulance failures said yesterday it was surprising that the vehicles broke down.

Michael Chan Pik-kiu said the ambulances were maintained by the highly skilled workmen of the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department - unlike normal cars, which are taken to run-of-the-mill shops.

'Surprisingly, one stalls and one runs out of gas,' he said. 'Maybe tomorrow another ambulance will fail for whatever reason.' Regarding a finding by the department that one ambulance failed to start because it did not have enough petrol, he said: 'That is inherently impossible.'

Chan was speaking at the inquest at the Coroner's Court into the deaths of Chung Tak-shing, 60, Hui Ching, 86, and Loh Tchen-tong, 79, who all died after the ambulances that were to transport them failed.

Failures caused delays of about 10 minutes for both Chung and Hui, the court heard. The drivers of both vehicles said they had checked the petrol tanks and found they had enough.

Chung, a diabetic with heart problems, fainted after taking a shower after 11pm on July 20 last year. His wife called an ambulance to their home in Shun On Estate in Sau Mau Ping.

Driver Nam Hing-pang said his ambulance received a call at 11.39pm, arrived eight minutes later and received Chung at 11.57pm. Because the ambulance would not start, they called another vehicle, transferred Chung to it and left at 12.07am.

Nam said the ambulance that failed was a replacement for another vehicle whose air conditioner had not worked that day, and which his team used to transport a patient anyway.

The court has not heard why the vehicle would not start,

The delay in Chung's case did not matter, one expert said. Diabetic patients who, like Chung, regularly undergo dialysis and have heart disease are high-risk, said Chinese University professor Dr Szeto Cheuk-chun. 'I really believe that even if the ambulance had been able to start right away and take him to hospital, it would have been impossible to save him.'

Szeto said that based on Chung's medical records and descriptions of his collapse, he believed Chung died of coronary heart disease. But a forensic pathologist said Chung died of end-stage renal failure.

Hui, who had high blood pressure and Alzheimer's disease, felt unwell on July 28 last year, so her daughter called an ambulance to their home in Tsui Chuk Garden in Wong Tai Sin.

According to an incident log read out in court, that vehicle arrived at 5.46pm. Ambulance workers discovered the vehicle would not start two minutes later and called another vehicle, which arrived at 6.06pm and left with Hui two minutes later.

Driver Chan Chi-man said his vehicle had made six trips and Hui was his seventh. He was on his way to fill up because his tank was only one-quarter full, but decided - after receiving the order to pick up Hui - that the vehicle could complete the trip. A department report said the ambulance was out of petrol.The two drivers said ambulances stalled very rarely. Nam said the air conditioning failed about once per month. Seventy new vehicles were put into service this year to replace part of the ageing fleet that has been plagued by breakdowns.

Evidence regarding Loh will be heard today. Chan is hearing the inquest without a jury.