Cable car tragedy at Sentosa

Singapore Infopedia


On 29 January 1983, seven people died when the Sentosa cable cars they were aboard plunged into the sea after the derrick of an oil-drilling vessel, Eniwetok, struck the cableway when it was unberthing from the wharf nearby.1 It was the first fatal accident since the cableway began operations in 1974.2 This was also the worst disaster that Singapore had experienced since the Spyros accident in 1978.3

The cable car system connecting the main island of Singapore to the adjacent island of Sentosa came into operation in February 1974. The installation of the cableway across Keppel Harbour meant that a height restriction had to be imposed on ships there. Although the cableway was built to have a minimum clearance of 60 m, a maximum clearance height of 56.5 m was promulgated.4

In November 1973, during the construction of the cableway, the mast of a passenger ship, Patris, touched the cables as it was entering the harbour. However, the pilot of the ship immediately put the vessel astern (in reverse) and dropped anchor, thereby avoiding any damage. While the port master expressed serious concern about this incident, no drastic measures were taken to prevent the recurrence of similar accidents, thus resulting in the circumstances that contributed to the disaster a decade later.5

The vessel at the centre of the 1983 tragedy, Eniwetok, had arrived at Keppel Shipyard in November 1981 to be converted from a bulk carrier into a mobile offshore drilling platform. It was then known as Australind and was renamed Eniwetok only in October 1982. The conversion included the addition of a drilling derrick, which increased the height of the ship to 69 m above the waterline, making it taller than the cableway. However, during the process of the conversion, the height of the ship was not measured. As a result, when the accident happened on 29 January 1983, neither Eniwetok’s master, Pekka Erkki Joki, nor its chief officer, Robert Thomas Mahon, knew the ship’s actual height.6

The accident
By 29 January 1983, sufficient conversion work had been completed for Eniwetok to go on station off Terengganu, Malaysia. The ship was berthed at Oil Wharf, one of the five wharves at the main shipyard and the one nearest to the Sentosa cableway on the east. Based on the height given by Joki, that is, 165 ft (50.3 m) and a freeboard of 12 ft (3.7 m), the assistant dock master advised against going east under the cableway as the clearance would be too small. It was decided that the vessel would exit the harbour in the westward direction instead.7

In order to move the ship from Keppel Harbour, a pilot from the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) had to be requested to navigate the ship out to sea. The Port Operations Centre received the request at approximately 12 noon on 29 January 1983. The height of the ship was not given, and no one at the Port Operations Centre asked for it. The request for a pilot was approved and Adrian Cajetan Baptista was assigned to undertake the task with the assistance of two tugs. He arrived at Eniwetok at about 4.15 pm. Baptista was not informed of the height of the ship nor did he request this information, which he thought was irrelevant because the ship would be going west. The ebb tide was flowing east at the time, but neither Joki nor Baptista considered this when they discussed the unberthing plan.8

Eniwetok was berthed with its bow towards the cableway. The agreed plan was to have an after tug at the stern (back) and a forward tug at the bow (front) to pull the ship clear of the berth, after which the ship would be pulled astern, then turned 180° before moving west to exit the harbour.9 At about 5.55 pm, unberthing commenced. However, during the manoeuvre, the towline of the after tug became unhooked and fell into the water., As a result, the tug could not  stop Eniwetok from drifting east with the ebb tide, causing the stern to swing in towards the wharf. To avoid a collision between the wharf and the ship, Baptista ordered an ahead movement using the main engine. This caused the vessel to move forward more quickly, and by the time Baptista and Joki realised that they were getting dangerously close to the cableway, it was too late.10

Shortly after 6.06 pm, the top of the derrick made contact with the cableway. There were 15 cable cars travelling on the cableway at the time. Two cars were dislodged and plunged into the water. One of the cars was empty, but the five passengers in the other car were killed. Another car oscillated so violently, making at least one complete somersault, that three of its seven passengers were flung out. Two of them were killed, but the third – 22-month-old Tasvinder Singh – miraculously survived the 55-metre fall. He was rescued by Abdul Latip bin Jantan, a PSA marine assistant who was then working on board a passing ferry. In all, 13 people were trapped in four cars – two over land and two over water.11 

The rescue
The rescue planning team, headed by then Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) colonel Lee Hsien Loong, considered three options. The first was the use of tall structures to reach the stranded passengers – a fire brigade snorkel ladder for the cars over land and a floating crane for those over water. This option was dropped because both the snorkel ladder and the crane were not tall enough.12

The second option was to use SAF commandos. The plan was for two-man teams to crawl along the cables to the cars, secure those cars that were not attached securely to the cables, climb down into the cars, attach pulleys to the cables, and lower the passengers down to safety with the help of other commandos below. This option was thought to be feasible but difficult to execute. It was eventually decided that this would be the backup plan if the third option failed.13

The third option involved using military helicopters to mount a mid-air rescue. Winchmen would be lowered to the cable cars to bring passengers up to the helicopters. Although there were concerns about the night flying conditions as well as the movement of the cars due to the downdraught from the helicopters’ rotor blades, this option was subsequently given the go-ahead.14

Following a successful practice run using an empty cable car, rescue operations commenced at about 12.45 am on 30 January using two Bell 212 helicopters, each with a crew of four. One helicopter rescued six people from the two cars over land. Seven people trapped in the two cars over water were rescued with the other helicopter. The whole operation was finally completed at about 3.45 am. All those rescued were taken to the Singapore General Hospital.15 

Investigations and recommendations
The day after the collision, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew ordered an official inquiry into the causes of the accident.16 A three-member Commission of Inquiry was later appointed by the president under The Inquiry Commissions Act on 5 February 1983. The commission, which was headed by then High Court judge Justice Lai Kew Chai, submitted its report on 30 December 1983 after a lengthy inquiry spanning 55 days from May to August.17

The commission noted 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. In particular, the gross negligence of Joki and Baptista was found to be the dominant cause and their most critical failure was not finding out the actual height of the ship. The commission also faulted Mahon, the chief officer of Eniwetok, for his negligence and placed some of the blame on PSA, Keppel Shipyard as well as the ship’s owner and management agent. The commission recommended various measures to prevent such accidents from happening again, including the implementation of new height restrictions to be written into the law and heavier penalties for those who breached regulations.18 

Immediately after the incident, PSA prohibited all vessels taller than 52 m from being berthed at the Oil Wharf. Subsequently, it also tightened its monitoring of the heights of ships entering and moving within Keppel Harbour.19 Following the additional recommendations of the committee set up to study the inquiry report and propose an implementation plan, the waterway in Keppel Harbour was designated a Height Restriction Area. Ships taller than 52 m in height were banned from the area, while those between 48 m and 52 m in height had to seek the written permission of the port master to enter, shift or leave the area.20 In 1986, PSA also installed a laser system to determine the height of ships entering the restricted area. When vessels exceeding the programmed heights crossed the laser beam, alarms would be set off at the Port Operations Centre.21

The Sentosa cableway resumed operations in August 1983, after months of tests and repairs.22 To prepare for future emergencies, Singapore Cable Cars later installed a new one-way radio communication system to enable passengers to receive messages from the operator should the need arise.23 The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) also established a new rescue system specifically for stranded cable car passengers.24

Joki, who was under the employment of the ship’s charterer, Atwood Australind Drilling, left the company after the incident. Baptista also left PSA in September 1983 after his contract expired, about a month after the conclusion of the inquiry hearings.25

Koh Qi Rui Vincent

1. Singapore, Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Collision of the Drillship Eniwetok with the Sentosa Cableway on 29 January 1983 (Singapore: Marine Department, 1984), 33. (Call no. RSING 623.89295957 SIN)
2. Singapore, Collision of the Drillship Eniwetok, 15, 35.
3. “Cable Car Tragedy: How It Happened,” Straits Times, 5 February 1983, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Singapore, Collision of the Drillship Eniwetok, 15–16.
5. Singapore, Collision of the Drillship Eniwetok, 16–17, 48–49.
6. Singapore, Collision of the Drillship Eniwetok, 17–19, 36, 40
7. Singapore, Collision of the Drillship Eniwetok, 15, 23.
8. Singapore, Collision of the Drillship Eniwetok, 26–27.
9. Singapore, Collision of the Drillship Eniwetok, 27.
10. Singapore, Collision of the Drillship Eniwetok, 30–33.
11. Singapore, Collision of the Drillship Eniwetok, 32–33; “Cable Car Tragedy”; “Four Options, Then the Go-Ahead for Choppers,” Straits Times, 31 January 1983, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Four Options.”
13. “Four Options.”
14. “Four Options.”
15. “Plucked from the Jaws of Death,” Straits Times, 31 January 1983, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Singapore, Collision of the Drillship Eniwetok, 34.
16. Philip Lee et al., “PM Orders Full Inquiry: The Rescue…and the Heroes,” Straits Times, 31 January 1983, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Singapore, Government Gazette, G. N. 436, 11 February 1983, 706–8 (Call no. RSING 959.57 SGG-[HIS]); “Inquiry into Sentosa Cable Car Tragedy Gets under Way,” Straits Times, 28 May 1983, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Singapore, Collision of the Drillship Eniwetok, 35–49, 56, 59–60.
19. Alan John, “A Year Later, and It’s a Safer Harbour,” Straits Times, 29 January 1984, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Singapore, Collision of the Drillship Eniwetok, 1–2; Gerry De Silva, “Harbour Bans Ships over 52 m in Height,” Straits Times, 6 June 1985, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Laser System to Check Height of Ships Entering Singapore,” Business Times, 3 July 1986, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Tsang So-Yin, “Cable Cars Roll again,” Straits Times, 16 August 1983, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “New Radio System for Sentosa Cable Cars,” Straits Times, 12 August 1984, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “New Cable Car Rescue System,” Straits Times, 22 April 1987, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Joseph Lee and Brenda Ortega, “Drillship in Cable Car Tragedy Back: Where Key Figures in the Sentosa Inquiry are Now,” Singapore Monitor, 30 January 1985, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Chua Chin Chye, “‘My Hair Became White in Few Years’,” Straits Times, 27 November 1985, 17. (From NewspaperSG)

Gerry De Silva, “The Bashful Heroes of PSA,” Straits Times, 30 December 1983, 14. (From NewspaperSG)

He Doesn’t Remember Anything, But They Won’t Let Him Forget,” Straits Times, 31 January 1993, 14. (From NewspaperSG)

Jeevarajah Yasotha, “Visitors to Sentosa Down By a Quarter,” Straits Times, 17 October 1984, 13. (From NewspaperSG)

Teo Lian Huay, “They’re Back for Anniversary Ride,” Straits Times, 29 January 1984, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 22 September 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further resources on the topic.


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