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Ng Jun Sen
Thursday, Sep 4, 2014

Singapore

One wrong move could kill many

The New Paper | Ng Jun Sen | Thursday, Sep 4, 2014

SINGAPORE - Several policemen and passers-by stood near the police cordon.

Someone had found a bomb-like device in a forested area in Telok Blangah and called the police, who then called in the bomb squad.

The crowd watched as a lone man, clad in green overalls and holding a briefcase of tools, inched carefully towards the device in the grassy undergrowth.

Armed with rulers, calipers, a range of high-tech scanning equipment and the intrinsic knowledge to not touch the bomb, the man studied the explosive while the world quietened around him.

This was in 2012. That man was Third Warrant Officer (3WO) Chris Ang, then 32.

Back then, 3WO Ang was the first explosives expert to come into contact with the device, in what is known as an explosive ordnance recce.

Because no one knows the nature of the bomb, this makes the recce the most dangerous part of the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) operation, said the team commander from the 36th Battalion, Singapore Combat Engineers (36 SCE).

Said 3WO Ang: "There is fear, certainly. But it is not only for my life. It is for making a wrong assessment that could lead to the deaths of many."

Only team leaders like 3WO Ang are tasked to perform the recce.

3WO Ang, who has around 13 years of experience, recounted: "There is always a huge weight on my shoulders. I am there, alone, and everything depends on my knowledge and training to assess the bomb."

He relaxed only after determining that it was an old mortar round meant for illumination purposes and was unlikely to explode.

He and his team detonated the round onsite.

The incident in Telok Blangah was one of 20 that 3WO Ang has responded to in his career.

As the only land-based EOD unit in the country, 36 SCE encounters an average of 30 instances of war relics a year. They are mostly found in construction sites.

Some are found in odd places too, such as an old projectile discovered during a grave exhumation at Bukit Brown Cemetery in May this year.

And they range from grenades, mortar rounds, tank and artillery shells to area bombs, usually British or Japanese.

This year alone, the unit was activated 17 times, successfully disposing of 25 such war relics.

The most recent one was a month ago at Hampshire Road, where three unexploded British 25-pounder artillery shells were found and disposed of.

Commanding officer of 36 SCE, Lieutenant-Colonel (Lt-Col) Alex Chen told The New Paper: "The frequency of war relics found is dependent on the number of construction projects that are ongoing."

CLEAN RECORD

None of the incidents his unit attended to had resulted in injuries or death so far.

But that does not mean that these bombs are safe for the public to handle.

In 1991, a four-year-old boy was killed and two others injured at a deserted beach off Changi Coast Road when a mortar they found exploded during a picnic there. They had used it to build their barbecue fire.

"Our guys are very rigorously trained, but the risk is always there.

"There is no denying that we're dealing with explosives which are inherently dangerous," said Lt-Col Chen, 32.

Despite the constant risks involved, 3WO Ang has confidence in his team because they all know there is no place for complacency.

Said 3WO Ang: "I tell my team it might be a hoax, dummy or an empty casing, but even then we must always treat everything as real as possible until we are able to ascertain that it is safe."

He enlisted in 2001 during his national service because it was a "challenging and unique" job.

Now married with two young children, he feels that he has more to worry about as the stakes are higher for him.

"I do feel fear because it is dangerous.

"But that's a good thing. Without fear, I would be complacent in my duties. Carelessness means mission failure," he said.

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