The Spyros Disaster
#onthisday (12 Oct) in 1978, Singapore’s worst industrial accident happened — The Spyros Disaster.
An explosion aboard a Greek tanker ship, the S.T. Spyros, left 76 dead and 69 injured.
The ship was docked at Jurong Shipyard for repair and cleaning works. The explosion happened at 2.15 pm, as about 150 workers returned to the Spyros’ engine and boiler rooms after their lunch break. A number of the ship’s 32 crew were also on board.
Sparks from a cutting torch used during repairs caused a fire, which ignited an explosive vapour mixture within the ship’s fuel tank. The blast was intense — debris from the vessel was flung as far as 100 metres away. Following this, a flash fire swept through the engine and boiler room, causing catastrophic injuries.
The victims were rushed to Alexandra Hospital and Singapore General Hospital. Medical staff worked overtime and even volunteered their services off-duty. The public turned up in record numbers at hospitals to donate blood to the injured. “There were so many donors that were queuing outside the building and snaking out to the carpark” recalled Kang Kok Sheng, who was on duty as a lab technician with the Singapore Blood Transfusion Service.
Various organisations, such as the then-Ministry of Labour and Singapore Labour Foundation, raised funds for the victims and their families. The public also chipped in — hawkers donated their earnings and schools set up education funds to help affected students. Within two weeks, the donations had reached almost $4 million.
“Any myth that Singaporeans are an uncaring lot was convincing shattered by the hundreds who formed the second group — they had come to the hospital to give live-giving blood, to keep the injured victims alive.”
The Straits Times, 14 October 1978
A Committee of Inquiry chaired by Senior District Judge, Michael Khoo Kah Lip, found that safety regulations had been ignored. Organised labour, led by NTUC Secretary-General, C. V. Devan Nair, and Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Labour), Fong Sip Chee, expressed outrage at the disaster and both the trade unions and the government lobbied and campaigned vigorously for greater safety consciousness in the shipbuilding and repairing industry.
The Spyros incident revealed the capacity for compassion and cohesion among Singaporeans, as we stepped up in times of crisis. And it remains a painful reminder for us to always look out for one another and consider what could go wrong if we took safety for granted.