The commission of inquiry investigating the accident found that of all the contributory causes of the accident, the failure of the towing mechanism on one of the tugboats was “particularly significant”, in that it triggered the sequence of events that led to the accident.
“If the mechanism had not failed, the planned manoeuvre to take Eniwetok off berth, move her astern (backwards) and then turn her around, would probably have succeeded,” the commission noted in its official report submitted to the President a day after the accident.
“However, even with the towline slipping, the accident could still have been avoided had there been the awareness of the risk of collision with the cableway.”
Here’s how the events of that fateful day unfolded:
12pm: The port operations centre receives a request to send a pilot to unberth the Eniwetok from the Keppel Harbour oil wharf at 5pm and take it to sea. The request note indicated the ship’s name, tonnage, draught and length. A blank entry for the ship’s height was not filled in.
4pm: Port of Singapore Authority pilot Adrian Cajetan Baptista was assigned to unberth the Eniwetok. He had a “good record” as a pilot, and had completed 1,140 ship movements with only nine minor reportable incidents.
4.15pm: Baptista arrives at the Eniwetok. There was a general understanding on board that the ship had to leave the wharf by 6pm, or departure would be delayed until the following day. Baptista informed the port operations centre by walkie-talkie that departure was expected to be delayed by half an hour because some documents still needed to be completed.
4.45pm: Baptista made his way to the bridge, or the ship’s cockpit. Baptista introduced himself to the ship’s captain, Pekka Erkki Joki, and explained his plan for taking the Eniwetok out.
Two tugboats, attached to towlines at the front and rear of the ship, would first pull it away from the berth before turning it 180 degrees anti-clockwise towards open sea.
There was no discussion on the height of the Eniwetok, or the relationship between this height and the height of the adjacent cableway.
There was also no discussion of a tide, which at the time was flowing towards the cableway at between 1 and 2 knots. Baptista stated that he only noticed the cableway as he was boarding the Eniwetok, and that once on board, it had not featured in his mind until the collision.
5.54pm: Baptista advised the port operations centre that the Eniwetok was still not ready to sail because some equipment was still being loaded.
5.55pm: Loading was completed. Baptista instructed the tugboats to stand by, and Joki agreed that unberthing could commence. The first manoeuvre was done, and the ship was now more or less parallel to the wharf. Baptista stated he was aware that the ship was now moving slowly ahead due to the tidal stream.
6.02pm: Joki noticed that the ship’s rear was swinging in towards the wharf, causing its helipad to edge closer to a wharf crane. He told Baptista to tell the tugboat at the rear to pull, as the ship was swinging the wrong way. Baptista felt this happened because the tugboat at the rear had kept some tension on the towline to counteract the tide.
Baptista ordered the deckhand on the rear tugboat in Malay to “pull right”. There was no response. The ship’s rear swung more wildly towards the wharf. Baptista then shouted into his walkie-talkie to “pull hard”. Joki rushed across and saw that the towline was in the water. At the same time, the deckhand on the rear tugboat reported: “Pilot, my line in the water.”
The deckhand believed that the towline had slipped when he eased the tension on it at the end of the initial pull. He saw the safety catch come off and the towing hook fall and bounce on the supporting structure.
6.06pm: Eniwetok continued to drift towards the cableway due to the tide, with its rear swinging towards the wharf.
Baptista then asked Joki if the ship’s propeller was clear, as he wanted to move backwards. Joki replied that it was not. Baptista said this was the main reason why he did not go backwards. Joki denied that this exchange took place.
Baptista stated that he then asked Joki to drop an anchor, and that Joki turned to a Caucasian man who gave a “thumbs down” sign. Joki denied this. His evidence was supported by two other people and accepted by the commission of inquiry.
Baptista decided to go ahead on the ship’s main engine to avert a collision between its rear and the wharf, ordering “hard-to-starboard, dead slow ahead”. This meant the ship would turn starboard, or to the right.
But this movement increased the swing of the ship’s rear to the wharf, and Baptista realised his mistake. He then ordered “hard-to-port”, or a movement to the left. An assistant dockmaster warned Baptista on his walkie-talkie: “Pilot your stern (rear) is falling on the wharf.”
On the wharf, a worker noticed that the top of the ship’s oil derrick appeared to be getting close to the cableway, and used his walkie-talkie to alert Baptista. Shortly afterwards, the assistant dockmaster shouted “pilot go astern (backwards), pilot go astern” over the walkie-talkie.
Joki said that Baptista then ordered an anchor be dropped. Joki, concerned that things were going awry, put the engine to “full astern” and shouted over a PA system to “drop any anchor”.
Close to 6.07pm: From the wharf came shouts of “cable car, cable car”. Baptista ran out and looked up, seeing the top of the derrick hitting the cableway wires. Shortly afterwards, two cable cars plunged into the sea.
Joki then rushed out and saw “cars dropping, falling down” and a “big splash in the water”. He also heard people screaming.
The commission of inquiry found Eniwetok’s captain Joki and Port of Singapore Authority pilot Baptista to be “grossly negligent” and their conduct to be the “dominant cause” of the accident.
The commission highlighted that breaches of statutory duties and the negligence of other parties, including the Port of Singapore Authority, Keppel Shipyard Limited and Eniwetok’s chief officer Robert Thomas Mahon, contributed to the accident.