SINGAPORE — A volunteer instructor charged over the death of a 15-year-old student who had fallen from a high-element obstacle course at SAFRA Yishun in 2021 was sentenced to six months’ jail by the State Courts on Monday (Jan 15).
Muhammad Nurul Hakim Mohamed Din, 23, had failed to do a physical check on Jethro Puah Xin Yang’s harness, resulting in the teen’s leg loops coming unbuckled after he fell from the obstacle.
Without the leg buckles, the harness moved upwards and began suffocating Jethro, a secondary 4 student at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent).
By the time Jethro was rescued — more than half an hour after he fell — he had stopped breathing.
Nurul Hakim pleaded guilty to an amended charge of causing grievous hurt to Jethro through a rash act by illegally omitting to ensure both his leg loops were properly buckled and adjusted before dispatching the youth onto the obstacle course.
He had originally been charged with committing a rash act not amounting to culpable homicide.
ACCUSED HANDLED 28 STUDENTS
Setting out the background of the fatal incident, Deputy Public Prosecutor Ng Jun Chong said that Nurul Hakim was the adventure instructor in charge of an obstacle course, a high element challenge rope course at SAFRA Adventure Sports Centre in Yishun.
He had been volunteering with Camelot, an outdoor adventure learning company. Both Camelot and its employee have been charged in relation to the incident.
The accused had been volunteering with Camelot since 2017 and completed an adventure instructor course by the company in November 2020.
The obstacle course was part of an outdoor adventure experiential programme organised by Jethro’s school to promote team building and character development.
His class was scheduled for the programme on Feb 3 and Feb 4, 2021. As part of the programme, the class had to complete three obstacles on the lower tier of the obstacle course.
At around 12.45pm, Jethro and 27 other students underwent a safety briefing, including instructions on how to react if they fall off an obstacle, and how to wear the helmet and harness, which was a full-body harness that went over the torso, shoulder and thighs. The harness would be attached to belaying devices connected to a safety cable via a safety line.
Nurul Hakim was the dispatcher stationed at the start point of the obstacle course while two fellow instructors were each at a tower situated between obstacles within the course. It was his first time as a dispatcher.
DID NOT PHYSICALLY TEST HARNESS
As dispatcher, Nurul Hakim was responsible for conducting a final check on the students’ helmets, harnesses and safety lines before sending them out.
He was supposed to check the harness physically. He could do so by pulling the tail straps of the leg loops to the maximum to check if the loops were properly threaded through the buckles and tightened.
Another test involved the participant slipping their hands through the leg loops and making a fist. If the leg loops are properly threaded through the buckles and tightened, the participants would not be able to pull out their fists.
Nurul Hakim did not test three of around 11 participants that were sent ahead of Jethro, only visually inspecting their harnesses.
He also failed to physically check Jethro’s harness, only observing that the equipment appeared secure.
“The deceased’s leg loops were in fact not properly buckled and adjusted,” said Mr Ng, adding that Nurul Hakim had known that there was “a real risk” Jethro’s life would be endangered.
“While the deceased was waiting to be dispatched onto the obstacle course, he looked nervous and told the accused that he was afraid of heights.
“The accused encouraged him, saying ‘if your classmate could do it, so can you’,” said Mr Ng.
COULD NOT GET BACK ONTO OBSTACLE
Jethro went onto the obstacle course at about 1.26pm and finished the first obstacle without issue in about three minutes.
However, he slipped from the second obstacle, a postman walk requiring participants to hold onto a rope while walking sideways on a metal cable.
Suspended by his harness, Jethro struggled but could not get back onto the metal cable despite the instructions the instructor on the tower he had just passed.
The instructor noticed that Jethro’s leg loops were loose and had gone up from his thighs to his waist. Another instructor came to her assistance but both could not hoist him up.
Both of Jethro’s leg loops came unbuckled, and he hung from the shoulder straps of his harness by his armpits. His head was roughly at the same level as the foot cable.
According to the prosecution, a participant who had worn the harness properly would have been able to climb back onto the obstacle more easily as the person would have been in a higher position. As Jethro’s leg loops were loose or unbuckled, he was in a lower position and unable to reach the foot cable with his legs easily, said Mr Ng.
Both instructors wrapped their personal safety lines around Jethro’s chest and under his armpits to prevent him from falling.
When a teacher at the ground level told Jethro to stop struggling, the youth replied that he was suffocating.
The overall-in-charge of the programme, Umar Abdul Ghani Taufiq Siraj came over from the rock-climbing station to assist and instructed that Jethro be brought to a tower.
At the tower, Nurul Hakim told Jethro to hold his forearm. The accused saw that the boy’s face was pale, his fingers were blue and that he was panicking and gasping for air.
He tried to pull the youth up with the assistance of the other instructors, but failed.
About eight minutes after falling, Jethro lost consciousness.
Umar told the instructors to deploy the rescue bag to belay Jethro to the ground — the last resort for participants unable to get back up the obstacle course.
However the instructors were hampered in their efforts as Jethro was slipping off his harness. Another instructor had to secure Jethro to himself before lowering them both down.
By then, it had been more than half an hour since Jethro fell. He had stopped breathing and had no pulse.
A few instructors performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation before paramedics from the Singapore Civil Defence Force arrived and took over.
Jethro was conveyed to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. Scans showed that he sustained severe brain injury from the lack of oxygen and a fracture of the anterior neck bone supporting the airway.
Depsite medical intervention, he developed severe heart failure, liver injury and significant muscle injuries.
At about 4.41am on Feb 4, 2021, Jethro died from multiorgan failure caused by his suffocation.
A forensic examination of Jethro’s harness showed that it was functional and when worn properly, would not have moved upwards when suspended.
“POOR SPLIT-SECOND JUDGEMENT”
Mr Ng sought six to eight months’ jail for Nurul Hakim, whom he said should have performed checks closely given that he could have been the first and last person to check the participant before sending him onto the course.
The activity was “high risk”, with the starting point about five storeys above ground, said Mr Ng. “When the lives of young students are at stake, the accused person should not be making any assumptions when it comes to safety,” said Mr Ng.
“There is no good reason for accused person to skip a physical check when it was his duty to do so.”
Stressing his client’s remorse, Nurul Hakim’s lawyer, Azri Imran Tan said: “At the outset, Hakim wishes to state that he deeply regrets the passing of the deceased. It was something he never imagined could have happened, and — certainly — something he never wished for or wanted.
“Not a day goes by without him thinking about the incident, what he or his other instructors could have done differently, and whether the life of the deceased could have been spared.”
The lawyer sought no more than four to six months’ jail for Nurul Hakim, arguing that his culpability was low.
“Hakim had exercised a poor split-second judgment call in the midst of a dynamic exercise, as opposed to an offender who took a deliberate, calculated, and/or cavalier approach to risk,” said Mr Tan.
His client had also been working under difficult circumstances, said Mr Tan.
Apart from performing the role of dispatcher for the first time, it was Nurul Hakim’s third session of the obstacle course that day and he was handling 28 students, a significant number, observed Mr Tan.
For rash act causing grievous hurt, Nurul Hakim could have been jailed for up to four years, or fined up to S$10,000 (US$7,500), or both. CNA