173 rescued after being stranded in capsules for several hours
By Esther Tan & Carolyn Quek
SOME 173 people were stuck mid-air in the capsules of the Singapore Flyer yesterday, when the world's largest observation wheel ground to a halt because of a technical fault.
The wheel stopped spinning at about 4.50pm and about three hours later the first passengers - five Malaysian tourists - were lowered using rope harnesses from the one of the lowest suspended capsules.
It was about four storeys off the ground.
Five more passengers in two other capsules, about eight storeys up, were evacuated the same way, before repair teams managed to fix the damaged drive unit and restart the wheel.
It started moving again at about 11.10pm.
It took another 30 minutes or so for the remaining passengers to get off the wheel.
Two people were taken off the capsules in stretchers - a 59-year-old woman who was dizzy and a 10-year-old boy who vomited.
Both were taken to the Singapore General Hospital.
A retired teacher who wanted to be known only as Mr Mohammad, 75, was among the crowd of relatives and friends who had gathered below. His wife was stuck in one of the higher capsules.
After he saw some people being lowered by ropes, he said: 'She is 75 years old. How are you going to rescue her? They should have a better emergency plan and act fast, but it looks like they did not do anything for several hours.'
Following the incident, the Singapore Police Force ordered the Singapore Flyer to cease operations pending a full investigation.
'Operations will only be allowed to resume once the Flyer is certified safe,' the statement added.
Singapore Flyer general manager Steven Yeo said power to one of the wheel's drive units was cut off after an electrical fire.
He said that the wheel has six drive units and at any one time can operate with just three. 'So we have 100 per cent redundancy' said Mr Yeo.
But for some reason the fire cut off all power.
Since the $240 million Singapore Flyer started operations in February, it has stalled three times and it was a different fault every time.
Singapore Flyer is working with its contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Electric, to find out what went wrong, he said.
Rescue efforts were carried out mainly by Dive Marine, a private company hired by Singapore Flyer. But when they realised that they needed more resources, Mr Yeo said that the SCDF were called in.
Throughout the six hours ordeal, Mr Yeo added that passengers in the capsules were never in any danger.
Intercom links and surveillance cameras allowed staff to monitor and stay in touch with passengers.
But not all passengers were happy with how the company managed the emergency.
Australian tourist Anna-Louise Allen, 51, who was stuck with her husband and teenage daughter, said: 'What was scary was that we didn't know what was going on. We kept on pushing the intercom button to ask what was going on, but we were not given sufficient updates.'
Harrowing rope rescue
10 passengers were lowered out of the capsules by rope
By Carolyn Quek , Yeo Sam Jo & Diana Othman
ONE woman cried while she was being lowered down by a rope from a capsule about eight storeys high. Another kept her eyes tightly shut until her feet touched solid ground before bursting into tears of joy.
Ten passengers were put through the harrowing experience of being lowered out of the capsules by rope before the Singapore Flyer started turning again at about 11pm.
The other passengers managed to walk out of their capsules when it reached the platform level.
Although the passengers were mainly adults, there were some babies and also several elderly people, one as old as 75.
Relatives waiting anxiously at the foot of the Flyer told The Straits Times that some of the people stuck in the air had health issues such as diabetes and heart problems. At a capsule near the top, one of the passengers was a pregnant woman.
Before that, the plan had been to rescue all the 173 stuck passengers, even those in the cabins at the top of the 165m-high observation wheel, by lowering them down via rappelling ropes.
Rescue officers were seen gingerly sliding along their way to the capsules along the spokes of the Flyer. They opened the hatch at the top of each capsule and climbed in.
Once the passengers were strapped into harnesses, the capsule's door was opened and they were lowered - inch by inch - to the ground.
Firefighters even tried to move a fire engine as near to the Flyer as possible and extended the long ladder - with two officers on them - to try and reach people trapped in some of the lower capsules.
The ladder was long enough to reach two capsules, but both were empty. The next capsule which held people inside was too high up for the ladder, and the officers ditched the idea.
Ten passengers were winched down before the faulty drive unit was repaired and the wheel started turning again. Each time one landed safe, the crowd cheered.
During the six hours that the wheel was stuck, tensions apparently ran high among the passengers, according to most of the people who spoke to The Straits Times after their ordeal.
Many were demanding to know what was happening when the wheel was stuck but information was not forthcoming from the Flyer staff, they said.
But after the initial shock, those who were stuck began to worry about more practical matters.
Many made requests for food and drinks and rescue workers took these into the capsules.
Some could not hold their bladder and urinated into plastic bags. Some also asked rescue workers to bring them pails to relieve themselves.
One of the trapped passengers, Indonesian tourist Meta Hartono, a housewife in her 40s, said a woman stuck with her in the capsule had to urinate into a plastic bag. 'The woman couldn't wait, so her family members blocked her while she peed into a plastic bag.'
After all the stuck passengers were cleared off the Flyer at around 11.45pm, they were ushered into rooms and a bistro in the building and served snacks and drinks. They were then led outside where taxis took them home. The passengers were also compensated for the rides.
A Russian tourist who was supposed to fly home last night on a 10.55pm flight to Poland missed his flight and is now anxiously trying to catch the next available one to make it home to his wife and nine-month-old son.
Health institute director Denis Masgutov, 25, said: 'In my culture, it's important to spend time with our family during Christmas. I am worried that I won't be with my family this year.'
A Singaporean civil servant, who wanted to be known as only Salimi, 37, said his sister-in-law was among those trapped. She was very hungry and ate a lot of the pizzas provided by the Flyer staff.
'It will be her first and last time on the Flyer,' he said.
A banker from New Zealand, who gave his name only as S.W., rushed to the Singapore Flyer an hour after his fellow New Zealander sent him a text message to say she was stuck. Both kept in touch via SMS as her cellphone was running low on battery.
After four hours of being trapped, she sent him an irritated SMS which read: 'The music over the PA system is driving me crazy.'