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'I saw my family falling into the sea': Survivor of 1983 Sentosa cable car accident still struggles with trauma

'I saw my family falling into the sea': Survivor of 1983 Sentosa cable car accident still struggles with trauma
Mr Jagjit Singh was eight years old when the tragedy happened.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE – Four decades have passed but Mr Jagjit Singh still has flashbacks and sees the bright lights of a helicopter shining straight at him.

He was eight years old on Jan 29, 1983, and in cable car 26 with six other members of his family when the derrick, or tower-like structure, of the Panama-registered oil drilling vessel Eniwetok struck the cableway.

His family had travelled to Sentosa to spend "happy time" as a family, to lift the Primary 3 pupil's spirits because he had been struggling to fit in at school.

Mr Singh, now 48, recalled that he was sandwiched between his godparents, who had raised him since birth, on one side of the cabin, while his grandmother, aunt and her two children sat across from them.

After the initial jolt, his 60-year-old grandmother Pritam Kaur stood up, held onto a metal pole in the cabin and prayed.

The second jolt came minutes later. The cable car somersaulted and the door swung open.

He watched his godfather Mahinder Singh, 42, and Madam Kaur, who was holding his 22-month-old cousin Tasvinder Singh, fall out of the cabin.

"I saw my family falling into the sea. I don't think anybody else has seen that happen, I don't think anybody can relate to what I've gone through," he said.

Port of Singapore Authority marine assistant Abdul Latip Jantan, then 26, was about to finish his shift and return home when he heard a loud noise. He looked up and saw people falling out of a cable car.

The deckhand, who was on a ferry, spotted a baby in the waters off the Jardine Steps, The Singapore Monitor reported on Sept 15, 1983.

"I jumped in and swam towards him. He held on to my arm, so I knew he was still alive, and brought him to shore," he said. The baby was Tasvinder.

Meanwhile, Mr Singh and the others in car 26 were waiting to be rescued. A few hours in, he saw the helicopter's bright lights and winch man Lance Corporal Selvanathan Selvarajoo inching towards them.

Due to the strong winds, Mr Singh recounted that LCP Selvanathan swung erratically and initially struggled to open the door to the cabin. When he finally got in, he checked that everyone was okay and reassured them.

After rescuing Mr Singh's cousin Balwinder, the youngest in the cabin at only four years old, LCP Selvanathan came back for Mr Singh. But he resisted and told the winch man to take his aunt up first.

"I had already lost my godfather. I didn't want to lose my godmother, I didn't want to leave her alone inside the dangling cable car," Mr Singh said, adding that he felt helpless in the cabin.

All four of them were taken safely to Singapore General Hospital (SGH) in the wee hours of Jan 30. They had no clue that Tasvinder had survived the 55m fall into the sea.

The baby was put under intensive care at SGH. His lungs were bleeding and his skull was fractured when he was brought in, but he was taken off oxygen and started breathing normally on Feb 1 that same year.

Mr Singh said he saw three psychologists and psychiatrists after the incident and was clinically diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

He stopped going to therapy when he was 12 because he did not think they were able to help.

"Recently, I noticed that if I watch movies with sad endings, it triggers me more, especially if there are any accidents or people dying," he said.

When Mr Singh is driving on the bridge to Sentosa, he will try his best to avoid looking at the cable cars because that might trigger his PTSD.

"I still feel guilty about it to this day. It's because of me that I lost my family," he said. "I don't think I'll ever be able to overcome or get closure for this."

To cope with his loss, he performs as a comedian and deejay.

"Performing on stage is an avenue for me to come out of this reality that I'm living in. It gives me joy to see other people happy."

As a Sikh, Mr Singh said he relies on his faith and his family for support.

"After that accident, I have not taken the cable car, and my wife and two children have assured me that they will never take the cable car too," he said. "I don't want to lose any of them."

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This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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