Daring rescue: 1983 Sentosa cable car accident

https://www.mindef.gov.sg/web/wcm/connect/pioneer/df8fbe08-5828-4384-a456-b90881e97c10/27jan23_news2_photo1_thumbnail.jpg?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=ROOTWORKSPACE.Z18_1QK41482LG0G10Q8NM8IUA1051-df8fbe08-5828-4384-a456-b90881e97c10-oo1HTme /web/wcm/connect/pioneer/df8fbe08-5828-4384-a456-b90881e97c10/27jan23_news2_photo1_thumbnail.jpg?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=ROOTWORKSPACE.Z18_1QK41482LG0G10Q8NM8IUA1051-df8fbe08-5828-4384-a456-b90881e97c10-oo1HTme /web/portal/pioneer/article/regular-article-detail/ops-and-training/2023-Q1/27jan23_news2
27 Jan 2023 | OPS & TRAINING

Daring rescue: 1983 Sentosa cable car accident

//Story by Chia Chong Jin /Photos PIONEER archive

English Melayu

40 years ago, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) sprang into action as part of the Sentosa cable car incident. Here's a look back at what happened.


What happened?

On 29 Jan 1983, the derrick of the oil drillship Eniwetok collided with the Sentosa cableway when it broke loose from its tugboats and drifted with the tide after unberthing from the nearby Oil Wharf. Two cable cars were dislodged and plunged into the sea, killing five passengers.

In an interview with The New Paper in 2011, passenger Jagjit Singh said: "We looked out of the window, and saw the cable car ahead of us also swaying wildly. That was when I knew something was wrong."

The SAF mounted a rescue mission to save trapped cable car passengers after the derrick of an oil drillship, Eniwetok (far right), struck the ropeways of the Sentosa cableway.

Another cabin oscillated swung so fiercely, three of its seven passengers were flung out. Mr Jagjit's cousin Tasvinder, then only 22-months-old, survived and was rescued, but his uncle and grandmother did not survive the 55m fall.

It was a harrowing night of terror for the 13 other passengers trapped in four other cabins – two were suspended above the sea and two over land.

All-night operation: An RSAF air crew specialist descending from the helicopter to winch the stranded passengers to safety. [Photo: RSAF Facebook]

How were the surviving passengers rescued?

Led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – who was then a Colonel in the SAF – the rescue planning team considered three options.

"We studied several options of retrieving the people from these cars together with the PSA (Port of Singapore Authority), the police and the fire brigade," said Mr Lee.

The first was the use of tall structures to reach the stranded passengers. Ideas included a fire brigade snorkel ladder for the cars over land and a floating crane for those over water. However, this option was shelved as neither the snorkel ladder nor crane were tall enough.

The mission that might have been: A standby team of commandos was ready to pull off an alternative rescue plan – hauling themselves along the cables with pulleys till they reached the stranded cable cars, securing the cabins to the cables, then using harnesses to lower the passengers.

The second option was to deploy the SAF commandos, who would be sent out in pairs to crawl along the cables, secure the cars to the cables and use harnesses to lower the passengers down to safety.

However, the planning team was concerned that this might "put too much stress on the lower cable and the clamps might give away and send everything crashing into the sea", said Mr Lee. It was left to be the backup plan if the next option failed.

Heroes of the RSAF's 120 Squadron: (from left) Lieutenant (Naval) Geoff Ledge who was seconded from the Australian armed forces; Staff Sergeant (SSG) Ho Tsu Keng; Corporal (CPL) Selvanathan; CPL Phua Kim Hai; SSG Ramasamy; Lieutenant (LTA) Kao Yit Chee; LTA Benson Tan and LTA Phua Kia Wee.

The third option relied on using two Bell 212 helicopters from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), each with a crew of four, to mount a mid-air rescue. The winchmen would be lowered down to the cable cars, and rescue the passengers up to the helicopters.

Although there were concerns about the flying conditions and movement of the cable cars from the downdraught from the helicopters' rotor blades, this option was ultimately chosen and utilised.

The helicopter rescue operation began at about 12.45am on 30 Jan 1983, seven hours after the accident occurred. One of the helicopters rescued six people from the two cars over land, while the other rescued seven people trapped in the two cars over water.

"I was swinging like a pendulum. My safety cable scraped against the cable car cable, causing sparks which scared the trapped passengers… This mission showed how our Air Force, even at that time, was capable of handling difficult situations that were maybe beyond our normal scope of operations."

then-LCP Selvanathan
Earlier in the evening, the Naval Diving Unit scoured the murky waters of Singapore's waters to find the submerged cable cars. The team of divers – Sergeant Stephen Francis Misson, CPL Faustin Hogan, CPL Hatorangan S., LCP Tay Choe Yeong and LTA Richard Tan – battled low visibility, strong currents and long hours before finally locating the two cable cars.

What resulted in the aftermath?

Investigations later revealed that the installation of the Eniwetok's drilling derrick had increased the ship's height to 69m, exceeding the Sentosa cableway's 56.5m clearance height.

A commission of inquiry deemed that that the main cause of the tragedy was the Eniwetok crew's ignorance of the ship's new height, and negligence by the ship's master and chief officer, as well as the PSA-appointed pilot.

After the incident, the PSA prohibited all vessels taller than 52m –which was the height of the Sentosa Cableway – from being berthed at the Oil Wharf.

The waterway in Keppel Harbour was later designated a Height Restriction Area. Ships with a height taller than 52m were banned from the area, while those between 48m to 52m in height had to seek the written permission of the port master to enter, shift or leave the area.


The Sentosa cableway resumed operations in August 1983, after seven months of rigorous testing and repairs. Singapore Cable Cars also installed a one-way radio communication system to enable passengers to receive messages from the operator if needed.

Three years after the incident, the PSA installed a laser system to determine the height of ships entering the restricted area. Alarms would be set off at the Port Operations Centre if vessels exceeding the programmed heights crossed the laser beam.

In 1987, the RSAF began training using a new rescue system designed specifically for cable car accidents. This "cable car survival cage rescue" system – developed in Switzerland – involved a 2m x 2m x 4m cage weighing 200kg. Constructed with hollow metal bars, it could take up to six passengers (exclusive of the air crew) and was not affected by strong wind.

Suggested Reading
RSAF delivers humanitarian aid for Gaza Feature
RSAF delivers humanitarian aid for Gaza

Singapore has deployed an RSAF aircraft to deliver humanitarian aid in support of relief efforts in Gaza.

RSAF's latest surface-to-air missile system is fully operational
Cover story
RSAF's latest surface-to-air missile system is fully operational

The Aster 30 missile system has been conducting 24/7 air defence operations since August 2020. It can shoot down targets further, faster and more accurately than its predecessor, the I-HAWK.

RSAF uses simulators & AI to better determine pilot potential
RSAF uses simulators & AI to better determine pilot potential

Through an experimental programme using flight simulators and sports wearables, as well as data analytics and artificial intelligence, the RSAF aims to train and assess pilot trainees more effectively.

RSAF Open House returns as part of RSAF55 celebrations
Cover story
RSAF Open House returns as part of RSAF55 celebrations

To commemorate the RSAF's 55th anniversary, the RSAF Open House will be returning to Paya Lebar Air Base this September holidays.

Soaring to greater heights
Soaring to greater heights

While learning to fly, Han Karci also built close friendships with his fellow coursemates and forged bonds that he will always cherish.

Air Force super mum Feature
Air Force super mum

This military mother-of-three handles the demands of motherhood and work life with grit and grace.

She's a super mum
She's a super mum

MAJ Teoh Pei Mei shares her journey in being a mum and caregiver to a child who has a genetic disorder, as well as her career in the Air Force.

MINDEF to acquire eight more F-35B fighter aircraft Feature
MINDEF to acquire eight more F-35B fighter aircraft

The decision comes after a robust evaluation of these jets following the purchase of the first four aircraft.

Responding to bomb threat on flight SQ33
Responding to bomb threat on flight SQ33

In the early morning of 28 Sep, a bomb threat was reported on Singapore Airlines flight SQ33. Meet some members of the courageous team from the SAF who successfully intercepted the aircraft and examined the suspected bomb.