We Almost Lost Our Lives

Ever witnessed or felt from afar the intense heat from a “glorious” fire on your skin, and yet there is nothing you can do to help with the situation? Well, Lisa and I have. Just last night, we spent 20 torturous minutes watching a blazing fire consume every surface of my trusty, old van. Helplessly, if I may add.

HOPE's van on fire

The van that I have relied on for the past one and a half years to transport rescue dogs, to get to unimaginably secluded areas to feed stray dogs, to take me around the island to visit rehabilitating dogs, and to carry cartons and bags of kibbles and canned food to caregivers, had just gone up in flames. All that is left of my van is a wretched, charred skeleton of scrap metals awaiting to be disposed.

I had originally thought that yesterday would be just another regular day, shuttling from one place to another, taking little Harper and Matthieu to the vet. After these two dogs were sent home, we had a quick dinner before heading down to meet a dear friend, Jennifer, who donated some toys and treats to Harper. As we were about to call it a day, I received a text around 10pm saying there were some strays barking in Tanah Merah and Changi areas. Although the strays did not chase after pedestrians, Lisa and I decided to swing by and to use this opportunity to take our own dogs out for a walk. Being in the rescue line where you are almost always out on the run at irregular hours often means that you only get to spend time with your own pet dogs past midnight.

We checked on the strays who seemed to be at ease and contented, walked our dogs, and decided it was time to head home. While driving, Lisa alerted me that she could smell a tinge of smoke, which was strange because my radiator light showed normal. I edged forward to look at the outer areas of my car and noticed smoke emitting from the left side of my bonnet. I immediately pulled over along Changi Coast Walk and parked near a fire hydrant (which proved to be useless anyway) to check on my car.

By this time, the smoke was already spewing out of the bonnet like water spouting from a broken tap. Lisa and I grabbed all three dogs from the car, but only managed to retrieve two leashes, and we ran as fast as we could – while juggling the dogs – away from the smoking van. I’ve to warn you that it’s not easy running for your life with all the dogs in hand, or on leash, so it might be worth doing regular drills at home.

So, we stopped some 100 meters away from the van and I was about to call the police to inform them of my potentially hazardous vehicle, when I saw sparks coming out of the left bonnet. Then, a small fire started…
I called 999, and we waited for the police to come to our rescue.
We waited for the next five minutes, and there was no sign of a police car. The fire spread, and my engine was lighted in the crimson fire.
I dialed 999 again. No police arrived…40% of my van was on fire.

Watch the video of HOPE's van going up in smoke. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfCXzowr1yg&feature=youtu.be
I hit the same buttons again. No sight of the blue-uniformed men.
From the corner of my eyes, I could see Lisa trying to pacify the three dogs – two were overly excited, and the other had a panic attack, salivating and panting. The one with the panic attack also has a history of seizures and Lisa hugged him close to her, for fear of him going into a seizure. So I told her to take them home first while I wait for the police and firefighters to arrive.
I managed to stop three cabs on the road but none of them agreed to ferry the dogs even after my pleading and explaining to them about my pathetic situation. They all said, “NO!” and drove off, leaving me, my burning van, Lisa and our three poor dogs by the road.
The entire van was engulfed in flames
Luck is always out to pull people’s legs when they need them the most. Both Lisa and my phones were on critical low-battery mode. We made one hopeful phone call to our young volunteer, Joceline, at 1am to task her to help book Lisa a taxi.
After the fire
A total wreck

All this while, there was still no sign of the blue rangers. However, a blue police van did drive past and pulled over to offer help. Funnily, or mockingly, the officer come out of the van with a small fire extinguisher in hand, and before I could even speak, he decided his fire extinguisher will not be of much help for my flaming car. And so, he watched my van slowly engulf in flames as it were a scene in the movies.

Frustrated, I punched 999 again… They arrived close to 20 minutes after I made my first phone call to them, which really isn’t of much help because my van was already burning in full glory. I could even hear the popping sound of my three cartons of doggy canned food exploding in the fire.

The police finally came… to divert traffic. A Red Rhino arrived a few minutes later, but try as they might, the fire didn’t get any smaller as it was way too strong for the Red Rhino to manage. Then the fire engine came, and they spent the next 20min fighting the fire. By now, there was nothing left to salvage and my van was burnt beyond recognition with the flames reaching almost to the street lights above.
The SCDF took more than half an hour to put out the fire and by the time everything was over, it was close to 3am. I asked the SCDF officer if they would give me a ride out to somewhere where I could get a cab and she replied, “That’s your problem.” Shocking.

A sorry sight

In fact, none of them came up to me to ask if I was alright. I’m left to think that there is no sense of empathy among the officers who handled my case yesterday. 

My life had literally gone with the smoke. The van was an integral asset in my life. The volunteers lovingly named my van the “ferravan” as it was the main vehicle used to rush injured rescue animals and abandoned dogs to the vet.

What used to be front seats
Although it was an old van that had to be sent to the workshop weekly for the past three months which cost me thousands of dollars – they have been fixing my aircon which constantly blew hot air – it was an essential tool in my life and I needed it to get my work down efficiently. I suspect the mechanics had something to do with the fire but I don’t know enough about an engine to comment, neither do I have the money to sue them.

The back of the van where many rescued dogs have been ferried. Burnt : 3 cartons of canned food, kibbles, collars and leashes
What’s worse is that the now, non-existent van is still on installment. This means I have to continue footing my monthly installment until the insurance payout which typically takes up to six months to process. I’m not even sure if the damages will be covered as the van did not have a comprehensive coverage.
But what I am most upset about is that the toys, pee pads and treats for baby Harper and Matthieu as well as the three cartons of donated canned food for Mr. Aziz have all perished in the fire. My microchip scanner, new doggy collars and leashes have all turned to ashes.
A tire

My bag containing my wallet, ID and passport which I had just collected are gone too.

Although Lisa and the dogs are safe, I’m left with a new pile of bills to settle. It’s such a traumatizing experience – I still choke in fear whenever the scene of my burning van flashes across my mind. Just the smell of smoke triggers my heart to beat faster. I don’t even dare to sit in a car for fear it might burst out in flames. I didn’t think I would be so traumatized but the fear is so real. To all pet owners reading this, do not leave your dogs unattended in the car, you never know what might happen.

Lisa is equally traumatized; she insists on carrying all her bags with her at all times.

I’m sorry to say there will be no rescue work for a while, no feeding of strays as we no longer have the transport to reach the most secluded of areas, or to shuttle dogs around at ungodly hours. Regrettably, we can only rely on pet transport until I get another van. It won’t be soon because I have to pay for my non-existent van.

That night, upon reaching home, I hugged my dogs and finally let out a first sob.
Now, it’s time to start picking my life back up again, just like gathering the remnants of a wreck and gluing them together to form a brand new piece again. It’s tough, but there’s no other way.
Written by Claire Chai for Fiona