SINGAPORE: It was the afternoon of Mar 10, 1965, and 21-year-old Yunnos Shariff could feel the ground rumbling beneath his feet.

As the fire alarm at the Central fire station on Hill Street sounded, louder alarm bells rang in his head.

“I said: ‘Eh something is wrong!’ I told the boys that they had to be careful, this is only the beginning,” recalled Mr Yunnos, now a sprightly 75-year-old.

Cloistered in the second floor of the fire station’s control room, Mr Yunnos gave the orders for his men to dispatch three fire engines.

His instructions were followed to the tee – firefighters began to climb into their gleaming red vehicles, gearing up for a day forever seared into the annals of Singapore history.

Three victims would lose their lives that day because of the MacDonald House bombing, with more than 30 others injured.

As Mr Yunnos looked out the window, one of the men about to be mobilised cut a familiar figure – it was his father.

“At first, I was so scared (for his safety),” said Mr Yunnos, who joined the Singapore Fire Brigade (the forerunner of the Singapore Civil Defence Force) in 1962. “But then, I thought to myself: ‘That is part of his duty and my duty is to send the fire engines.'”

There was not much time to dwell on these fears as the men in the control room began to be inundated by calls.

“Not only did the alarm sound, the police called and the public started calling us without stopping,” said Mr Yunnos.

“It was messy, noisy – there were so many calls.”

Hours later, Mr Yunnos’ father returned to the station unharmed, but the two never spoke about the events which transpired that day.

He said: “I dared not ask him about it because I respected him.”

THE CHILD WHO WANTED TO BE A PARLIAMENTARIAN

Not only did Mr Yunnos grow up in a fire station, he was born on the grounds of one.

The fourth of 13 children, he was raised in Geylang fire station, and stayed in a one-room apartment in the station’s quarters.

Discipline was taken seriously at the station, and this applied not just to the firefighters but their children as well.

Mr Yunnos' old photographs are currently on display at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery

A number of Mr Yunnos’ old photographs are currently on display at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery. (Photograph: Matthew Mohan

“The children were not allowed to play around because there was no playground, the only place we could play is at the yard. But that yard was used for firefighters having their drills,” said Mr Yunnos.

“So what to do? We stayed at home. Every station was the same except for Queensway, where there was a football field where the children could play.”

The family then moved to the Central fire station where Mr Yunnos witnessed firsthand the dangers firefighters faced on a daily basis.

Till this day, he remembers seeing the members of the fire brigade return to the station during the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950.

“When the officers came back on the number 3 (Major Pump 3 fire engine), I saw the blood on their shirts.”

But he always held the vocation in high regard.

“Right in front of my block, when I opened the door I could see the yard, and the firefighters doing drills,” Mr Yunnos said. “It was not only like ‘Wow’, but I said that when I grow up I wanted to be like somebody here.”

However, things could have turned out rather differently if he had done better in school.

“I wanted to be a lecturer so I could join the parliament. But sad to say I got a low grade … only grade three which was not enough,” he said.

“If I’d got grade two or grade one, I wouldn’t be here, I would be in parliament!”

DEALING WITH LALANG FIRES

After completing his training earlier than expected due to his familiarity with the various equipment and drills, Mr Yunnos spent slightly less than two years as a firefighter.

“I’ve only attended 60 fire calls … most were overgrown lalang fires along the highways, one was a fire at (Pulau) Bukom and one was at Kallang Gasworks.”

“The fire engines that we had didn’t carry water,” he said. “When we arrived at the fire we would have a problem – where to get the water supply?”

Without a fire hydrant, firefighters had to rely on using suction equipment to draw water from other water bodies such as village wells.

“We cut the tree branches to use as beaters to fight the fire,” added Mr Yunnos. “But those were only for overgrown lalang fires, not for house fires!”

Mr Yunnos showing a fire engine model he bought for $240 at Robinsons two days before the 1972 fire

Mr Yunnos purchased this fire engine model for $240 at Robinsons two days before the 1972 fire. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

Mr Yunnos went on to work in the Central fire station’s control room, where he was first a telephone operator before going on to supervise a rota of 10 men as he did during the MacDonald House bombing.

Back in the day, upon receiving calls, the operators had to jot the details down on a piece of paper, roll it up and send it down a hollow pole. This would produce a sound, alerting firefighters on the ground floor that they were required on scene.

“In the control room besides coordinating with officers handling the fire, I had other work: For example, any firefighters who wanted to take leave, special off-days, we had to record it.”

Promoted as a dangerous trade inspector – a type of enforcement officer, Mr Yunnos’ next brush with a major incident would be in 1972 when he was on scene a day after the Robinsons department store fire.

Nine people perished in the blaze and Mr Yunnos remembers the scene of total destruction.

In a strange twist of fate, he had been at the department store several days earlier to purchase a model of a fire engine for his personal collection.

“The manager recognised me because I was there two days earlier,” he explained. “I told him it was my job to inspect the cause of the fire. 

“The whole floor collapsed because it was made of timber, the lift cage was also made of timber,” he said. “Going down into the basement was not easy, there was no lift, the staircase had burnt down.”

Six years later, Mr Yunnos would be back in the control room, this time in charge of a section or three rotas, mobilising firefighters to deal with the collapse of Hotel New World.

“In the control room we had a headache, where could we get more men?” he recalled.

“We have to call all the off-duty fireman down, recall them. There were so many calls coming in, even the police were shouting at us: ‘You must send the fire engines now! More fire engines!'”

A PASSION FOR THE JOB 

After over four decades of service, Mr Yunnos retired at the age of 60.

He spent several years at home, busying himself with a hobby – collecting memorabilia related to firefighting.

“I collected patches, caps, whatever belongs to the fire service I would collect,” he said. “I started from young, when I stayed in the quarters.

“Every month I’d ask my father if he could spare some of his money, because I wanted to buy (these things). He would bring me across the road and then when we reached there, I would say I wanted this and that. He said: ‘If you want them, next time when you begin work, you buy them.’ 

“So when I started working, I started buying them.”

Yunnos Shariff polishes a nozzle

Yunnos Shariff polishes a nozzle. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

But when the SCDF came calling for volunteers, Mr Yunnos could not resist.

Today, he helps out at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery as a guide. As a volunteer with the Civil Defence auxiliary unit, he now gives tours to walk-in visitors and organised groups.

“They will ask things like: what are the types of fires? For overseas firefighters, it’s different, they want to exchange views, experiences,” Mr Yunnos said. “The best part is that they give us patches, that is the time I collect patches.”

Mr Yunnos is currently the SCDF’s oldest volunteer and performs more than 100 hours of duty per month, far exceeding the minimum 16 hours required. He has also donated much of his memorabilia to the gallery – his photographs, patches, fire engine models and equipment all on display.

“One room at home is full of these (things) and that’s why I decided to contribute to the museum,” he explained nonchalantly.

Minutes after his interview with reporters ended, the fascinating Mr Yunnos was seen perched on a stool, polishing firefighting equipment.

It is a Monday, the day the gallery is usually closed for maintenance, and although he doesn’t need to, the veteran officer insists on donning cotton gloves and quietly goes about his business with no fuss. 

“They wanted to get the contractor to do it, I told them no,” he said. “It can be done by us.”