Singaporeans in US boat fire tragedy: Family gives DNA samples to identify victim

The family of researcher Sunil Singh Sandhu, 46, who is believed to have died in a fire on a recreational scuba diving vessel in the United States, has done DNA cheek swabs at the US Embassy in Singapore to help with the identification of his body.

Speaking to The Sunday Times yesterday, Dr Sunil’s eldest sister Geetajeet Kaur Sandhu, 48, said she and her father did the swabs last Friday afternoon. The swabs have since been dispatched to the US, and test results could come as early as today, she added.

“They told us that the coroners in the US are working overtime over the weekend for this, so we hope we will be able to get the results on Sunday, which would be Saturday in the US,” said Mr Ramesh Singh, 48. He is married to Ms Geetajeet.

Dr Sunil may be one of two Singaporean victims in the fire that broke out on a vessel anchored off Santa Cruz Island near the southern California coast last Monday.

His name was listed on the manifest of the boat, the Conception.

The other Singaporean, Ms Tan Wei, a 26-year-old postgraduate student from the University of California, Berkeley, has been identified by the local authorities as among the 34 people who perished.

The local authorities believe they may have died of smoke inhalation.

Dr Sunil, who had been living in the US for 24 years and returning to Singapore two or three times a year, had planned to come home on Nov 22, said Mr Ramesh.

The family was intending to travel to Britain in December to celebrate Christmas with Dr Sunil’s second sister. They had also planned to catch a Liverpool match together, as Dr Sunil was a fan of the English football club.

The couple said Dr Sunil, who was not married, was “a gem of a person” who always put others first. The former St Andrew’s Junior College (SAJC) student would call home daily, added Ms Geetajeet.

“My mum would always prepare a cup of tea, sit on her bed and wait for his call,” she said, adding that her parents are distraught over the incident.

Dr Sunil’s achievements had made his 77-year-old father very proud, Mr Ramesh added.

According to a biography written by Dr Sunil’s close friends in the US after the incident, he spoke French, Japanese, Russian, Mandarin, Malay and English.

Dr Sunil was granted two patents based on his research, and had 17 published research articles in areas such as photonics, nanotechnology and solar energy.

After SAJC, he studied at the Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee, and completed his master’s degree and postgraduate doctoral degree at Stanford University, where he also worked as a postdoctoral research scientist.

Dr Sunil, who had been living in the United States for 24 years and returning to Singapore two to three times a year, had planned to come home on Nov 22, said Mr Ramesh.

He eventually became a senior scientist in silicon photonics at start-up PointCloud Inc.

“While the age of renaissance men may be long gone, Sunil was a recent living embodiment of that spirit,” read the brief biography, which has been circulating on WhatsApp among family and friends.

Ms Geetajeet said the family hopes Dr Sunil can be identified as soon as possible.