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The Straits Times
Aug 15, 2023
The family of Mr Darrel Phee, who died last week from acute altitude sickness on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, are seeking answers on the circumstances leading to his death.
The body of the 28-year-old is set to be flown back to Singapore on Wednesday, his aunt Adelyn Phui told reporters at Changi Airport on Tuesday, when fellow mountaineers from the expedition returned home.
Mountaineers from the expedition arriving at Changi Airport on Aug 15. Photo: The Straits Times
Mr Phee’s mother was also at the airport but did not speak to the media.
Mr Phee was a bank executive who enjoyed outdoor activities and travelling. He was also known to be jovial and friendly, said Madam Phui, 51.
Speaking on behalf of his family, Madam Phui, a clerk, said she was “devastated and heartbroken” at her nephew’s death.
Recounting the sequence of events, she said Mr Phee’s parents received a call from an employee of expedition group Adventures Unlimited last Wednesday at 1pm.
They were told their son had collapsed outside a toilet.
The couple booked themselves on the earliest flight out the next day. But they were alerted to his death last Thursday at around 8.10pm, before they boarded their flight to Doha, Qatar, from where they would fly to Kilimanjaro.
Madam Phui, the sister of Mr Phee’s mother, said the family were not aware of the severity of his condition when they were contacted and there had been a lack of communication from Adventures Unlimited.
His parents had initially thought he was just ill and needed help.
After identifying Mr Phee’s body and making repatriation arrangements, they returned home on Sunday.
Madam Phui said the family are seeking more information on what caused Mr Phee’s death.
They are of the view that there are discrepancies between the documents they obtained and the information they received from Adventures Unlimited.
They are going through Mr Phee’s belongings, which have been sent home, to search for clues on his phone and the altitude readings on his altimeter watch, said Madam Phui.
They also wonder if there had been a delay in communicating Mr Phee’s death. Based on a Tanzanian death certificate seen by The Straits Times, Mr Phee died last Wednesday.
A representative for Adventures Unlimited told ST that it consulted Mr Phee’s parents about the media queries it has been getting on the incident.
“They will prefer privacy on the details of this incident and appreciate some space to grieve,” she said. “Kindly allow us to give them the support they need in this difficult time.”
She did not reply to ST’s request for comment on the questions Madam Phui raised.
The expedition group said in a Facebook post last Saturday that Mr Phee died from “asphyxia/Hape”.
Hape, or high-altitude pulmonary edema, happens when excess fluid is produced in the body’s lungs, causing breathlessness or fatigue. It can be fatal.
Madam Phui said Mr Phee lived with his parents and had two younger siblings, aged 24 and 26.
She met her nephew every fortnight, and they kept in touch often via WhatsApp.
Mr Darrel Phee and Madam Adelyn Phui in a family photo taken at a Chinese New Year gathering in 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Adelyn Phui
“As someone who struggled with technology, I often turned to my nephew for guidance. He was always patient with me,” Madam Phui said in a mixture of English and Mandarin.
She recalled how he customised the icons and wallpaper on her phone, which have been a “constant reminder of his kindness and support”.
Madam Phui said her nephew had been on more than five climbing trips, and that it was a pity a box of climbing gear that he had bought recently would be left unopened.
“He was quite excited about earning money and buying things for his parents,” she added.
At 5,895m above sea level, Mount Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest peak. About 30,000 climbers try to reach its summit yearly, with three to 10 fatalities reported each year, based on the Kilimanjaro National Park’s website.
When approached at Changi Airport on Tuesday, mountaineers from the expedition declined to be interviewed and asked ST to contact Adventures Unlimited.