Gas leak picked as fire starter

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A fire service investigation has found that a gas leak caused last weekend’s lethal coolstore explosion, reported the Herald on Sunday as the fire smouldered a week on.

The Herald on Sunday can also reveal the coolstore company was using highly flammable propane to refrigerate goods at the coolstore rather than ammonia, a safer but more expensive option.

Propane is a legal, commonly used gas and Icepak is denying any suggestions that cost-cutting caused the tragedy.

The Fire Service yesterday confirmed it had concluded its investigation into the fatal fire at the dairy coolstore at Tamahere near Hamilton, which killed senior station officer Derek Lovell and left several firefighters seriously injured, one of them critically.

Waikato deputy commander Roy Breeze said sufficient evidence had been gathered to allow investigators to consider “several options” but would not say what those options were and whether they included prosecution.

Sources close to the investigation said a propane gas leak appeared to be to blame but as yet there was no indication of what had ignited the gas. Over the past week the Fire Service has been critical of Icepak over its lack of fire safety precautions.

The fire truck destroyed in the blaze

Adding to concerns is the fact there was no ventilation in the building in the event of a gas leak.

Authorities were alerted by locals five years ago to concerns about the potential for fire at the Icepak coolstore plant – but approved the company’s expansion plans.

The man who founded Icepak Coolstores, Arnold Koppens, said last weekend the tragedy came as no surprise.

Five years ago – well after he’d sold the company – Koppens said he had raised concerns with local authorities over the fire risk at the proposed plant and said it was imperative provisions were made for a “suitable supply of water for firefighting purposes”.

He said when he was running the plant he had switched to ammonia from R22 and R12 gases because it was less volatile.

He said he had considered propane, but the plant was too close to roads and neighbouring properties to consider using such a flammable gas.

“I had no idea they were using propane there. I could see this happening five years ago. Now look at the site.”

Icepak chairman Jan Van Eden did not return calls but company spokesman Wayne Grattan last night defended the plant’s practices, saying its safety systems were modern and fully compliant with standards.

He was reluctant to comment further while the investigation was ongoing, but said Koppens’ “cost-cutting” theories were wrong.

Breeze said with the Fire Service investigation complete, attention would return to their ailing colleagues, especially Merv Neil, 43, who last night remained in a critical condition in Middlemore Hospital with burns to 60 per cent of his body.

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