Tamahere – a year on from fatal fire

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It is one year since the explosion at Waikato’s Icepak Coolstore, which killed one firefighter and left seven others badly injured. The scars are far from healed for the firemen and the community – and there are still many unanswered questions, reported Susan Pepperell in the Sunday Star-Times on March 22 in a story headlined Fighting Spirit.

Fireman Merv Neil checks out Tamahere's tribute
Fireman Merv Neil checks out Tamahere's tribute

It hasn’t been such a good year for pumpkins, wrote Pepperell.

Tamahere School principal Waveney Parker tried growing some but her seeds died and she reckons a lot of other people’s seeds haven’t taken either.

The school, on the southern outskirts of Hamilton, thought about canceling its annual pumpkin festival or maybe changing the event’s name – not because of the pumpkin seed issue but because of what happened last year.

But tradition is a powerful motivator, so on Saturday afternoon, in two week’s time, Tamahere pupils will carefully carry their decorated pumpkins to school, where pumpkin soup and pumpkin pie will feed the masses, and there will be rides and stalls and games like dunk the teacher, and one pumpkin will be judged better than all the rest.

On April 5 last year, the Pumpkin Festival fun had barely started when, across the road, the Icepak Coolstore exploded, turning the site into one of New Zealand’s larges fires.

A coolstore disintegrates revealing its contents
A coolstore disintegrates revealing its contents

Eight Hamilton firefighters had arrived at about 4.15pm in response to an activated smoke alarm. At 4.30pm on one of the firefighters sent a chilling radio message: “Transmit second alarm, major explosion.”
A fire truck burnt out in the inferno
A fire truck burnt out in the inferno

All the firefighters were badly injured; one – 48-year-old Derek Lovell, would later die on the operating table in Waikato Hospital with his boss, Hamilton city fire chief Gary Talbot, at his side.

“There were about 20 people there helping him and there wasn’t one that wasn’t crying when he died,” Talbot said last week. “It still upsets me to think of that now”

The pumpkin festival was abandoned as parents – many of them doctors and nurses who live on lifestyle blocks in affluent Tamahere – rushed to help the firefighters. It was, says Parker, an incredible coincidence that the explosion happened at the same time as the festival.

“In lots of ways it was perfect timing. If it hadn’t been then, there wouldn’t have been the medical staff nearby.”

Tamahere people help injured firemen
Tamahere people help injured firemen

Perhaps not so perfect for newlyweds Grant and Leanne Bradley, who were celebrating their wedding at the reception centre over the fence from Icepak. They would go on to lodge an unsuccessful Disputes Tribunal claim for “loss of ambience” amid great public opprobrium.

And perhaps not so perfect for Eunice and Alf Steel, an elderly couple whose home also borders the Icepak site. The spouting on their house melted, joinery buckled and windows shattered. Then the media began traipsing through their lounge and eventually they had to call in the carpet cleaners. Apparently TV3s Jon Campbell had the muddiest shoes.

Eunice, 78, is still a bag of nerves.

“She jumps like billy-o every time there’s a noise,” says her 80-year-old husband. “I can walk into the room and she jumps. Oh gee, she’s jumpy.”

Fire site and school
Fire site and school

Now the first anniversary of the fire looms. For some it seems like it happened a long time ago, while for others it’s like yesterday. Life is moving on but at different speeds for everyone.

Four of the firefighters who bore the brunt of the explosion have yet to return to work. The court case that resulted from the fire is proceeding at an agonizingly slow pace. Implementing the recommendations made in the New Zealand Fire Service Commission’s report into the Tamahere explosion and fire – or incident F128045 – is making some headway but some of the detail appears bogged down in bureaucracy. fire-service-inquiry-report

No date has been set for the inquest into Lovell’s death.

And for the Tamahere community, many still traumatized by the events and aftermath of the explosion, there is an overriding feat that the next “big thing” will be along soon, and the impetus that exists now to address the concerns raised by the community and the commission report, released last September, will become “lost in the wash.”

“I would have given my left arm for Derek Lovell not to have died on my doorstep,” says Philippa Stevenson.

Stevenson, who lives about 200m from the Icepak site, runs Tamahere Forum, a website that keeps the community informed about the latest developments in the Icepak case.

Since the fire, the freelance journalist has educated herself on the technical properties of coolstore refrigerants, learned about the international clout of big business involved in industrial gas production and the environmental issues that surround it, ferreted out reports rnelligan06 (pdf) about the high flammability of the building material used by Icepak, and tackled officials in public and private meetings in an attempt to get some answers.

Stevenson might be articulate, intelligent and used to questioning those in authority, but she has also been deeply affected by the Icepak fire.
Wiping away tears, she tells the Sunday Star-Times the anniversary of the fire is never far from her mind.

“I’m sure it will be quite a difficult day. I’ve grown to suspect there is something elemental about fire and humans. What is that saying? ‘Great servant, terrible master.’ When something kills someone in your backyard, it devastates people’s lives, it changes you quite a lot. We were very traumatized by it.”

At the centre of her distress is a question that nags.

She and partner Leo Koppens were among members of the Tamahere community to oppose Icepak’s last expansion application in 2003. Koppens met the Fire Service safety officer to express his concern about the lack of water and firefighting facilities on site. He was, says Koppens, totally uninterested.

Submissions to Waikato District Council at the time of the resource consent hearing were also ignored, says Stevenson.

“We did oppose it, we did ask questions, but could we have done something different so it didn’t happen?”

Today the Icepak site is a vast concrete expanse with a portable office staffed, the day the Sunday Star-Times visited, by a sole male employee engaged in find-a-word puzzles.

There is also a coolstore still operating there, an issue, Stevenson says, that sends the wrong message. But its days are numbered.

Right on Christmas last year, the district council announced it had reached an agreement with Icepak to abandon its Tamahere site by June 2010. Securing the deal, according to mayor Peter Harris, had been difficult.

Stevenson says she was left in no doubt about Icepak playing hardball and is full of praise for the council which worked hard over several months to get that agreement.

The land is now for sale and set to be zoned “country living”.

The for sale sign in front of the razed coolstores
The for sale sign in front of the razed coolstores

Stevenson is waiting out the months until Icepak leaves with some trepidation. The presence of the remaining coolstore, she and others feel, will always attract people with a commercial focus. While that fitted neatly into the Tamahere of old when horticulture businesses predominated, these days it is a residential neighbourhood.

“Icepak grew and grew but its business was no longer related to the district – it eventually became a coolstore for cheese and still kept growing.”

Meanwhile the Icepak court case resumes this week.

Over the past few months there have been several requests for delays as negotiations have taken place between the Labour Department, bring the prosecution, and the company – ostensibly to get charges laid against Icepak directors dropped.

Three directors, with interim name suppression, face one charge each of breaching health and Safety in Employment regulations. Icepak Coolstores faces three of the same charges, refrigeration company Mobile Refrigeration Specialists faces two, and its director also faces one charge.

Neither the department nor Icepak will comment while the court case is active, but it is understood the Labour Department has not given any ground.

That pleases Stevenson.

“We don’t want some amorphous company charged. We want accountability from the directors.”

Signs protesting Icepak in June 2008
Signs protesting Icepak in June 2008

She and other Tamahere residents will be in court to monitor the case.
Also watching developments closely is John Clark, technical adviser for HyChill – the Australian company which made the gas used by Icepak at Tamahere.

The gas, HyChill -50, is promoted by the company as “the natural organic solution for low temperate refrigeration” that uses u to 20% less power than other refrigerants. It comprises 95% propane and 5% ethane.
Clark originally used a web discussion board to vent his frustration at the Fire Service Commission report. fire-service-inquiry-report

The Fire Service, he wrote, would “come under a lot of scrutiny for their actions on that fateful day.”

“Not surprisingly, they are embarking on a PR campaign to cover their butts leading into the coroner’s investigation … I’m quite confident that there are going to be some very interesting things come out of the coroner’s investigation. Our staff have examined the Fire Service report in detail and it contains a great many errors, omissions and incorrect conclusions, all of which will be borne out in due course of the investigation.”

Speaking from Sydney last week, Clark was slightly more circumspect, but is still concerned about the report.

“There are omissions in the document we believe need to be clarified. Some of the facts presented leave us scratching our heads.”

He would not be specific but was critical of the “lack of arm’s length assessment”, meaning it was an internal inquiry subject to a number of natural biases.

Clark is adamant there were mistakes made on all sides by a number of organizations.

“There has to have been. Because of the standard of the refrigerants used you really have to have multiple points of failure and non-compliance for such a hazard to develop.”

But HyChill -50 is highly volatile and when it leaked, it accumulated and spread at floor level, eventually reaching an unprotected switch – the most likely ignition point. dol-hydrocarbon-refrigerant-fact-sheet

Icepak had previously used ammonia and hydroflourocarbon-based refrigerant which are not as flammable.

The Fire Service does acknowledge that risk assessment of the coolstore “slipped though the cracks”.

Icepak’s location at Tamahere meant it was just outside the jurisdiction of the Hamilton Fire Service. Several pieces of legislation governed its operation but it was seemingly unclear which body had ultimate responsibility.

Waikato area fire commander Roy Breeze says his staff did carry out risk management in rural areas “but it’s not as intense as it should have been.”

Tellingly, plans by the Fire Service to bill the Waikato District Council for the estimated $2.2 million cost of the fire have been abandoned.

Says Breeze: “What everyone has got to remember is that all buildings come with a different fire risk, but if you fill it up with 400kg of gas, it really doesn’t matter what kind of building it is, it’s going to make a big bang.”

The report addresses how the Icepak building slipped through the cracks. Recommendations 4, 5 and 6 relate to the need to analyse rural and urban fire legislation and the need to promote inter-agency sharing of information about buildings “using nationally consistent formats”, as well as the need to identify buildings that are not being captured in operational plans.

Last month a 16-page report updated progress on implementing the recommendations was released. Fire Service recommendations progress report

Of the 11 recommendations, two are considered closed, seven are 50-90% complete, one is 25% complete and one is just 10% complete. A final completion date is set for June 30.

It should be noted, however, that the report assesses progress from the Fire Service’s perspective; legislative changes and action required by other agencies and government departments are a whole other area.

“It is our worry,” says Stevenson, “that while at the moment there seems to be a will to address the various gaps and omissions, that long-term it won’t happen.”

Where she and Talbot share common ground is their response to Icepak’s failure to have any sign at its entrance warning of the existence of hazardous material.

“I will always feel that a $50 sign on the gate, a hazard warning of some sort, would have changed things,” says Talbot.

“A company that can’t even put hazard notices on the door so everybody knows there’s something to be cautious about is not a company to be trusted,” says Stevenson.

On April 5, Hamilton firefighters will mark the first anniversary of the Tamahere fire with a barbecue, a few drinks and the presentation of three plaques – one to the Tamahere community [4pm, April 4 at Pumpkin Festival], one to hospital staff and the other in memory of Derek Lovell to go up at the Angelsea St station.

The commemoration is being kept deliberately low-key. The injured firefighters are being staunchly protected from the media as the anniversary approaches. There will be a few firefighters at the pumpkin festival – some have even grown their own for the day – and the school hopes to incorporate some kinds of firefighting game into the festivities for posterity.

Talbot is now commander of the newly created eastern area and is moving to Thames.

Breeze has several new responsibilities and the challenges of the past year are gradually being replaced with new ones.

The firefighters still off work are keen to get back. Adrian Brown is getting close and he will be followed by Brian Halford and David Beanland. Merv Neil, who suffered the worst injuries of the survivors, will take longer. But he is stubborn and determined. Stubborn enough to survive when others with less severe injuries in Middlemore Hospital’ burns unit at the same time did not.

Stevenson will be thinking of him, his fellow firefighters and their families on the anniversary and hoping like hell their employers haven’t swept anything under the carpet.

Fireman dwarfed by raging inferno
Fireman dwarfed by raging inferno

Talk that perhaps Fire Service procedure wasn’t as robust as it could have been that day doesn’t interest her.

“It is not in our interests to apportion any blame for what the firefighters did on the day. I just hope that internally they did something if something needed to be done. They suffered such a huge blow, no one wants them to suffer any more. They all paid with their lives in one way or another.”

Thanks to Susan Pepperell and the Sunday Star-Times for the above story.

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