In the second major feature story marking the first anniversary of the fatal Icepak Tamahere fire, the firefighters injured on that April day told Tracey Cooper of the Waikato Times about the events that changed their lives.
The blaze killed firefighter Derek Lovell and left some of his colleagues critically injured.
Whatever you do, don’t call them heroes, Cooper wrote.
“We’re not bloody heroes,” Merv Neil says with genuine passion in his voice.
“Those doctors and nurses and the people who came to help, they’re the real heroes of this.”
Dennis Wells agrees. “At the end of the day, it’s our job.
“I’ve been 34 years on this job and apart from the odd little scratch, I’ve never been hurt. The odds are reasonably good that at some stage you’ll get a burn or something.
“Okay, it’s a little bit bigger than a normal burn.”
Talk about an understatement.
Wells was the second after Cameron Grylls of the firefighters injured in last year’s Tamahere Icepak blaze to return to work, but his hands still show the scars from the fire and it is just weeks since he was able to remove the compression gloves that help keep scarring to a minimum.
“I never took it off,” he says of the gloves, showing the angry red marks on his hands that without the gloves would have turned into ugly scar ridges.
“If I hadn’t have done it, it would have been all wrinkled up.
“I’m the least damaged probably.”
Unlike Neil, who faces years of rehabilitation before he can even contemplate a return to the job he loves. “My biggest concern is my eye, I lost some sight in it but they think it might come back,” he says.
Senior Station Officer Derek Lovell was killed in the horrific fire that day.
Of the seven injured firefighters, Wells who spent 12 days in hospital Grylls and Alvan Walker have returned to the front-line while Neil, David Beanland, Adrian Brown and Brian Halford continue their recovery.
Lovell’s widow Milli has also battled to get her life back on track.
She’s quit her job at the Mountain Safety Council and this week received notice she will get charitable trust status for a young hunters programme she set up in Lovell’s name.
Lovell was a keen hunter and helped promote the sport to young people who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance.
The Derek Lovell Young Hunter Trust aims to “continue the mentoring of young people that Derek was passionate about,” she says.
“It seeks to foster and promote pride, confidence and leadership to youth who lack opportunities, such as sole parent families and those with the interest but no available and experienced role model.”
She says news of the charitable status being approved is “a very timely conclusion as we near the anniversary of Derek’s death”.
Wells and Neil mates from way back enjoyed a beer with their colleagues on Tuesday after a gruelling two-hour debrief of last year’s fire followed by the moving dedication of a plaque to Lovell, who died in Waikato Hospital hours after the blaze started.
The fire that burned its way into the national consciousness on Saturday, April 5, last year not only claimed Lovell’s life but left the injured firefighters and their families with a battle to get their lives back together.
At Tuesday’s ceremony the families displayed that comfortable familiarity that only comes from sharing the most intense personal experiences.
Waikato area commander Roy Breeze isn’t overstating the impact of the Tamahere Icepak fire when he says it would be etched in minds the same way as the 1947 Ballantynes fire in Christchurch that killed 41 people and the 1984 ICI fire in Auckland which left 60 firefighters injured and one dead.
Two four-person crews Hamilton 411 under the command of Wells and Hamilton 412 with Lovell in charge initially responded to a routine call to a monitored smoke alarm at Icepak’s Tamahere coolstore about 4pm.
To get to the scene, they had to drive past the busy Tamahere Model School, where families were gathering on the warm Saturday afternoon many in fancy dress for the school’s annual pumpkin growing festival.
The festival would prove a lifesaver.
With the affluent area home to many doctors and nurses, having expert medical help so close by was “of great significance” according to a Fire Service report released in September.
Among the first people on the scene were a facial injury specialist, an intensive care doctor, an anaesthetist and a trained St John paramedic.
When the firefighters first arrived at the coolstore alongside State Highway 1, there was no sign of fire and they were cleared to enter the buildings. Inside, they saw what they later described as either smoke, vapour or leaking refrigerant. Whatever it was, it had no aroma. Three firefighters entered the building and two minutes later there was a massive explosion as something, probably electrical, ignited the 400 kilograms of the highly flammable refrigerant Hychill -50 consisting of 95 per cent propane and 5 per cent ethane which was being used in the plant.
The explosion blew the roof off part of the 15 metre by 50m coolstore, destroyed their fire truck and wreaked havoc on their lives.
Some of the injured firefighters still don’t remember what happened.
“My last memory is driving down State Highway 1, turning to the guys in the back of the truck and saying `hey, has anyone been here before’,” Wells says. “I was pretty lucky because I’ve got no memory of what happened. Something clouted me on the chin. Something hit me and knocked me out.”
For Beanland, “there are about two hours where I’ve got no memory”.
“I remember standing at the truck getting the toolbox out then next thing there’s a surgeon putting staples in my head. In between times I don’t know what happened. There’s been no flashbacks or anything like that.”
What there has been are 14 operations so far, with another three or four to go.
Beanland’s face and hands bore the brunt of the explosion and he says it will “probably be another 12 months before they’ve finished tutuing with stuff”.
The most disfigured of the firefighters, Beanland says it took some time to come to terms with his injuries.
“I’ve got a whole new appreciation for people who actually have disabilities that they can’t get operated on and get rid of. I became very self conscious about going out in public,” he says.
It never stopped him though. “You know people are going to stare. You don’t mind kids doing it because kids are pretty honest, they’ll ask you what’s wrong and that sort of thing. Some of the adults stare a bit much. It has been pretty hard to get used to it.”
He’s keen to get back to work, hopefully next month, and says being off work from the job he loves has been the hardest part. “I enjoy the job but I’m a bit of a workaholic so it was pretty hard to go from having two jobs to having no jobs,” says Beanland, who also works as a contract builder with Ideal Garages.
He’s bought a boat to occupy himself and keeps busy at home while he recuperates.
“The first couple of months was very much trying to get disciplined and settled down and just let things develop as they developed. You have your good days and you have your bad days. You might go for a month with good days then you’ll have a couple of bad days. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it,” he says.
For Merv Neil, every day’s a good day because he’s alive. “I’m lucky to be able to live another life,” he says.
Neil was the worst injured of the firefighters and spent weeks in a coma in Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital burns unit, with many not expecting him to survive, including Wells, who says his mate looked “nearly dead” when he first visited him. Neil says he had no concept of how long he had been in a coma.
“When I came out of the coma, they told me it hadn’t happened yesterday, it was weeks ago. Then they told me Derek had died, then they told me my daughter was pregnant. I missed my son’s birthday, my birthday, an unveiling …”
Neil slowly recovered and was moved from Middlemore to Waikato Hospital in June and was finally discharged in September.
“Eighty-something days in Auckland, a hundred and something in Waikato,” he says.
He suffered burns to 71 per cent of his body and will be wearing protective compression garments that cover his entire body for at least the next two years. “I’m in my garments, basically 23 hours a day. I sleep in them.”
The compression garments keep pressure on his still developing skin, ensuring it doesn’t form into rough scar tissue. They are similar to longjohns and are made to measure they cost about $2500 each.
Along with wearing the garments, he also has to cover his body in moisturiser “right down to the jocks” three times each day. “Three times a day, seven days a week, 21 times a week.”
“Today, I showered at home before I went up to the hydrotherapy. I did my stuff there, went and had my shower and then we did the moisturising. Under normal circumstances I would have it done again about 4pm and then again about 9- 9.30pm.”
Neil is now being asked to talk to other burns patients about his experience, something he says is “okay”.
“The people think that they’ve been hard done by, that they’re the only people that have ever been burnt in the world. At the time, that’s what they’re thinking. I try and pick them up and say `hey, look, just do what they tell you’. Don’t think `this is pissing me off’. I talk them through it and tell them that whatever you do, don’t muck around, wear your garments, you’re going to hate them and you’re going to feel like crap. But if you want to get back to normal, which most people do, you’ve just got to do it.”
Wells says he’s amazed at Neil’s progress, “especially when you consider what his initial prognosis was” but equally amazed at the support they’ve received from the community.
“Unbelievable. We just got too much support really. To me, the day of the funeral when I saw the whole of Hamilton. I was blown away I couldn’t believe it, I still can’t believe it today.”
Wells says his priorities have changed since the fire but he has had no problems being back at work.
It’s his daughter Katrina, who formerly worked at the fire station, who had been hit most, he says.
“If we have a big call now she’s ringing to see. She says `were you on that call dad, are you all right?”
Wells is almost on a call just after Tuesday’s ceremony but has already handed over to Grylls, who excuses himself when the station bells start ringing. He digs his pager out of his pocket and glances at the screen.
“I’ve got to go somewhere,” the spiky-haired young firefighter says.
And in an instant, he’s off on board one of three Hamilton appliances called to a gas leak in Melville.
Contractors have ruptured a domestic gas line and after isolating the gas and waiting for the gas company to arrive, they pack up and head back to the station.
Just another day at the office but Grylls who was back at work a month after the fire says as the anniversary approaches, it gets harder to cope.
“It has been a tough year and, to be honest with you, it’s getting harder as we go along. Coming up to the anniversary and the court stuff going on now as well with the Department of Labour. It’s getting a bit hard again at the moment, but once we get through it … I’ll be pleased once this one’s over.”
The events of that day a year ago have also had a profound affect on Philippa Stevenson, who, with partner Leo Koppens, lives just 200m from the Icepak site.
The site is for sale and although there’s little left but huge slabs of concrete pad, until June next year Icepak continues to use one coolstore.
“It remains an open wound really. It’s a constant reminder every time you go driving past which I do pretty much every day. There’s a lot of things to happen before we can move on.”
Stevenson, a freelance journalist, has been heavily involved ever since, running Tamahere Forum, a website that keeps the community informed about the latest developments. There’s not much she doesn’t know about what happened and why. She says it’s her way of dealing with guilt she feels about what happened.
While Koppens and others vocally opposed Icepak’s expansion on the site in 2003 Stevenson was “in the background”. Koppens was worried about the lack of water and firefighting facilities if something went wrong. He got nowhere with the authorities.
“It bothers me I wasn’t more active then. I just felt I had to step up now and keep people informed.”
Stevenson and others in the community will be following the case brought against Icepak’s directors by the Labour Department which continues this month.
Three directors face one charge each of breaching health and safety in employment regulations.
Wayne Grattan, Iain Slight and Jan Van Eden, have pleaded not guilty. Icepak Coolstores faces three of the same charges and refrigeration company Mobile Refrigeration Specialists has also pleaded not guilty to two charges. Director Warren Cook pleaded not guilty to one charge.
A Fire Service report on the fire in September cleared firefighters of any blame. It stopped short of apportioning any direct blame anywhere but attributed the tragedy to “systematic defects” in the regulatory environment.
The report recommended a number of steps; they included ensuring highly flammable gases have an odour, putting signs up to show what gas is being used on such sites and better familiarisation of the site by firefighters.
It’s unclear at this stage what culpability Icepak has. Waikato District Council’s resource consent process comes under major scrutiny with suggestions it was too lax.
But the council has certainly acted since the tragedy in brokering a deal with Icepak to get it to leave the site.
It has emerged that the Fire Service knew nothing of Icepak’s use of propane as its refrigerant. It was less aware of the Icepak site than ideally it could have been, because the site was technically outside the Fire Service’s urban territory. Lines of responsibility were blurred.
Internal Affairs Minister Richard Worth suggested last month the Tamahere fire has prompted a reorganisation of the way firefighting is done.
He proposed giving the responsibility for all building fires to the NZ Fire Service and having rural fire authorities responsible only for forest and vegetation fires.
Another upshot of the fire is the work going into coolstore design. For most of this year the Institute of Professional Engineers has been looking at this issue. In future, coolstores could be built around a new design guide.
A coroner’s inquest into Lovell’s death is still to be held.
At Tamahere Model School this week preparations were under way for the pumpkin festival, which was to take place today. As always, children were growing their pumpkins at home in preparation for bringing them in to be displayed in the hall on Friday.
In the lobby outside principal Waveney Parker’s office is parked a bike, the prize in the Pumpkin Night Bike Raffle and several hampers for the Pumpkin Night Gourmet Grocery Raffle.
Parker says the community wondered whether to continue with the event. “But I guess time heals and all the happy memories, which is what the pumpkin festival is all about, is what we want to go back to.”
At the start of today’s festivities there was to be a short service to remember Lovell. A memorial seat adorned with a portrayal of a fireman’s ladder will be set up in a courtyard outside the school office and trees planted around it.
Otherwise the emphasis of the day will be on fun and firefighters will be part of the activities.
Parker says there’s still a bit of anxiety around fire for some children. It can be seen in their response to fire alarms and loud noises.
She’s looking forward to firemen being at the festival in a different context. “We want the Fire Service here as a happy thing again with firemen enjoying themselves with their families.”
(additional reporting by Geoff Taylor)