Fire fighting leaders honoured

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Five firefighters who took key leadership roles in fighting the April 2008 Icepak Coolstores fire at Tamahere have been recognised in the New Year’s honours.

Honoured: (anti-clockwise from front left) Owen Kinsella, Roy Breeze, Martin Berryman, Peter Hallett and Gary Talbot

Waikato assistant area commander Roy Breeze, Gary Talbot, Martin Berryman, Owen Kinsella and Peter Hallett have been recognised with a Queen’s Services Medal for their leadership and professionalism in co-ordinating the response and aftermath to the explosion and fire which killed firefighter Derek Lovell and seriously injured seven others.

Breeze was doing his lawns when his pager went off, reported the NZ Herald.

It was Saturday, April 5, 2008 and Mr Breeze turned to see a black column of smoke billowing in the distance about 5km away.

His years of experience told him the situation was bad and moments later fire communications staff told him several of his mates had been seriously injured in a 2000km/h explosion.

“They started giving me quite graphic details of the 111 calls that were coming in and they were horrifying,” he said.

“I could see it was a major and what’s worse was knowing that a whole lot of my guys were seriously injured.”

Mr Breeze, who was to assume command at the incident at the Icepak coolstore in Tamahere, about 5km from Hamilton, was joined by his colleagues Gary Talbot, Martin Berryman, Owen Kinsella and Peter Hallett.

Mr Talbot told the Herald the award was “a bit embarrassing but humbling”.

“There were a lot of people involved in the incident so to be singled out like that is a bit embarrassing,” he said.

Mr Berryman, who organised and led the evacuation of 76 civilians from a nearby building and led efforts in containing environmental pollutants from the incident, also managed the retrieval of important documents from the fire.

He, too, said he was “overwhelmed” by the recognition.

Mr Hallett, a voluntary firefighter, was also recognised for his strong leadership and dedication during the immediate aftermath of the fire.

Mr Kinsella, a 43-year fire services veteran and fire region commander, was the fire region commander for the incident and helped to set up welfare support at Hamilton Fire Station.

Mr Breeze said he would be keen to see some kind of recognition for the 50 or so “silent heroes” who helped during the tragedy, including the firefighters who were injured that day.

Of those, Mr Breeze said Bryan Halford was on light duties and Merv Neil, who was admitted to Middlemore Hospital with burns to over 70 per cent of his body, was still recovering.

Mr Hallett, 49, was in the command area during the fire, and said that from 150 metres away the radiated heat was tremendous, reported the Dominion Post.

“Just fireballs rumbling around in the clouds of black smoke.”

Though it was humbling to receive the honour, the circumstances did dull it slightly, he said. “I would rather the tragedy had not happened in the first place.”

As the local union representative, he was also involved in the aftermath of the fire and said the focus now was on making sure no New Zealand firefighter suffered the same experience.

Mr Kinsella, 63, has been in the service for 43 years, and was the fire region commander during the incident.

“It [the award] does feel unusual, in that it’s the result of a disaster, and one of the biggest crises faced by the Fire Service.”

The teamwork that came through that day, and in the weeks that followed, was what being a firefighter was about, he said.

“The strength of the Fire Service is in the positive nature of the people.”

Mr Hallett has been a firefighter for more than 27 years, and Mr Berryman, Mr Breeze and Mr Talbot have served for 39, 33 and 35 years respectively.

Mr Breeze, 52, was the incident commander, and said the biggest challenge was keeping the Fire Service running as people came to terms with what had happened.

(Photo Waikato Times)

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