Tamahere resident Russell Walsh remembers vividly an injured and dazed firefighter pleading with those at a coolstore blaze to “move away, you’re too close”.
That injured Hamilton firefighter was Merv Neil, who was oblivious to the horrific injury – burns to 70 per cent of his body – he had just suffered after the Icepak coolstore exploded at Tamahere on April 5, 2008.
Mr Walsh was one of many members of the public who were at Tamahere that day; the same day Tamahere Model Country School was holding its annual pumpkin gala night and the same day as a wedding held at the nearby Gails of Tamahere.
Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand and NZ Fire Service commissioner Dame Margaret Bazley led a special community commemoration at Tamahere on Wednesday for the people who ran to the firefighters’ rescue, dragged them away from the fire and treated their injuries, reported the Waikato Times.
Senior Station Officer Derek Lovell lost the battle with his injuries and died several hours later in Waikato Hospital. His widow, Milli, and daughter, Tiffany, together with his parents, were at the ceremony.
Sir Anand unveiled a commemorative seat, plaque and tree – which flowers in April – in honour of their courage.
Memories of the day remain etched in Mr Walsh’s mind. He vividly remembers Mr Neil “walking around terribly burnt just going `you’re too close, move away, you’re too close move away’ … and he was right.”
Mr Neil remembered that too and simply said: “well they were (too close)”.
Sir Anand said in most circumstances people would run from an explosion and seek safety, but not at Tamahere where their actions saved at least four lives.
“If it was not for the actions of many people the human toll from the tragedy would have been much higher … the people of Tamahere didn’t look away or flee. The combined courage of many brought aid and comfort at their time of greatest need.”
Internal Affairs Minister Nathan Guy was amazed the rescuers managed to block out the carnage and put their lives at risk to help.
“The fact so many of Red Watch have returned to work is perhaps the best tribute to all of you.
“Firefighters are quite rightly seen as guardians of their community, but in this case here it was the community that saved the firefighters.”
All seven injured were now back at work.
Hamilton Station Officer Dennis Wells, who was injured in the explosion, said the public’s actions were “just unbelievable”.
“We were just so lucky … they’ve saved some of our lives, perhaps all of our lives, how can you thank them?
“And to look around and we’re all here, that’s pretty darn good and I think it’s just because of them, ” Mr Wells said.
(Photo: Mark Taylor, Waikato Times)