Inquest reveals coolstore failings


An inquest into an explosion at Icepak Tamahere that killed a senior firefighter and injured several of his colleagues has heard how the plant had ongoing problems – including a major gas leak – just months before the fatal blast.

The inquest into the death of senior firefighter Derek Lovell opened in Hamilton today more than three years after the fatal blast and fire.

In his evidence, Department of Labour health and safety inspector Keith Stewart highlighted a number of deficiencies at the plant including gas detection systems and alarm activations that did not work, reported the NZ Herald.

The inquest heard how the plant’s refrigeration system was installed by Mobile Refrigeration Specialists but it was prone to leaks and needed constant maintenance.

MRS invoiced Icepak to replace more than 200kg of hydrocarbon gas, hychill minus 50, on 15 occasions although neither the Department of Labour, the Waikato District Council nor the Fire Service were aware of its use at the coolstore.

In November 2007 there was a major leak in plant room at the coolstore with 80kg of the gas leaking out.

On the day of the explosion, Mr Stewart said a ruptured pipe leaked the gas into the plant but Icepak’s gas detection and ventilation systems were inadequate for the type of refrigerant used and failed to pick up its presence.

The failure “rendered all other safety systems inoperative”.

He said hycill minus 50, which is 95 per cent propane, is heavier than air and a smoke alarm on the ceiling did not detect it until about four hours after it leaked.

A coroner’s inquest into the death of a firefighter killed in the Tamahere coolstore fire has heard the facility did not have adequate safety measures in place for its refrigeration gas, reported the Waikato Times.

Giving evidence at the inquest into the death of Derek Lovell, held at the High Court in Hamilton, Department of Labour health and safety inspector Keith Stewart said Icepak Coolstore at Tamahere did not meet requirements for the safe use of hydrocarbons in its cooling system.

He said the hydrocarbon hychill -50 was first installed in 2002 before more was added to the plant in 2006.

Mr Stewart said the Tamahere plant did not have either a gas detection system or gas ventilation system in place.

“The failure of a gas detection system rendered all other (safety) systems inoperative.”

An earlier story reported the experience of Tamahere resident Arnold Koppens in April 2008.

Arnold Koppens was only 150 metres away from Icepak’s Tamahere coolstore when it exploded into flames 3 1/2 years ago. He says nothing is likely to be worse than the scenes of April 5, 2008 seared into his memory, the paper reported.

The Tamahere resident was one of the first on the scene, helping some of Mr Lovell’s team, the seven injured firefighters who escaped the inferno.

Mr Koppens was not fazed by the prospect of hearing accounts of the explosion in today’s hearing at the Hamilton District Court, saying nothing could compare to his “very vivid” memories of the blaze.

“We helped drag firemen out of there so we saw it all. Nothing can get any worse than it already was then.”

The week-long inquest will focus on ways of avoiding future deaths in similar circumstances.

The Labour Department has already successfully prosecuted Waikato Coldstorage Ltd (formerly Icepak Coolstores Ltd) and its directors under the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

Koppens was doubtful anything tangible would emerge from Coroner Peter Ryan’s findings.

“Nothing will come out of this which is meaningful. If Icepak had been law-abiding citizens and done things correctly in the first place, it would never have happened. Legislation was in place but it’s difficult to legislate something if someone is going to break it. Unfortunately you can’t prosecute on what a coroner finds unless it’s new, and the police don’t seem interested,” he said.

Tamahere resident Philippa Stevenson will be party to the inquest, allowing her to question those giving evidence.

She hoped the inquest would result in “firm measures” put into law to prevent a similar tragedy happening again.

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