Five years ago the Icepak coolstores at Tamahere exploded, killing a fireman, injuring seven others and scarring a community. Philippa Stevenson, a Tamahere resident and journalist, reflects on the tragedy and asks whether it could happen again.
Tamahere Model Country School’s annual Pumpkin Night, held a week ago, was a delight.
Families turned out at the Waikato school’s yearly fundraiser to be awed by giant pumpkins and the creativity of kids (and no doubt parents) who had fashioned quirky artworks from a range of vegetables.
Children rode horses and small, four-wheel motorbikes, jumped and slid on bouncy castles and everyone ate their way through pumpkin soup, pumpkin cookies, burgers and sausages – all paid for with pumpkin money.
A good community supporting the school, the hub around which everything in the area spins.
As one Pumpkin Night follows another it feels like nothing changes.
But some things certainly need to change. Because Pumpkin Night five years ago ended before it began with a black mushroom cloud blasting and boiled into the sky, taking the lives we planned and dispersing them to the four winds.
On that night in 2008, New Zealand etched another name – “the Tamahere fire” – on its roll of tragedy.
Another son, husband, father and friend, fireman Derek Lovell, was added to the list of those who went out to work one day and never came home.
Another small community was scarred as a gas-fuelled explosion ripped through a rural coolstore and burned for seven days.
It would be comforting to think that something had come from the Tamahere fire to prevent such a tragedy from happening again; that, as a result, it would be safer for people to go about their lives.
Possibly it has.
Possibly, the slack regulatory system that effectively allowed a bomb to be primed in an industrial plant, metres from a school and homes, has been tightened.
Possibly the court-ordered fines and the recommendations of the Fire Service, a Labour Department investigation, the Institution of Professional Engineers, the refrigeration industry and, finally, the coroner have been heeded and put into action.
I fear not. I fear the raft of people eager to make change, and the reluctant who were being pressured to do so have faltered or been overwhelmed.
I live across from the Icepak company’s site. I felt the blast, watched the horror unfold, met and wept for some of those most deeply affected and did my best to work for change, with many others, to have something good come from the awfulness.
Over the past five years, I have watched and, in some cases, attended court hearings, investigations, and inquiries. The coroner’s findings were finally delivered last March, one month short of the fourth anniversary of Senior Station Officer Lovell’s death “of injuries sustained in that explosion”.
In the meantime, bigger tragedies struck in quick succession. The first Christchurch earthquake in September 2010, the Pike River mining disaster, taking 29 men, in November that year and the second, fatal Christchurch earthquake in February 2011, costing 185 lives.
As in all things, even fatal tragedies, there is a hierarchy. The Tamahere fire got bumped: lost or forgotten in the places where changes happen; in the mayhem that overwhelmed a small country and an even smaller bureaucracy’s ability to respond, to remedy, to right.
Five years on seems a good time to revisit those affected.
How are the wounded, the bereaved, their families and the medical people who were miraculously on the scene in seconds, rushing from the quickly abandoned Pumpkin Night of 2008?
What’s happened to the company, Icepak, and its engineer Warren Cook; to the blasted piece of landscape, once a series of coolstores that became an inferno, and later a pile of twisted metal and smouldering, stinking lumps of cheese and venison?
What happened to all those well-meaning recommendations?
Barbara Thorburn, Derek Lovell’s mother, is a quietly spoken and frail 86-year-old who has known far too much tragedy. She has borne the deaths of her first husband, Derek’s father, her youngest son and, five years ago this week, her attentive middle son.
Her Whangamata home, which Derek helped build and where she lives with second husband Lionel, was designed with grandchildren in mind. But visits like last year’s by her eldest son and his family, who live in France, are all too rare. So, too, are the times she spends with Derek’s widow, Milli, and foster daughter, Tiffany, now seven years but a tiny three-week-old when first brought to see her grandmother by a doting father.
“That was when I really knew what a fine man he was,” she says. “He was so gentle, so good with her.”
Behind her gentle exterior Thorburn is fighting mad. She wishes for the means to personally hold people to account for her son’s death. “I would have taken a civil case against them if I could,” she says.
Failing that she sought justice from Hamilton Coroner Peter Ryan.
“I wrote to him and asked him to please not let my son’s death be in vain,” she says. “He ignored me.”
The coroner’s careful findings and seven recommendations could not fill the void in a mother’s heart.
Derek’s firefighter mates are disenchanted, too, with the penalties meted out by district court Judge Robert Spear to Icepak and Cook under the Health and Safety in Employment Act.
Icepak and director Wayne Grattan were fined a total of $67,200 and Cook $56,200. Between them they were ordered to pay $270,000 compensation, to be shared between Milli Lovell and the seven injured firemen.
“Those guys got off lightly,” says Denis Wells. Merv Neil agrees when I meet them at Wells home, west of Hamilton.
All seven men are back at work fulltime. Six – Neil, Wells, Cameron Grylls, Adrian Brown, Alvan Walker and David Beanland – are “on the trucks”; Brian Halford has become a volunteer support officer.
The worst injured, big Merv, who had burns to 73% of his body and nearly lost his sight, is described by everyone as remarkable. He’s certainly that.
He returned to work on Christmas day 2010, two and a half years after the blast that brought him a hair’s breadth from death. He was determined to get in a shift before another year rolled around.
In the matter-of-fact way that is typical of his approach to his near death experience and long, painful recovery he describes turning up to his first house fire.
“I saw flames coming out the door and thought “this will be interesting”. Everyone was saying “will you be all right?” and I said “just give me the reel.””
Battered Neil seems more scarred on the outside than the inside. He was a reluctant participant in the counselling provided by the Fire Service. He and Wells reflect more on the $600 hourly fee they believe was paid to the psychoanalyst than their innermost thoughts.
They’ve been asked countless times how they could return to work after such horror.
“It’s our job,” they say as one.
“I’ve been 40 years in the job,” says Wells who lost significant hearing in both ears from the blast. “It’s the first time I was hurt.”
Wells was the first of the badly injured back to work. He fought to return just six months after the disaster, firmly rejecting dreaded “light duties” and undertaking lengthy psychological testing to prove he was mentally fit to go back on the fire trucks.
“They [the Fire Service] didn’t know what to expect. I had to fight my way back.”
He recalls one hitch at early call outs. His burnt hands were still in pressure bandages and as he tried to do up the Velcro fastening on his jacket his hands stuck fast to it.
“By the time I got sorted everyone else was on the truck waiting.”
Five years ago, while Wells and Brown waited inside an Icepak plant room listening to the hissing of leaking gas, Beanland went to get a spanner to tighten the leaking pipe. There were no signs to warn them of the hazards of the highly flammable gas. Few outside the company knew it had been installed into a leaky, unsuitable system in unprecedented quantities.
According to Labour Department investigators the fresh air that came in with the firemen and their movements stirred up the gas that had been pooling in the room for hours. It rose, met an unprotected switchboard and ignited into a blast that felled the men inside and outside the room and was felt for miles around.
Today, the men get ribbed.
Wells says Hamilton fire crews attend gas leaks fairly frequently. “They all yell out “don’t let Wells get the wrench”,” he says.
Now, their biggest worry is that after five years of unstinting support from the Fire Service their medical care has moved to ACC. Neil, for instance, still needs cream for damaged hands that can break out in rashes. He may need more operations in the future to release tightened scar tissue.
They know ACC’s reputation for making life difficult for claimants. But they are confident their bosses will see them right.
They’re happy moving on. Will they mark this year’s anniversary?
“It’s just like a birthday,” says Neil. “We’ll probably have to shout morning tea.”
I’m embarrassed to tell them that after four years of recording every event associated with the tragedy on Tamahere Forum a lack of fresh material forced me to move the dedicated section on the fire.
“I had to move the fire stories into the history section,” I confess.
“That’s it,” says Neil. “It’s history now.”
Milli Lovell, Derek’s widow, has moved, too – from the Waikato to Tauranga at the beginning of the year “for a whole new life”.
“Tiffany’s doing well, I’m doing well. We’re both very happy. We’re still on our own. It sucks but we are making a real fresh start for the new family that we are now – just the two of us.”
Lovell has been a fulltime student, studying for a Bachelor of Education, but is taking off the current university semester to think about changing to a degree in psychology.
Before the fire she was “just a mum”, she says. “Derek and I had planned for me to never work again. That all changed,” she says flatly.
More cheerfully she says their new home is in a nice area. “We feel very settled and are making a real effort to be part of the community and put the horrid past behind us.”
She’s discovered the joys of physical activity. “I’m about to jump on a paddle board,” she says. “I’ve become an exercise groupie in my old age.”
Lovell has joined the growing ranks of stand-up paddle boarders which is, she says, easier than it looks and lots of fun.
Rob Frengley, attended this year’s Pumpkin Night just as, fortuitously, he did five years ago.
The Waikato Hospital clinical director of critical care was one of the Tamahere school parents with the ideal medical credentials to be on the scene of such an emergency. He attended to Derek Lovell a few minutes after the blast and remains saddened by his death.
It’s doubtful some of the others would have survived if not for the immediate and expert care of a host of doctors and nurses who make their homes in Tamahere, close to Waikato Hospital.
It was a unique experience but not especially from a medical point of view, Frengley says. More “a novelty to have an explosion right next to a school fair.”
It brought the community together, he says, and in the first year or two it was very fresh and raw in people’s minds but he believes that now they have moved on.
One thing is outstanding. “We’re now waiting to see what gets built on the Icepak site. I don’t think anything ever will be.”
One coolstore escaped the inferno and remains on the blasted, weedy land, a service lane distant from State Highway 1 on Hamilton’s southern boundary. Passersby get few clues to its dramatic history.
The roadside sign that once proudly bore the Icepak name and ice block logo has been torn away to let the title of a long-gone former occupant of the land, FruitFed Supplies, take any honours. A real estate company’s sign shares the support poles and suggests there are sale hopes but about the only visitors the rubbish-strewn concrete pad gets are lads with grunty cars. The wasteland look is good as a photo backdrop for their precious vehicles.
Rumours circulate occasionally that the coolstore will be shifted to one of Icepak’s other sites, perhaps to Waharoa, also in the Waikato, or possibly to one of its other sites in the lower North Island. It stays stubbornly put.
A rare effort to clean up the site last week raised more eyebrows than hopes. The hopeful said a buyer; the cynical thought attention from the fifth anniversary might be behind the spruce up.
It’s a blight on the landscape but it’s harmless. And Icepak managing director Wayne Grattan vowed never to use the money-saving, environmentally friendly but highly dangerous propane refrigerant (also known as hydrocarbon, natural refrigerant, LPG and HyChill -50) in any coolstore again.
So, can we rest easy in our beds again in a country where coolstores dot town and country, from supermarkets and shopping malls to meat, dairy and fruit warehouse complexes?
“No,” says Robert Mannes president of the Institute of Refrigeration, Heating & Air Conditioning Engineers (IRHACE).
“My biggest fear isn’t that we could have another rogue [engineer]like Warren Cook. I don’t think that will happen in that format again,” he says.
“I think what’s going to happen is hydrocarbons will become more prevalent in industry simply because of climate change and the move to natural refrigerants. And you are going to get a refrigeration engineer going to a site and he’s going to blow himself up.”
Ignorance, growing complexity of gases and plant design, lack of training, regulation and respect for safety – all plague the refrigeration industry by its own admission.
Eighteen months ago, IRHACE’s former president Brian Jackson eloquently described to the coroner an unregulated industry dogged by cowboys who could stick the title refrigeration engineer on a van and go into the installation business.
It was “disgraceful” that there were no standards similar to the Building Act for people installing refrigeration systems and it was worrying that there had been no co-ordinated push for safety, he said.
Five of the coroner’s seven recommendations were directed at IRHACE and its sister organisation, the Climate Control Companies Association.
Both organisations agreed with the coroner that an industry-led registration scheme was required but, says Mannes, “unfortunately, without the backing of government and a regulatory frame work we will not be able to do this.”
He’s met twice with Labour Department officials but progress is slow.
“They’ve really dropped the ball with us at the moment because they’re all focussed on Pike River. We’ve gone back to being poor cousins again.”
That hierarchy again.
Without doubt many people worked very hard in the wake of this shocking tragedy. New measures have been introduced ranging from how new coolstores are designed to the way the Fire Service equips its staff to how it and councils monitor hazardous industry in rural areas.
But so far not enough has changed. A fireman may not die next time. Inevitably someone else will.
Five years on that’s the only certainty we have.