Suffering and superheroes: fire anniversary


The 10th anniversary of the fatal Icepak Tamahere fire has prompted another publication to look back a decade to April 5, 2008.

Firefighter Merv Neil, left, being dowsed with water by a helper in 2008 while another firefighter, centre, is helped to safety

Raewyn Koppens describes the day she thought she’d died as an experience coloured with suffering and superheroes, reports the Waikato Times.

The light of a warm Saturday afternoon turned to darkness, and through a smokey haze, figures began to appear.

She saw men lying prone on the ground and a twisting sliver of fire reaching toward the sky.

Moments earlier, a thunderous crack had shaken her Tamahere home, shifting the house on its foundations.

The loud bang initially left Koppens unable to stand.

“It was such a thump that my legs wouldn’t stop shaking,” she says.

“It was a single, loud crack, like a huge gun going off, and then there was dead silence for a long time.”

Koppens eventually made her way down her driveway and across the road to the nearby Icepak Coolstores site.

“It was at that moment that I remember thinking I must have died, or ended up in a parallel universe,” she recalls.

“I was surrounded by all this chaos and then, out of this dark mist, Wonder Woman appeared and she started caring for all these injured men.”

But Koppens wasn’t dead.

Or dreaming.

She was witnessing the initial aftermath of the fatal Tamahere coolstore explosion on April 5, 2008.

The tragedy claimed the life of Hamilton Senior Station Officer Derek Lovell and seriously injured seven of his colleagues.

At about 4pm that day, two four-person crews – Hamilton 411 led by Dennis Wells and Hamilton 412 under the command of Lovell – responded to a call to a monitored smoke alarm at the coolstores site on the outskirts of Hamilton.

The men arrived to find no sign of fire and were cleared to enter the buildings.

Three firefighters entered and saw what appeared to be either vapour, smoke or leaking refrigerant.

Soon after, there was an explosion as 400 kilograms of the highly flammable refrigerant Hychill Minus 50 ignited.

There were no warning signs alerting firefighters to the use of hydrocarbons at the site.

Some of the first on the scene to help the injured were parents – many wearing fancy dress – who had been attending the annual pumpkin growing festival at Tamahere Model School.

Among the helpers were doctors, nurses and a St John paramedic.

Raewyn’s husband Arnold Koppens and his brother Leo were at their mother’s property about 80 metres down the road from the coolstores when it exploded.

Along with brother-in-law Paul Corboy, the brothers were among the first on the scene after the explosion.

“I vividly remember the first bang and seeing a huge hunk of metal fly through the air and land in a nearby paddock,” Arnold Koppens says.

“When we got to the site I saw a firefighter trying to put out a fire out on the windscreen of his fire engine.

“There were two trucks but he was the only firefighter we could see initially.”

The names of Lovell and his injured colleagues – Cameron Grylls, Dennis Wells, Merv Neil, David Beanland, Adrian Brown, Alvan Walker and Brian Halford – would later be recalled over and over again as news reports and investigations tried to make sense of that chaotic day.

Arnold Koppens, like his wife Raewyn, remembers the eerie silence that followed the initial bang before further explosions rocked the site.

The fire, which started as a tall wispy flame, quickly grew into an inferno.

Weeks after the blaze was extinguished, Raewyn and Arnold Koppens would hear sporadic popping sounds coming from in and around the coolstore site.

“We discovered it was these cans of dairy whip that just kept exploding,” Arnold says.

The coolstore fire also left their Tamahere house covered in cheese.

“Our insurance company was fantastic,” Arnold says, “but I remember they had to ring up an expert in the United States because no one could figure out how to get all this cheese off our house and roof.”

Of the surviving firefighters, Neil was the worst injured, suffering burns to 71 per cent of his body.

He spent 10 weeks in a coma in Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital burns unit and two weeks in isolation before being moved to Waikato Hospital.

More on this topic: Icepak fire 10 years on

Neil’s skin mended, thanks to compression garments he wore for 18 months, but the shockwave from the explosion permanently damaged his eyesight.

Less than a week out from the 10-year anniversary of the coolstore fire, he has no plans to commemorate the day.

“I don’t get hung up on it, but I remember everything about the day,” Neil says.

Certain details stick in his mind.

He remembers the cheese inside the coolstores flowing out of the walls like liquid gold.

“I think of Derek too. When they told me Derek had passed away, that wasn’t flash.”

Derek Lovell’s daughter Tiffany holds aloft a photo of her late father at a ceremony in 2010

Twenty months after the devastating blaze, the tragedy has its sequel in the Hamilton District Court.

Icepak Coolstores pleaded guilty to three charges of breaching health and safety employment regulations and was ordered to pay $37,200 in fines and $95,000 reparation.

Its managing director Wayne Grattan was fined $30,000 after pleading guilty to one of the same charges.

The heaviest fine was handed down to Mobile Refrigeration Specialists, the Tauranga-based company contracted by Icepak to design, install and monitor the propane-based refrigeration system at the site.

It was fined $56,200 and ordered to pay $175,000 reparation after pleading guilty to two charges of breaching health and safety employment regulations.

In court, Labour Department prosecutors described the Tamahere coolstore as a bomb waiting to explode.

After the fatal blaze, Icepak Coolstores changed its name to Waikato Coldstorage Ltd.

Grattan sold his interest in the parent company Icepak Group Ltd about 18 months ago but remains involved in the coolstore industry.

He says the Tamahere blaze had a profound impact on many lives, including his own.

He’s confident such a tragedy could not be repeated.

“You never say never but certainly now the processes around how we go about things and the operation of sites is vastly different to what it was then,” Grattan says.

On the day of the Tamahere fire, Icepak staff failed to act on two opportunities to warn firefighters that a highly flammable substance was being used at the site.

Labour Department investigators also discovered the system installed at Icepak was prone to leaks, with Mobile Refrigeration Specialists billing Icepak 15 times to service gas leaks leading up to the 2008 explosion.

The large coolstore operation was always an uneasy fit with bucolic Tamahere.

Residents argued if a major fire broke out there, fire engines would struggle to access the site.

They also pointed to the lack of firefighting facilities and water near the property.

Grattan says he and others had accepted responsibility for the blaze.

“I certainly don’t forget about what happened but there’s nothing more to revisit, without sounding unkind about it,” he says.

“I accepted responsibility for what happened back at the time and everybody is aware of what happened and why, and the people that got injured and the fact that Derek got killed.

“Without being callous about it, it [the anniversary] is another year. It could be eight years, nine years or 11 years.”

But there is little doubt the Tamahere blaze left a lasting mark on the men and women caught up in the fight to control the inferno.

Waikato Fire Area Commander Roy Breeze has given more than 100 talks on the coolstore explosion, detailing the multitude of factors that contributed to the disaster.

The fire service is considering holding a shared breakfast to mark the event’s 10-year anniversary, as they have done in past years.

Despite the passage of time, Breeze is determined the lessons of Tamahere not be forgotten, or ignored.

“As long as I’m around, no one will be allowed to forgot. By giving these talks and explaining what happened, my hope is to reduce the chances of something similar ever happening elsewhere.

“Derek was a top-of-the-line senior station officer and, out of respect to him, we have to learn from this tragedy.”

In many ways, the Tamahere tragedy was not a single incident, Breeze says, but an ongoing event.

For many, achieving a sense of normality after the fire was difficult and prolonged.

For some firefighters, it took years.

Breeze is measured when asked if another coolstore explosion could happen, saying the risk around the frequency and consequences of an incident happening lies with the installers, maintainers and owners following the safety regulations that are in place.

That said, there is a potential for explosion wherever flammable gas is used.

“Every call we go to is someone’s mistake. We exist because people make mistakes and we have the big equipment and the training to be ready to manage it, and we do.

“At Tamahere we walked into a situation that we didn’t know existed, so it’s pretty hard to plan for that, but you have to go up another level and work out how to react if that happened again.”

Tamahere Community Committee chairman Dallas Fisher says the coolstore fire was a traumatic event which touched many families.

Those who lived near the site were especially impacted.

Fisher doesn’t know of any formal plans to commemorate the event a decade on, and suspects some residents want to put the tragedy behind them.

“The community has grown a lot over the years. I’ve lived here now for nearly 24 years and the community has never been more vibrant,” Fisher says.

“I think the community has moved on massively while still remembering what happened because it’s important we don’t forget.”

Grattan purchased the former coolstore site in 2016 for $865,000.

He wants to put a residential subdivision on the site but has had his plans rejected by Waikato District Council planners.

He’s appealed the decision and is gearing up for a mediation process.

Huge slabs of concrete remain on the site. The property itself is littered with makeshift skateboard ramps fashioned by local children.

Parts of one concrete wall is covered in graffiti, while empty alcohol cans lie abandoned in the overgrown vegetation.

Grattan says he unhappy with the current state of the site.

“I’m keen to have the subdivision completed and I guess that will be another milestone. Unfortunately I’m a little bit hamstrung while the mediation with the council is underway.”

He accepts there are some in the community who want to see the back of him.

“There are those who have recognised what happened, acknowledge responsibility was accepted, and have moved on. But there are others who haven’t, and they have to deal with that.”

Leo Koppens says the Tamahere community can’t have closure until the former coolstore site is cleaned up and subdivided according to council rules.

In an ironic twist, he and brother Arnold ended up being unofficial caretakers of the site for a time, mowing and spraying weeds.

When boy racers took to doing burnouts on one of the concrete pads, Arnold shifted a large tree stub onto the site, blocking their access.

On rainy days, the smell of rank cheese still emanates from the site, Arnold says.

For Raewyn Koppens, the lack of a personal apology from the coolstores owners still frustrates.

“Not once did anyone walk across the road and say we’re sorry for wrecking your trees and your garden. Even now, we sometimes see one of the firefighters stop by and visit the site. He just stands there. He’s such a forlorn figure.”

More on this topic: On Fire archive

Like what we do? Support us in our mission to keep Tamahere informed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *