Today, like April 5, 2008, was a stunningly beautiful, warm, Waikato day with blue sky overhead and crunchy, autumn leaves underfoot.
Then the neighbourhood blew up, transformed in nanoseconds into a frightening, confusing nightmare of noise, chaos, roaring flames and a huge, black mushroom cloud funnelling high into the sky.
Ten years on, Tamahere School principal Waveney Parker has recalled the school community’s many courageous roles that afternoon, and in the weeks ahead.
“It is ten years today since the tragic explosion that ripped through the Icepak Coolstores across the road from our school,” Parker wrote in her principal’s blog.
When reflecting back and talking with staff we see the changes that have occurred since then. Our staff has grown, but of our full time staff only seven of us were here at the time and remember the huge impacts that the explosion had on our school and community. We look at our children and although a few have siblings that may remember it, only our Year 6 students were even born at the time. Many of you will probably have heard about the fire, but may not have been affected by it. As a significant part of our history I feel we should share this story so that we don’t forget.
Lest We Forget – The life of Senior Station Officer, Derek Lovell was taken away on the 5th April – Pumpkin Night 2008, leaving behind his wife and daughter. Seven other fire fighting colleagues were severely injured that evening with terrible burns requiring years of rehabilitation, ongoing operations and lifelong scars. These brave firefighters were answering what they thought was a routine false alarm fire call out, without any warnings of possible dangerous gas explosions.
Luckily for them the school across the road – Tamahere Model Country School – was holding its annual Pumpkin Night. To begin with, when the fire engines went round the corner one after another everyone thought it was part of the festivities – maybe rides were going to be happening this year. Then the most massive and sickening explosions hit the gala night, the severity of them physically hitting people like a wave of hot air. The first explosion rocked everyone in disbelief, by the second there was a call out for any doctors of nurses present to please come and help. The third saw families rapidly evacuating the area to take their children to safety.
Families were traumatised as huge billowing flames and mushrooming black smoke poured into the night sky. The flames and fire was seen as far away as the Kaimai ranges as it shot high into the air. Many families had seen their fathers or mothers running towards the flames to help the injured and it would not be until hours later that they would be reunited once again. The bravery shown that night by our parents and community members was outstanding and impacted many for years to come.
Late into the night, with flames and black smoke still billowing from the Icepak site our rapidly abandoned Pumpkin Night stalls provided some reprieve for the shocked and tired firefighters as they sustained themselves with anything we could find to give them – decorated pumpkin biscuits, pumpkin muffins and tepid pumpkin soup. A working team was now in operation and many people would be busy for months to come, sorting out the debri and aftermath of this tragedy.
Had it not been for a significant number of Doctors and Nurses including A & E specialists and a Plastic Surgeon, they believe other firefighters would not be alive today. Our medical team – parents travelled back in ambulances helping with the care, as they called their colleagues back to the hospital and explained exactly what was needed. It was described as being like a war zone and many volunteers were parents who had never been exposed to any medical emergencies before, let alone these extreme sights and atrocities. These brave souls would be impacted with endless sleepless nights for years to come.
Our school suffered broken windows and twisted joinery but the full impact of the explosion was not known until it rained over a month later and water started pouring through the administration block roof. The main beam had been shunted out of place by the explosions. The damage ran into the tens of thousands of dollars as the black, greasy, burnt cheese and other burn fallout needed to be cleaned from the grass and grounds, as well as all the buildings. The Ministry of Education and Insurance were great about this. School was closed for over a week and monitoring of the air quality was undertaken. The revolting burnt meat and plastic smells lingered in the air for a long time to come.
Our old swimming pool was sucked dry to provide water to fight the fire and the Fire Department set up a base outside the school to coordinate the aftermath as the fire smouldered for days. The Icepak offices were relocated temporarily to the top of the Tamahere Community Centre (TCC). It took many months before the Icepak site was cleared to the concrete base you see there today. There were to be years of emotion and court cases to follow.
In 2010 there was a special remembrance service held outside the TCC and the stone remembrance plinths you see there today were erected in memory. The Governor General, the Right Honorable Sir Anand Satyanand GNZM, QSO, was there along with dignitaries from the fire service and so many from our community.
Our school made a memorial area outside the administration block where you see three trees planted in boxes with seats around them. Here you will possibly know the seat that sits there with a red fire engine plaque, for us all to see and remember this huge event. At the Li’l Pumpkins Early Learning Centre I am sure you will have noticed their memorial statue of a fireman carved out of an old tree that needed to be taken down at the time.
Since 2008 there have been many Health and Safety improvements made to ensure correct signage is in place and improve firefighter safety when entering unknown buildings while they try to protect others in their daily work. Thank you one and all.
Today our flag will fly at half mast in remembrance of Senior Station Officer – Derek Lovell, and all the brave men and women, firefighters and volunteers who risked their lives to save others and for those who were so badly injured. Many involved have had to fight their own fights since that day, many of our children were impacted for years also.
Lest we forget. Rest in peace Derek.
More on this topic: On Fire archive