A night to remember.

The strident clanging of the fire bell knocked Charley instantly from sleep. Automatically he sprang up and slipped on his trousers and shoes. As he hurried down the stairs to the engine bay he glanced at his watch, 0400 hours on a cold Wellington winter’s morning, the worst possible time to get a serious fire call.

Charley was only vaguely aware of the scene around him as men in singlets, trousers and socks ran silently to their machines, one yawning, another glancing bleary-eyed at his watch, another brushing back a mop of unruly hair from his eyes.

As Charley climbed into the driving seat of the fire engine he glanced at the piece of paper handed to me by the Station Officer in charge of the machine, “House fire number 7 Oriental Terrace”. He started the engine and pulled out into the night with sirens blaring and lights flashing, adrenaline flowing and excitement rising.

At that time of the morning, there was no traffic and the fire engine was able to speed unhindered along Oriental Parade. All the time Charley was trying to picture in his mind where Oriental Terrace was and as he came alive to the excitement of the drive it all fell into place. Along Oriental Parade for a mile or so with the sea on the left and the dark silent houses of Mount Victoria climbing steeply up out of sight on the right, then a sudden sharp turn, reversing their direction and up a short steep dead-end street with number 7 on the right at the very top.

“Hang on lads,” he called, as the engine prepared to take the corner while the crew in the back were struggling to put on heavy breathing apparatus sets, gritted their teeth as they took the almost 90-degree turn. As they straightened up into Oriental Terrace number 7 was dead ahead and the sheer terrible beauty of the scene made them all gasp.

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The terrible beauty of the scene made all the Firefighters gasp. Photo, James Taite Wellington City Fire Brigade operational photographer.

The front of the house was completely enveloped in flames, great jets gushing out of the windows then up into the night, even curling back over the roof to catch alight to the trees on the hillside above.

Charley pulled the machine to the kerb and engaged the 1000 gallon per minute pump. The Station Officer in charge jumped down calling instructions to the crew. Two men with a standpipe and hose ran to the nearest hydrant for water while two more wearing breathing sets, advanced into the front lawn of Number 7 with a hose supplied from the water tank on the engine, being run by Charley.

While Charley ran the pump. he noticed a member of the public talking excitedly to the officer in charge and pointing at the house and then heard him send back a radio message, “Make pumps  four, persons reported,” which is fire brigade speak for, “send another fire engine as we have people trapped inside the burning building.”

As he worked the pump, Charley watched the firefighters wearing breathing apparatus and the officer push their way onto the verandah of the house, literally knocking back the flames with their jet. But in the instant that they seemed to be quenching the flames there was a sudden loud bang and all three men were knocked like rag dolls back onto the lawn by a gas explosion. Shaken but apparently uninjured they gamely picked themselves up and advanced once more towards the verandah.

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Firefighters advance on the fire but were knocked back time and time again by gas explosions. Photo James Taite Wellington Fire Brigade.

Just then a young man from the small crowd who were watching, came over to Charley, “Do you know there is a man still in the back flat, right above the one that’s on fire, he’s either still asleep or overcome, hadn’t you better get him out?” Just at that moment one of the men who had run the feeder hose from the fire hydrant came back to the pump and Charley got him to take over supplying water while he followed the man around to the back. Number 7 was a huge old house let out into numerous flats and the rear was one story above the flat on fire and as yet unaffected by flame, although it was hot and heavily smoke logged.

Charley pulled the man roughly down low under the smoke. “Which door?” He pointed coughing. Charley pushed him back towards the street, “tell the other firemen I need back-up,” then crawled forward and tried the door. Locked. Nothing for it but brute force. He stood up and cracked the heel of his fire-boot onto the lock and miraculously the door burst open. The momentum of the kick carried Charley forward and he fell onto the carpet just inside the room below the smoke level, where he lay for a moment getting his bearings, then crawled carefully forward, keeping his eyes on the lightened patch of smoke behind him, that was the doorway, and his exit to safety.

Almost at once he found a man lying half on and half off the bed. He was breathing and moaning, so it was just a matter of getting him outside as quickly as possible. Charly got hold of him under the arms and stood up to pull him along the floor. In that instant, the smoke thickened and he lost sight of the door and became completely disorientated over which direction to go for out.

Panic surged inside him for what seemed like an age, but was probably only a part of a second, as he tried to decide whether to leave the body and get out quick or try to pull the man with him while searching around the wall for the door. It was one of those agonising decisions that would almost certainly end up in self-preservation, leave the unknown man and get out while there was still a chance.

Fortunately, Charley didn’t have to make that decision, before panic overtook him completely he heard the reassuring wheezing hiss of a breathing apparatus set, the second machines crew had arrived. Within seconds the two firefighters, wearing breathing apparatus, had found them and together they dragged the man out into the comparatively fresh air. He began to gasp and vomit and they knew he would be okay.

Charley walked around to the side of the house feeling sick from the effects of smoke and leant against the building as the spasm of nausea passed. Only a few moments had elapsed since he’d left the pump panel and he saw that the first crew assisted by another delivery from the second pump and an aerial appliance, were knocking down the flames allowing crews to attempt entry at the front of the building, although gas was still leaking from the ruptured main on the verandah and kept exploding, knocking men over and hampering the efforts to get inside.

 

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With the arrival of another engine and an aerial appliance, the fire was soon under control.

 

As he stood there taking in the scene he realised that just where he was standing at the side of the house was what appeared to be a boarded up window with smoke issuing out between the boards. The window was at ground level outside and Charley bent down eagerly pulling off the boards with the intention of ventilating that part of the house to release some of the intense heat and smoke from inside. Hopefully, this would allow the BA crews to get in with less punishment.

He had got two of the boards off when he realised someone had joined him and was trying to help. Charley looked up to see a young powerfully built man dressed only in a pair of trousers and noticed he had tears streaming down his face and was in a state of shock with wide unseeing eyes. Charley shook him by the shoulder, “What’s the matter?” The man looked around blankly. “They’re in here, this is their room, they couldn’t get out through the passageway, they’re still in there”.

Suddenly Charley realised what was being said and pushing the man out of the way, started ripping off the boards as fast as he could. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of the Divisional Officer and shouted to him that there was someone inside. The DO came over bringing another firefighter and together they pulled off the last two boards and kicked in the glass. The whoosh of super-heated black smoke that exploded out sent them reeling and coughing backwards into the street.

While they had been ripping the boards off they had harboured a vague hope that they would be in time to save those inside, but the intensity of the heat and the choking effect of the smoke left them in little doubt that anyone inside, could not have survived.

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Chief Fire Officer Ron Mills indicating (for the Coroners report) the window where the couple died and Charley made his unorthodox, but unsuccessful rescue attempt. Photo James Taite WFB.

Charley kicked out the remaining glass and lent in shining his torch around the interior of the room. The window was more of a fanlight than a proper house window, situated at pavement height outside but at ceiling height inside the semi-basement room.

The beam of the torch revealed a glimpse of a human arm through the swirling smoke on the floor below and he could hear the BA crews at the front of the house attacking the front lounge where the fire was deep-seated. Charley shouted to them that there was someone in the rear room, but because of the noise of the water jets, no-one heard. If anything could be done for those poor human things down there Charley realized he was the only one in a position to do it. Quickly he squeezed in through the fanlight and dropped awkwardly onto the unseen floor. The heat was so intense it hit him like a blow taking his breath away.

Charley had landed right alongside a young man who was hunched forward on his knees with his hands up protectively over his head, he was naked and his skin was black from the smoke. For some reason, Charley could not accept that the young man was dead. The position he was in was reminiscent of a child hiding his eyes to play hide-and-go-seek, surely no-one could die such a hideous death in that position? Foolishly, Charley asked “are you okay mate?” and instinctively put his hand on his shoulder. The flesh from his back fell away at his touch exposing the bone. He had caught the full blast of intense heat as it came into the room through the partly open door. There had been no flames in the room only intense heat and thick black choking smoke.

Sick at heart, Charley turned away looking for the second occupant of the room. At the same time he heard someone in the passage outside and shouted, “in here” and the officer in charge of the first machine squeezed into the room. Charley indicated the young man and shook his head, there was no need for words to describe his fate. As the smoke cleared they saw two mattresses side by side on the floor, two heaps of clothing blackened beyond recognition, a partially torn down shelf and a suitcase. Charley moved to the second mattress below the shelf and found the second occupant of the room. She too was naked, lying on her back between the mattress and the wall, her face turned inward towards the skirting board. One arm lay across her waist the other above her head in an attitude of quiet repose. Her body appeared uninjured except for two small cuts on her left leg that had bled then stopped. The whole tragic story was there to see, they had been awakened by the fire, their way to safety already cut off by the heat in the passage outside their room. Possibly the boy had gone to the door and opened it only to be beaten back across the room under the boarded-up window to die a miserable death crouched in one corner. About the same time, the girl had woken, reaching above her, she had grasped the shelf where she kept her makeup jars and in those last few seconds of life, she half pulled the shelf away from the wall. Thrashing around in the darkness one of the broken jars cut her twice on the leg and the cuts bled. By then she was unconscious and very soon she was dead. When her heart stopped the little cuts on her leg stopped bleeding and the blood dried into two identical rivulets, telling the whole story for those who could read it.

Everything Charley had ever been taught, told him that he should commence with mouth to mouth resuscitation. Death should never be assumed, only a doctor could tell for sure when life is extinct. He moved forward but could not bring himself to turn the girl’s head towards him. He felt that this moment of death was personal for the girl and that he should not intrude. Those two little trickles of blood told him with absolute certainty that she was beyond all mortal help.

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Charley in his younger days as a new recruit.

Unseen and unnoticed by the two of them, the officer in charge of the second arriving fire engine had entered the room and had stood, quietly watching. Silently he handed Charley a blanket. “Cover her up, give her a bit of privacy.” And that’s what they did before going out onto the lawn to breathe down that beautiful sweet fresh air in a vain effort to expunge the horror and the sadness of what they had just been obliged to witness.

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The sad news in the next day’s Evening Post newspaper.

FOOTNOTE> In those days there was no such thing as trauma counselling for firefighters, even though there were many more fire and road fatalities than there are today, encountering death was accepted as just part of the job. Back then it was the practice to take any young firefighter who had never experienced a fatality in to see the bodies in order to toughen them up, something, in that situation, I felt was wrong. However, the horror of that night was not talked about again at work, and certainly never at home. It wasn’t forgotten, it was just put aside, buried or even denied, Some of the crew, who’d been closely involved with the bodies of the young couple, such as Charley, would have experienced flashbacks or trouble sleeping, but alcohol would have helped to deaden the memories. Most of those involved carried on working as firefighters, but as far as is known to this day, none of them has ever seemed to remember, or wanted to talk about the night of the fire at number 7 Oriental Terrace, which is quite surprising, because it really was a night to remember.

 

 

 

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