The Firemen Who Didn’t Put Out a Fire

by Mike Bee

If your house is on fire, you make sure people are safe, and then you do what you can to put it out till the fire brigade arrives, right? When you hear that fire engine pull up, you will undoubtedly feel a great sense of relief. Firemen are here to help, and firemen represent the best, most selfless examples of the true Kiwi Spirit and will do whatever it takes to extinguish your fire and save your life and your property. All over New Zealand, that is how it is.

But for one man, who lives in Ruapehu and who found himself in this situation, the sound of the fire brigade arriving at his door while his house was burning did not bring relief. Those who showed up did nothing to put out the fire. In fact, they seemed to be doing everything they could to let it burn.

This is a very strange story, and it is to be hoped that writing about it will bring some answers. Either a few individuals screwed up or what happened is a signal to New Zealanders of a deeper rot that has crept into our country and will go on to threaten us all in similar ways if it is not dealt with. Here, as best I can give, is what is known at this point.

The owner of the house, Jim Pottinger, is a mechanic and runs a bar in the town of Ruapehu. He has lived in Ruapehu for 30 years. At around 1pm some weeks ago, he was lying on his couch paying some bills when he heard crackling sounds coming from the attic. (Ironically, he says he had his home insurance bill in his hand at that moment.) Then the lights all tripped, and he knew something was up. Running to the fire-place, he saw the ceiling there glowing orange. He ran outside and was greeted by vast amounts of smoke. He yelled to his neighbour to call the fire brigade while he himself swung into action, getting hold of a ladder and a garden hose and climbing as close as he could get to the origin of the flames. He trained the hose at this place and rammed it underneath the spouting to keep it there. (His neighbour, meanwhile, who was one of the volunteer fire-fighters, put on his uniform, and Jim says that is the last time he saw him!)

Having left the hose in this position, Jim then got hold of some dry powder extinguishers and another hose and did what he could with them. He was inside the building on a ladder, directing the hose through an interior trapdoor onto the flames when the National Park Fire Brigade arrived. You can imagine his relief at that moment. No doubt, he believed that he would soon be able to stop his own efforts and leave it all to them.

However, no firemen entered his building. Although he was visible to them, standing on the ladder working the second hose, and although he was yelling at them for help, they ignored him. Overwhelmed by the heat and smoke, Jim fell from the trap door, but still no one rushed in to save him, even though assisting someone in a burning building should be a fireman’s first call to action.

Another thing trained firemen should do is see that the electrical mains are turned off. They didn’t do this, and when Jim saw that an electrical fire had broken out, he turned off the mains himself. He then pleaded with the firemen to go inside the building where they would be able to direct their big hoses at the fire, but still they refused to do this. Two of the firemen’s large hoses were by this time spraying water, but, they were totally ineffective because they were not directed at the fire and, in Jim’s words, “They seemed intent on washing my corrugated iron roof!” As well as being absolutely useless in putting out the fire, this only aggravated the situation for Jim by giving rise to large quantities of steam.

To make matters worse, someone – it is still not clear who – had actually removed the hose that Jim had rammed under the spouting. While the firemen continued to watch from outside, Jim again entered the building and climbed the ladder to direct the second hose through the trapdoor at the fire.

Through all this, his mind was in turmoil. As he puts it,

It’s one thing watching your home, your hard work, your life, burn. It’s another thing watching them do nothing to help me. It made the stress levels ten times worse – a real living nightmare.

Jim’s wife, Joy, arrived home at this time and asked the firemen where her husband was. They said they didn’t know, though Jim knows very well that this was untrue. Joy went into the property by the backyard and saw her husband up the ladder, wet, coughing, suffering from smoke and dry powder inhalation and still the only person doing anything to direct water at the fire. The first thing she asked was, “Why are they not helping you?” Jim simply had no reply. Meanwhile, the firemen closed off the street and stopped any of Jim’s friends from coming and assisting him.

While Joy took various items out of the house, Jim continued to do what he could from the ladder. Finally – records say it was 47 minutes since the outbreak of the fire – two other brigades arrived – firemen from the towns of Owhango and Manunui. At this point everything changed, and Jim says they acted professionally and did what was necessary to cut holes in the ceiling and bring the blaze under control.

Jim has been badly affected from his experience. As well as the damage to his property, he has suffered in other ways and is understandably angry about the lack of concern from those who had been in a position to help him. As he puts it:

Why did they even bother to turn up? So much more damage was caused unnecessarily. They had zero regard for my safety. It’s affected me in health. I can’t sleep well. It’s been very traumatic for both myself and Joy. We feel terribly let down by this event of a clown show.

I’m not working because of this saga. All I am doing is cleaning up the mess and drying my sorry home.

I have emailed FENZ (Fire and Emergency New Zealand) three times about this, but no one has contacted me. Something seriously failed that day and I deserve an enquiry.

To this point, Jim’s endeavours to find out what happened have been met with a stone wall of silence. He has sent four emails to FENZ. These emails are in his sent folder, yet he has been told that they did not receive them. To make matters worse, it is the area commander who was the fill-in supervisor of the day, and she is the one who has been given the job to investigate Jim’s complaints – an obvious conflict of interest. Some of Jim’s questions have been for simple facts – the exact times of events from the brigade’s incident log-book, and so on – but none of these has been replied to. Jim believes a cover-up is taking place, and he wants an investigation.

Is all this merely a sad aberration or could it be a sign of something deeper? Jim has been told that the firemen couldn’t act because there was no supervisor with them to give them the command to go into the house, yet his wife says that when she arrived two supervisors were present.

Various theories have been floated to explain the inactivity of the firemen. Ruapehu is a small community where people help their neighbours, but Jim has witnessed a change in the culture around his local brigade. There is a woman in charge who he says is “woke” – could this factor have worked against the normal common sense that firemen universally display to do whatever is necessary to save lives and protect property? Could the firemen have been so confused over health and safety standards that their fears prevented them from taking action to put out a fire?

No satisfactory reasons have yet emerged. Radio NZ was meant to come and interview Jim, but they did not show up. Individual firemen at Owhango and Manunui are themselves shocked and surprised, Jim says, at what took place. It does seem as if some kind of enquiry is necessary. And not one handled by the person who carries responsibility for any mistakes which may have been made in the first place!

But, you say, Jim was paying his home insurance bill when the fire broke out – at least he is fully insured. Sadly no. Times are tough, and for the first time in 30 years, the house had been left uninsured.

Jim has undergone a huge disaster on many levels. It could have been worse. The house can be repaired, though Jim has insufficient resources to pay for this and is doing everything himself. He is a survivor of the kind of situation that any of us Kiwis could find ourselves in. When other things in the world are going crazy, we believe in firemen and are not interested in calling them “fire-persons”. We have faith that fire-fighting is one profession that will always be selflessly carried out with no regard for a person’s pronouns and that buildings will be saved regardless of the skin-colour of their owners and without anyone considering any particular building to be a symbol of white colonialism. On that day, however, there was a failure. In Jim’s words, “Something was seriously broken that day, and it must change.”

What went wrong in Ruapehu that afternoon? Jim thinks of suing, but has to focus for the moment on his most immediate concerns. He deserves answers, not just for him but for all of us who might have such an emergency one day and who need to be certain that such things cannot ever happen again in this country.


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