Two serious fires in the 1940s raised questions about the state of New Zealand’s fire service and fire protection measures.
The Seacliff fire
On the night of 8 December 1942 fire broke out in a locked ward at Seacliff Mental Hospital, north of Dunedin. The huge, isolated hospital was built mainly of stone, but ward 5, which housed ‘difficult’ women patients, was a two-storey wooden addition.
Patients locked in
The ward was always locked at night, and nearly all windows were shuttered and locked. Because of wartime staff shortages, the ward was visited only once an hour. By the time the fire was discovered it had taken hold. The hospital’s small fire brigade attempted to fight the blaze and rescue patients, but there was little they could do. Only two of the ward’s patients escaped – the remaining 37 died horribly in the inferno.
An inquiry condemned the practice of leaving patients locked up without adequate supervision, and found that the building was a fire risk. It was made of very flammable materials, and the design allowed flames to spread rapidly. Its ancient alarm system, which had to be unlocked by a nurse before being activated, was virtually useless. It was recommended that future institutional buildings be made of fire-resistant materials, with emergency exits, automatic monitored fire alarms and sprinkler systems. It was many years, however, before these measures were introduced in all institutions.
The Ballantynes fire
Even more shocking to New Zealanders was the massive fire that engulfed Ballantynes department store in Christchurch on 18 November 1947. Just after 3.30 p.m. smoke was discovered in the basement of the furniture department of the sprawling store, which consisted of seven linked buildings. Soon most of the 300 store employees and the customers had got out of the store.
However, there was a delay before the store’s office workers, dressmakers and milliners (hat makers) were told to leave the upper floors of the store. The store had no evacuation plan and there had never been a fire drill. Some of the women were ordered by their supervisors to stay where they were. A few people got down fire escapes, but a number were trapped.
Ballantynes’ dressmakers escaped by the stairs just as the upper parts of the store began to collapse. Others were not so lucky. Office workers in the credit department stayed to shut up the office equipment, but then found they could not use the fire escape because of the smoke and heat. Three women jumped out of windows: two were rescued from the verandah, but one died of her injuries. Those who stayed perished in the fire. The milliners were slow to head for the fire escape and only two made it – seven died after collapsing from smoke inhalation.
Brigade battles blaze
It was also a while before the fire brigade was called, and by the time fire engines arrived the blaze was burning fiercely. The brigade’s two most senior officers were on leave, and the officer in charge was inexperienced. All the firefighters could do was stop the fire from spreading. The building was reduced to a shell, and 41 people were killed in New Zealand’s most deadly fire.
A royal commission of inquiry decided that although the fire was an accident, many lives could have been saved if action had been taken earlier. It noted that there were not enough properly trained and equipped firefighters, and their efforts were not well coordinated. It also found that the construction of the store was unsafe, and there were no emergency procedures, alarms or means of contacting the fire brigade automatically.