Whangamata Area School's heartbreak

By Amy McGillivray, Lesley Staniland

Horrifying. Gutting. A kick in the teeth.

This is how Whangamata Area School staff describe a huge fire that destroyed the technology block yesterday.

Principal Ross Preece told the Bay of Plenty Times the building was locked and no one was inside when the fire began about 11am.

However, there was a scare when head of the technology department Bob Pipe was nowhere to be found.

"For a while we couldn't find him. He is much loved. When he rounded the corner about 20 kids rushed up and gave him a hug," Mr Preece said.

"It's just a real shame for Bob because he's built up a real state-of-the-art department over the last 20 years.

"We had all the lathes and drill presses and automotive hoists and it's all gone."

The block contained a metalwork, woodwork and automotive department as well as a classroom and storage space.



Mr Pipe was planting grass on the other side of the school when the fire took hold. "It's horrifying. It's pretty gutting. There's nothing you can do though," he said.

"It was a pretty good workshop. It's unbelievable that it's happened. We'll just move forward do the same and better."

Mr Pipe and Mr Preece agreed that while the fire was a huge setback, the main thing was no one was hurt.

"It's a bit of a kick in the teeth for our technology teachers but the main thing is that staff are alright and the kids are okay," Mr Preece said.

It was fortunate the senior students were on study leave and the junior students were all out on the field taking part in an annual athletics competition, he said.

The block, containing gas and welding cylinders, was seen on fire about 11am by staff and students taking part in the athletics day.

It took firefighters in eight appliances from Whangamata, Opoutere, Pauanui, Tairua and Waihi at least an hour to bring the blaze under control, north fire communications shift commander Scott Osmond said.

Yesterday athletics day involved competitions with students from Tairua, Opoutere and Hikuai schools, so most students were already out on the sportsfield.

Many of the school's students were sent home with their parents who were at the school to watch the athletics day or parents were contacted and asked to pick up their children.

Insurers were on the way to assess the building and contents and he hoped a rebuild could begin immediately with the goal of having a workshop open for the start of the new school year on February 1 next year.

Whangamata Area School has about 400 students in Year 1 to Year 13.

"Our evacuation procedures worked well and no one was in danger," Mr Preece said.

Journalist Rowena Brown had driven her son and other Tairua students to the Whangamata/Hikuai/Opoutere/Tairua Sports Day when the fire erupted.

"I was by the long jump area on the school field when I looked up and saw smoke coming from behind some of the school buildings.

"I thought that's a lot of smoke for someone burning rubbish and as I watched, the amount of smoke increased and I got the feeling something wasn't quite right.

"I went behind the buildings to see for myself, and immediately saw smoke and flames coming out from under the roof of one of the buildings.

"There were a few people running around, I guess they were teachers or parents from Whangamata School. They quickly got hoses connected and started watering down the surrounding buildings.

"I wanted to capture the fire from all angles so made my way around the building. When I passed the glass entry doors the heat was so intense I had to step back and I could hear the glass making noises as the pressure inside built up.

"I was afraid the glass would explode outwards towards me, so I retreated to a protected position behind a classroom veranda.

"The fire intensified quickly and I could hear the gusts of wind whipping the flames up. When the glass doors blew out it was one of those moments, exciting and scary at the same time.

"It felt like a long time before the firefighters came and took control of the situation. When they arrived all I could see was smoke."



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