Former Hawke's Bay Magpies captain Mutu Ngarimu is being hailed a hero after helping rescue two young children from a burning car in Gisborne.
A 3-year-old girl, seriously burned in the fire, has been transferred to the specialist burns unit at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland. Her 22-month-old brother is in the intensive care unit at Waikato Hospital.
Witnesses, who reported seeing a small explosion and flash fire that produced black smoke, said the children had been left in the vehicle about 4.30pm on Thursday in a carpark outside Super Cheap Auto in Gladstone Rd.
The children were flown to Waikato Hospital's intensive care unit from Gisborne Hospital overnight, with burns to 40 per cent of their bodies, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Mr Ngarimu, who runs a business near the scene, saw the burning car and rushed out with a fire extinguisher. It was not until the fire was out that he noticed a child inside.
"There was a little girl in there, so I pulled her out and a member of the public performed CPR on her."
He then saw the boy. "I went back into the vehicle to see if anyone else was in there and that's when I noticed the 22-month-old in there, so I pulled him out and he was unconscious."
Two men working across the road at Firestone Tyres had also dashed to help. Mr Ngarimu revived the boy while another man resuscitated the girl.
Once revived, the children were coughing and crying and had "serious burns", Mr Ngarimu said.
"They had some pretty serious injuries. One of the children - the older sister - had some serious injuries, burns. It's very sad and definitely something you don't want to see a child go through. I just hope the kids pull through."
He told Radio NZ it was a "team effort" to save the children. "People didn't just stand around not knowing what to do. We just got in and did it. And even when we had pulled the children out there were people coming out with bottles of water to try to bathe the children and cool them down."
Mr Ngarimu played the last of his 73 first-class games for the Magpies in 2006.
John Spawforth, who worked nearby, said the three men were "absolute heroes". "They were the ones who sprinted across the road, put the fire out and dragged these kids out ... I ran out with two things of water to pour over the children.
"It was horrific. Their skin was hanging off them. The mother was just standing in the carpark bawling her eyes out," he said.
Taradale Rugby Club patron Ian Cooper said he had known Mr Ngarimu since the late '90s. He described the former captain as a "bloody good man" and a great leader on and off the field. "I just thought [it was] good for the kids," he said. "He would have seen the smoke and his first reaction would have been to get those kids out and treat them. I just thought it was a nice bit of fate that he was there.
"He's the first one to come in and support anyone he's involved with in many different forms."
It was believed the blaze was sparked by one of the children playing with a lighter and setting fire to the back seat.
Fire station officer Ed Hindmarsh said the fire was being investigated. He told Radio New Zealand it showed how dangerous it was for parents to leave their children alone in vehicles because of the "disastrous consequences".
"I can strongly urge that people don't leave children ever around items that can cause fire because this is one of the worst outcomes that you can possibly imagine."
St John district operations manager Stephen Smith praised the work of the witnesses who rescued the children, saying they may have made the difference in saving the children's lives. "Removing the children from the fire and providing that initial first aid has contributed greatly to their care," Mr Smith said.
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