Firm's darkest day is remembered

By Roger Moroney

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VJ Distributors Ltd co-owners Peter Geor and Craig Bridgman outside their new premises, 10 years to the day the business in Omahu Rd was razed by a massive fire. Photo / Duncan Brown
VJ Distributors Ltd co-owners Peter Geor and Craig Bridgman outside their new premises, 10 years to the day the business in Omahu Rd was razed by a massive fire. Photo / Duncan Brown

Exactly 10 years ago today the skies over Hastings turned dark with smoke and toxic dust from a fire so ferocious it could be seen from Napier.

The blaze, later found to have been caused by an electrical fault, burned the Omahu Rd premises of VJ Distributors to the ground.

In the wake of the fire, insurers had told managing director Craig Bridgman that 90 per cent of companies which were struck by such an event did not survive to stay in business.

However, Mr Bridgman said despite the devastation and the loss of everything except for a couple of rep' vehicles which were not on site, there was never any thought of not getting back up and running.

"As devastating as it was it made VJ's what it is today," Mr Bridgman said of the cleaning equipment wholesaler.

And today the celebration was all about "still being here".

"We were absolutely going to get back on our feet," he said, adding that he had only been part of the business for three months having joined the company in January 2006.

"Three months into it and the business is gone - so what are you going to do?"

The answer was simply "carry on".

"It was a case of 'let's do it'."

He said even as they watched the 80 firefighters and 19 appliances at work dealing with the inferno which was fuelled by oils, chemicals and paper products housed within, he and co-owner Peter Geor said they resolved to get back up and running - despite losing everything.

"I asked Peter what he thought we should do and he said we had no choice - 'we have nine families depending on us so we have to get on with it'."

The fire broke out about 11.30am on a Saturday and flames quickly tore through the roof as oil drums exploded.

Hundreds of people were evacuated from homes in the immediate area until the early evening and some orchards were affected by soot and smoke.

The Hawke's Bay Regional Council said the potential environmental damage area was about 1km square although environmental crews were able to contain most of the 200,000 litres of oil and water on the site.

On the afternoon of the fire Mr Geor and Mr Bridgman had already arranged temporary premises.

"We spent Sunday with the insurance brokers and on Monday we met with staff to reassure them it was business as usual," Mr Bridgman said.

They set up in the old Wrightson building in Maraekakaho Rd and by the Tuesday suppliers had begun sending their products and the 10 staff were unpacking boxes.

"Everyone pulled together to get us on track and we haven't looked back."

After about 18 months they moved to a new site at Furnware Industrial Park and were there for about six years before moving back to the familiar territory of Omahu Rd - albeit some distance from the original site.

Changes in zoning in terms of nearby residential areas, coupled with the company's stock and trade, led to the new site.

While there had originally been charges laid by the regional council against the company, and Oil Imports Ltd which was also on the site, they were later withdrawn. The charges had been for the unlawful discharge of contaminants into the environment but it was determined that no one was at fault.

The company was however fined $4000 by the Labour Department for incorrect storage of aviation fuel in the building, although that did not cause the fire.

Mr Bridgman said everything was now compliant and, 10 years later, it was now "business as usual".

- Hawkes Bay Today

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