Tess Nichol is an NZME. News Service reporter.

The Big Read: How we escaped highway inferno

As black smoke began to fill his car and flames flickered in his rear-view mirror, Herb Farrant tried to slam on the brakes -- but they didn't work.

A noise had caused him and wife Ruth to check out what was happening as they cruised along State Highway 1 near the Bombay Hills last Friday afternoon. They were on their way to Waihi for a seminar and weekend away together, but were barely an hour's drive away from their Kohimarama home when the fire started just after 4pm.

"There was a bang and a thud under the car, just behind the passenger seat," Mr Farrant told the Herald.

"I looked in the rear-vision mirror and there was a huge cloud of black smoke and flames."

The couple realised they were in trouble.

"I put my foot on the brake and there was no brake," Mr Farrant said.

"I knew we had a problem."

So he jammed on the handbrake and managed to pull the car to a stop on the side of the road so the couple could jump to safety.

Within a minute, the entire car was ablaze.

Everything happened so quickly, Mr Farrant said, there was no time for panic to set in.

"It all happened in less than a minute. The whole of the car was consumed, it was incinerated."

After their quick escape, the reality of what had happened began to sink in and the couple realised what a close call it had been.

Mrs Farrant -- who works as a fundraiser for charities -- recalled her stomach churning with fright as she watched the car burn from the safety of the side of the road.

Her husband, a military historian, tried to go back to get his cellphone, but Mrs Farrant pulled him back, banning him from going any closer.

"I shook and shook and shook and my stomach turned over," she said.

"But we're alive for goodness sake, and you can only be thankful for that."

Mrs Farrant said she dashed from the car on shaky legs and even now, a week later, her knees go weak when she looks at photos of the car in flames.

"My legs were so shaky I don't know how I ran. My grandchildren tease me that I can't run -- well I can run.".

Agyapal Singh, who works with his family at a nearby fruit shop, was working on the checkout when he heard a bang and saw the car approaching, flames coming out the back of it.

"I just ran to the car. By the time I reached the car the people had got out but they were crying."

Mr Singh, a student at Macleans College, said by this time the flames were as high as the roof and he was worried the whole car might blow up.

"I told my dad and my sister to call 111 right away, fire, ambulance and police because you never know what might happen."

Mr Singh said his father tried to put the fire out with buckets of water but by that point the fire was too big.

"By the time we got there the car was already exploding. We felt sorry that we couldn't save their car, but you know life is more important."

He said seeing the incident unfold gave him a great deal of empathy for the Farrants.

"We just felt like it's our family, we treated them like family," he said.

"It's just humanity you know, it's like the old saying, treat others like you want to be treated, like imagine if it was our car that went on fire tomorrow and there was no one there to help us."

The family brought the couple inside the shop for coffee and offered them their cellphones to get in touch with family.

"The family who owned the fruit store were amazing," Mrs Farrant said.

Her husband agreed.

"Their hospitality was magnificent. They just said come inside, made us a cup of coffee, let us use phones."

The Farrants' son, a doctor who lives in Auckland, came to check on them at the scene, giving them clean bills of health.

"He declared us fit and healthy and told us to get on with life," Mrs Farrant said, laughing.

A medicinal glass of wine was in order when they returned home, however, with Mrs Farrant pouring herself "a large glass of red. It was a big one."

Senior Firefighter William Garnett said he attended the scene with a crew of eight, in two trucks. He saw the thick black smoke, common for car fires, as soon as he neared the scene.

"Cars are full of plastics and they had all their bags in the back so that's all just fuel you know. [Cars] burn really well."

He said the fire was extinguished in about five to 10 minutes and afterwards his team stayed to assist with putting the car on the tow truck.

While the Farrants lost many of their possessions in the car, including a camera, credit cards and both their cellphones, the couple said they didn't mind about losing material things, they were just glad to have made it out unharmed.

The car and their belongings were insured.

"We were very lucky," Mrs Farrant said.

"You hear about people who weren't and that's a scary thought, but you can't dwell on that."

The couple said this was their second brush with death in 51 years of marriage.

They were nearly run over by a train while on holiday in Greece in 1969 after walking across tracks they had been told were not in use anymore.

The Farrants had spoken to their Mercedes dealer about what might have gone wrong, but the car was too badly damaged to easily tell what the problem might have been.

- NZ Herald

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