Coroner's inquest: Woman breaks down as she tells of fatal fire

By Alecia Rousseau

The two-storey state house unit in Exeter Cres, Palmerston North, was gutted by fire. Photo / File
The two-storey state house unit in Exeter Cres, Palmerston North, was gutted by fire. Photo / File

A woman broke down as she told a coroner's inquest today she left on an element that may have sparked a fatal fire killing her mother and youngest child.

Nechia Tokona spoke to Coroner Tim Scott as he began his inquest into the deaths of Eunice Rebecca Jean Felton, 6, and Bessie Tehuia Tokona, 61.

Eunice and Ms Tokona died on September 3 last year, after a fire erupted in their two-storey state home on Exeter Cres in Palmerston North.

Nechia said she had arrived home a little after 9.30pm on September 2. She admitted consuming one glass of alcohol and some marijuana, which she spotted off the oven.

She said her mother and son Aperahama Maurirere, 21, were the only family members up.

Nechia lived at the address with her mother and nine children.

The dwelling was originally two homes, but was converted by Housing New Zealand in 2010 to accommodate the large family. This was done by penetrating the concrete fire wall running through the middle of the home with entranceways.

Nechia said she headed to bed at about 1am, and woke to what she thought was her mother screaming. She opened her downstairs bedroom door but black smoke billowed in.

The home has six bedrooms upstairs, where the majority of her children were sleeping.

In a statement to police, Nechia said she heard someone yell, "Get the f*** out of the house".

Nechia left her room but went back to grab one of her children. She made her way outside to find two other children already there.

She then stated Aperahama was upstairs and dropped one of his siblings out the window for her to catch.

Aperahama said in his statement he had come home just before his mother that evening. He made and ate some spaghetti, toast and mashed potatoes before going to bed upstairs.

He woke to the sound of a smoke alarm but was unable to see his bedroom door due to the amount of smoke.

"I jumped up and saw flames coming up the stairs. It was black with smoke."

He began rousing his siblings, telling them to get out of the home.

He smashed a window in one bedroom to get the children out down the escape ladder.

As he put the children out, he could see his mother and sister on the front lawn crying.

After he thought all the children were safe, he jumped out a window wearing only his underwear. He then yelled for someone to call 111.

Aperahama attempted to go back into the home after realising his two family members were unaccounted for.

He smashed a downstairs bedroom window, dragging some bedding towards him. He managed to climb inside but was unable to get to the hallway due to the severity of the fire.

Coroner Scott said Aperahama's actions were largely responsible for saving nine lives.

"He raised the alarm, managed to get them out - this needs to be commented on."

Aperahama saw his brother also trying to gain re-entry into the home but flames were coming from the kitchen.

Aperahama ended up in ICU due to smoke inhalation and other injuries. He also required surgery on his right arm for lacerations.

After his mother's testimony, he sobbed and hugged her tight.

Expert testimony was also heard from the New Zealand Police and Fire Service.

Detective Tony Flaus said the cause of death had been determined as the effects of fire.

He said the emergency call was made at 2.45am, but when police arrived the house was well engulfed. The fire crews arrived shortly after and two firemen attempted a rescue.

David Miles and Peter Chamberlain made their way up the stairs to the first floor, where they located Eunice face down on a bed.

Chamberlain attempted to remove Eunice but the fire compromised their exit point, and Eunice's body was left in the hallway.

A mayday call was made by Chamberlain who believed Eunice was already deceased.

Fire fighters outside then rescued their colleagues by getting the stairwell fire under control.

They continued putting out the fire and at 7am Ms Tokona was found deceased, face down in an alcove on the ground floor dining room.

Specialist fire investigator Michael Finucane said in his report there was strong physical evidence that stainless steel pots had been left on heated elements resulting in a fire.

He said the likely scenario was the heat had ignited the contents of the pot, and a fire developed causing the rangehood to become involved, with one of the fans dropping on to the pot.

This tipped the pot over, spilling its contents onto the floor.

He believed the fire developed slowly in the kitchen, before spreading rapidly.

Finucane said the movements of Ms Tokona were unclear, but witnesses reported hearing her shouting. He said it appeared she had tried making her way from the kitchen towards her daughter's bedroom, but may have been overcome with smoke.

Coroner Scott asked Finucane about the type of smoke alarms present in the home.

Finucane said evidence received from Housing New Zealand said the home had Iophic smoke alarms. These are marketed as having the "benefits" of both ionization and photo-electric alarms.

He told the inquest they believed the alarms were the combined ones, but co-founder of the World Fire Safety Foundation Adrian Butler told Coroner Scott he did not believe this was the case.

He referred to the operations manual of the product and said it stated clearly these alarms had only one sensor - an ionization one.

He concluded if this was the case, the alarms would only have been activated if the fire was flaming and not smouldering.

Coroner Scott asked the New Zealand Fire Service to provide him with further information on the smoke alarms before he would deliver his decision "as quickly as possible".

He also stated if anything was to come from today's hearing, it may be that people will go home and check their smoke alarms.

"I know I certainly will be."

- NZ Herald

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