By Laura Wiltshire, Doug Laing and Sahiban Hyde
A witness has described hearing a "popping" sound at the Hastings Railway Station moments before she watched it go up in flames early on Saturday morning.
First reported to Fire Emergency NZ at 2.02am, the fire gutted the old asbestos-ridden railway station on the corner of St Aubyn St and Sir James Wattie Pl.
Chelsea Barham, who works across the road from the station, said she was leaving work around 2am when she heard the popping sound and saw smoke.
She said she called 111 and watched the fire until it was almost put out, around 3-3.30am.
She said it was an "intense" experience to watch the station burn down.
Five fire trucks and two tankers were needed to quell the fire. Police and fire investigators have yet to reveal if it is thought to be suspicious.
Hastings District Council and the Hawke's Bay District Health Board Medical Officer of Health Dr Nick Jones on Saturday advised members of the public to stay away.
Building materials included asbestos containing sheets that potentially pose a risk to health if fibres are inhaled, he said.
Hastings District Council advised that the building site was being kept damp to contain asbestos fibres while site containment and clean-up operations were under way.
The adjacent Carters building closed earlier than its normal 12.30pm Saturday closing time as a precaution.
Fine particle samples were also being tested to ensure that there was no ongoing risk to the public or people working in neighbouring areas.
The road reopened to traffic about 5pm on Saturday, but both footpaths remained closed on Sunday so clean-up work could continue, and monitoring continues on-site.
The station was opened in July 1962, but is part of a history dating back to a small station built for the completion of the first section of the Palmerston North line, south from Hastings to Napier, in 1874.
There was increased use following the opening of the line through the Manawatu Gorge and thus service to Wellington in 1891, and by the start of World War I there were calls for a bigger station which weren't met till more than a quarter-century later.
The latest building has been mainly empty since the Bay Express passenger service ended on October 7, 2001, but has still been on the schedule for occasional heritage train excursions, including steam train and ADF railcar stops during Napier's Art Deco weekend.
Mayor of Hastings Sandra Hazlehurst said the council and KiwiRail had been involved in various discussions about options over the years, including use by Sustainable Hawke's Bay for its Environment Centre, the Landmark Trust with a particular interest in Wattie's and founder Sir James Wattie, and a cafe, as well as upgrading the toilets.
She said the site is an important entrance to the CBD and could still have a station or terminal use with light-rail for the use of commuters a possibility in the future, including "park-and-ride" services.
It also has sentimental significance for those who had memories of the War years when American soldiers disembarked in Hastings, the inter-city railcars, and trips to and from Wellington using the Endeavour and Bay Express services.
But it had been a "problem building" because of its asbestos, and it had also been subjected to vandalism and graffiti over the years.
"I think this is the start of a conversation," she said. "But in the meantime we need the site cleared to make it safe."