Half of Russell's town centre was shut down yesterday during a bomb scare which some locals described as the biggest thing to hit town since Hone Heke cut down the flagpole.

A bomb threat was made by phone to the Duke of Marlborough Hotel on the Russell waterfront about 10.45am, prompting police to evacuate the hotel and the adjacent Commodore's Lodge.

Once extra police arrived — the town has just one resident officer — the cordon was extended to include Cass St and The Strand as far as Kent St.

About 20 staff and 100 delegates attending an oral health conference were in the hotel at the time.

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Senior Sergeant Peter Robinson, of Mid North police, said the area was evacuated as a precaution after the caller claimed there was a bomb in the building.

A police cordon at the intersection of York and Cass Streets during yesterday's bomb scare in Russell. Photo / Peter de Graaf
A police cordon at the intersection of York and Cass Streets during yesterday's bomb scare in Russell. Photo / Peter de Graaf

A thorough inspection of the hotel by an officer and one of the owners had found nothing suspicious or out of place.

Combined with the non-specific nature of the threat, that gave police confidence to deem the area safe and allow people to return about 1.30pm.

Police inquiries into the origin of the phone call were continuing. It was too early to say whether the call originated within New Zealand or overseas.

Police were grateful for patience and assistance from locals, tourists and other emergency services. Eight officers were involved along with firefighters from the Russell and Paihia brigades. St John Ambulance medics were on standby.

Police and the fire brigade block the northern end of York St during yesterday's bomb scare in Russell. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Police and the fire brigade block the northern end of York St during yesterday's bomb scare in Russell. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Duke co-owner Riki Kinnaird said it was the first time such an incident had occurred at the hotel.

''This kind of thing may have been common in the 1800s but not now,'' he said.

The hotel's procedures for such events had worked well and police and fire crews had been "awesome".

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''It's just really disappointing we've been the target of something like this. It's affected more than just our business, half of Russell was cordoned off.''

Kinnaird singled out local constable Mike Gorrie for special mention.

''He was on the scene quickly, and his guidance and presence was really reassuring.''

Mid North police Senior Sergeant Peter Robinson talks to Duke of Marlborough co-owners Jayne Shirley (left) and Bridget Haagh and fire safety officer Gary Beer. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Mid North police Senior Sergeant Peter Robinson talks to Duke of Marlborough co-owners Jayne Shirley (left) and Bridget Haagh and fire safety officer Gary Beer. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The conference delegates were taken by ferry and a local tour bus to Charlotte's Kitchen, a Paihia restaurant, in the meantime.

Passenger ferries were suspended during the scare but the car ferry kept operating.

At Russell School, a few blocks from the Duke, principal Melissa Jackson took advice from police before letting the children out of their classrooms for lunch.

Extra teachers and parents were placed around the school grounds as a precaution and the lunch break was cut short.

She was confident the children were safe and had advised parents to leave their children at school rather than try to pick them up early.

Many Cass St businesses remained closed even after the cordon was lifted. One that did reopen was Bay of Islands Ink, where tattooist Dante Regeling was surprised to see at least six police cars and three fire engines turn up.

His business was not greatly affected but the food outlets across the road had been packed when the order to evacuate came.

''It was probably the biggest thing that's happened here since Hone Heke cut down the flagpole,'' he said.