When Samuel Williams saw what was left of his old school in Wainui Bay after a devastating fire, he could only shake his head with disbelief and sadness at the damage caused and the impact it would have on his community.
The small Far North communities of Te Ngaere Bay and Wainui Bay are in shock after a suspicious fire destroyed their old school, which had been used as a community recreation centre for years. The fire has been confirmed as arson, and police are investigating.
The former Wainui Bay School was little more than a burnt-out shell on Tuesday morning, with much of the buildings destroyed and flames still flaring up in parts of the building, and the site shrouded in smoke after the fire started about 2.20pm on Monday.
Firefighters from Kāeo, Kerikeri, Cavalli and Mangonui rushed to the scene, but after more than four hours battling the flames, they could not save the historic building, which has such a big attachment to the local community. Wainui Bay is about 35km north of Kerikeri, past Matauri Bay.
The school closed in the late 1960s or early 1970s after decades providing an education to children from the area. And after closing it was gifted to the community, with the Williams family part of a trust that has since managed it as a recreation centre used by the entire community for events such as weddings, birthdays and other social occasions and celebrations.
Samuel Williams was one of the locals at the scene on Tuesday morning surveying the damage.
Williams, who went to the school in the 1950s, was saddened by the fire, saying it would be a big loss for the community.
“It’s just sad. It has a lot of memories for so many people around here. When [he used to attend the school] we’d walk, sometimes along the beach, or get here on horse as there were no roads then — it’s just so bloody sad. That’s all that’s left of it,” Williams mused as he looked over the burnt-out shell of the old building that was a big part of his, and many others’, life in the local community.
“We hire it out as a place for community events, like a community hall, and we have all spent time there celebrating.”
He hoped something good for the community would replace the old school, now it was unable to be saved. He thanked the firefighters for their efforts to try to save the buildings.
A spokesman for the Paora Paora whānau who was also at the scene on Tuesday morning said he drove past about 2.30pm on Monday when he was starting the school run and saw the building on fire. Shortly after, it was totally engulfed.
“It went so quickly. My mum went to school here and it’s going to be such a big loss for the community. It’s just heartbreaking,” he said.
Kaitāia Volunteer Fire Brigade senior station officer Colin Kitchen was devastated by the blaze because his family had a strong connection to the site — his wife Raina and her whānau went to school there.
“Over the years since its closure thousands of schoolchildren, community groups and whānau have stayed at this iconic site. Personally, we as a family have enjoyed many great memories of happy times camping there and we are so gutted that this tragic event has happened,’’ Kitchen said.
He hoped something could rise from the ashes that would serve the community into the future.
Kitchen said he and his wife had been at their place at Te Ngaere Bay and drove past the old school just before 2pm on Monday.
“As we were driving past I said to Raina ‘I wonder if anybody is staying there’ as there sometimes is, but there was nobody there. When we got to Oruaiti we passed the fire truck, and I didn’t think too much of it until we got back [home]. Then I found out it was the old school and we were just devastated,” he said.
“There’s a lot of people here in the Far North, and elsewhere, that studied there or who have spent time there and they will all be upset that it’s gone.”
Kitchen said after he put information about the fire on social media, he had been inundated with responses from people saddened at the fire.
Fire investigator Jason Goffin was also at the scene on Tuesday morning doing his work to establish the cause of the blaze.
Goffin said investigations show the fire was a deliberate act of arson, and the blaze started on the seaward side of the main building, next to the toilet block.
The matter had now been referred to police to investigate, he said.