Dunedin fireman Robert Baxter's death under a capsized fire truck rocked the southern city.

It was just over 100 years ago, the last year of World War I, and Baxter, 49, was the sixth firefighter to die on active duty last century. In total, about 50 New Zealand firefighters have died on the job.

Baxter's death in a low-speed crash on the way to a non-existent fire caused an outcry and drew large crowds to the kind of funeral march across the city that might be arranged for a state leader.

About 10.30 on a foggy Thursday night in May 1918, the Dunedin City Fire Brigade received a fire signal from a push-button alarm on Stuart St, which ran from near the railway station, up to the inner-city Octagon and beyond. The signal came from the corner at Albert St, now called York Place.

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Two fire engines were sent. Foreman Robert Baxter's, the smaller one, was in the lead. Driven cautiously on the wet roads by Motorman Edward Pringle, the roofless and near-new Dennis fire engine, carrying a 560kg wheeled ladder, turned right from Cumberland St into Stuart St when disaster struck.

Said later to have been travelling at just 8km/h when it entered the intersection, the truck's steering gear locked and it failed to complete the turn. Possibly affected by the street's camber, it hit the kerb with its front wheels.

The back slewed around to the left under the weight of the ladder until a back wheel hit the kerb and the truck tipped onto its side on the footpath.

Individuals who, in the exercise of a distorted sense of humour, send false alarms ... have always a good deal to answer for.

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The capsize was so slow that a police constable on duty at the intersection thought the truck was going to right itself.

Baxter, who in 1912 had suffered a broken leg while fighting a fire, was trapped under the truck's heavy ladder. Pulled clear by a colleague, police and members of the public, he died at the scene, his skull crushed.

Two other firemen were badly injured and were taken to hospital. One suffered a spinal injury and the other damage to a hip and ankle.

The fire engine caught fire after petrol leaked from its tank and was ignited by what was thought to be a burning cigarette butt tossed by a bystander.

The other fire truck's crew to investigated the supposed fire further up Stuart St, but it was found to have been a malicious false alarm.

This incensed the coroner and the Otago Witness illustrated weekly newspaper said it contributed to what was a "remarkable demonstration of public sympathy" at Baxter's funeral procession.

A Dennis fire engine, of the same type as that involved in the fatal crash, although this one lacks a heavy, wheeled ladder. Photo / Supplied
A Dennis fire engine, of the same type as that involved in the fatal crash, although this one lacks a heavy, wheeled ladder. Photo / Supplied

The paper continued: "Those misguided individuals who, in the exercise of a distorted sense of humour, send false alarms to the City Fire Station have always a good deal to answer for in the annoyance and inconvenience they cause to the brigade, but never before ... has a tragic result attended their senseless action."

The coroner, J. R. Bartholomew, implied that offenders — "perverted individuals" in the newspaper's report — who were prosecuted for making false fire calls could expect judges to consider locking them in jail rather than just imposing a fine.

Some 15 per cent of calls to the Dunedin City Fire Brigade in the preceding year had been malicious false alarms. In the 21st century, the Fire and Emergency service reports that more than 30 per cent of call-outs are false alarms, but mostly from automatic systems.

Baxter was buried at Andersons Bay Cemetery on the Sunday after his death. A funeral procession, headed by the Kaikorai and St Kilda Bands, marched the 5km from the Central Fire Station. The streets were lined with crowds of people, the Witness said. More than 100 firemen took part. A detachment of Boy Scouts was at the cemetery.

Baxter's coffin was carried on a fire engine, according to John Ingram, a former firefighter who co-authored a history of the Dunedin Fire Brigade. His grandfather Charlie Ingram was in the city brigade and was on the fatal journey. His back was bruised in the crash.

"He argued speed was a factor [even though] the official reports said it wasn't," said John, whose book was published by the Dunedin Fire Brigade Restoration Society.

John said he was not aware of any fire brigade plaque memorialising Baxter and doubts his widow Catherine would have received compensation from the brigade, although it was likely public donations would have been sought for her.

He said the fireman whose spine was injured was a war veteran. "They [the brigade] decided he was too nervous to continue as a fireman and threw him out. After that accident, a couple of years later, they brought in an insurance policy for firemen for injury and death."

Baxter had been a fireman since 1910, having earlier worked as a tinsmith/coppersmith.

He and Catherine had a son who, at the time of Robert's death, had just returned from the war.

Catherine outlived Robert by 31 years. She was buried with him at Andersons Bay.