One of the 150 firefighters who battled the SkyCity inferno has given a first-hand account of his 26-hour shift at a fire he describes as the biggest of his career.

"As we were heading in and seeing the amount of smoke we were thinking, 'This is the big one, this is the one you train for'. We definitely knew that this was a major event."

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The firefighter, who does not want to be named, and his crew raced to the roof fire at the New Zealand International Convention Centre shortly after the emergency call at 1.13pm on Tuesday.

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"We could see black smoke through most of the city and even blocking the Sky Tower, so we realised it was something quite significant pretty quickly.

"Heading into town we could hear on handheld radios that it was pretty frantic there. The crews that were on scene were trying to get water and trying to establish what was going on."

On arrival he was confronted with chaos in the street.

"A lot of people slowing down to have a look so there were a lot of fire trucks getting caught up trying to get down.

"I could hear a lot of sirens in the distance, a lot of people urgently trying to get there.

"You've got huge amounts of smoke on Hobson and Nelson St blowing down that's choking, toxic smoke. You've got a lot of contractors out on the road pointing to where they think it is and yelling."

Kilometres of fire hoses were rushed into the SkyCity building and weaved through scaffolding, up seven flights of stairs to the roof. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Kilometres of fire hoses were rushed into the SkyCity building and weaved through scaffolding, up seven flights of stairs to the roof. Photo / Jason Oxenham

With news that the building had been evacuated with no injuries, the next step was to figure out exactly where the fire was and how to attack it.

The senior station officer of the first crew to arrive was in charge.

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"We were very familiar with the building. We'd done a lot of training in that building before because of the significance and the size of the building - we'd actually been in there for an event like this, just in case."

It was established the incident was a major fire in the roof of the seven-storey high building.

As the third or fourth crew to arrive, the firefighters jumped into action, helping to weave kilometres of hosing up through the $700 million building, which is still under construction.

"The priority was to try and get water up to the roof. For me, something that I hadn't seen before was the amount of hose being taken up. Every truck was being stripped of hose to run it up to the top.

"There were some crews that had got up to the top and said 'This is a big fire and you need a lot of hose and you need to get it up here quickly'. So there was a lot of urgency."

The task was difficult because of scaffolding in the way.

The firefighter legged it up stairs carrying hosing. In the back of his mind he wondered if he might come across a victim, or a person who had not managed to get out.

Heavy aerial appliances with high ladders were needed immediately to stop the fire spreading. Only one was available in the first two hours. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Heavy aerial appliances with high ladders were needed immediately to stop the fire spreading. Only one was available in the first two hours. Photo / Jason Oxenham

He was stationed on the fourth floor feeding hosing to about seven firefighters on the roof who were spaying water onto the fire in a desperate bid to cut it off.

"Your training takes over and you realise what needs to be done... trying to get the hose up there but at the same time you're conscious that the building's under construction, it's on fire, it's a little bit intimidating going up."

But there were problems straight away. Only one heavy aerial appliance, with a 32m high ladder equivalent to eight storeys high, was on scene.

At the same time it was becoming clear how complex the fire was.

"Once we started getting water up there, commanding officers on the roof highlighted the potential for roof collapse."

Engineers on the ground warned of the same risk.

"I could hear very early on that when crews were up on the roof, fire was spreading beneath them and around them."

The firefighters could see the roof changing colour beneath their feet, signalling structural change and potential weakening.

A collapse could be catastrophic because of a two-storey atrium immediately beneath the roof, a likely unsurvivable fall.

"So that was when the call was made to retreat. They were saying 'fire is popping up around you guys. You need to pull back'. After that they started telling crews to withdraw to the edges."

Unmanned "monitors" were set up on the edges of the roof continuing to spray water but it was almost two hours from the initial fire call before two more high ladder appliances arrived on scene.

A message written on a fire truck. Toxic, black smoke has poured into the Auckland CBD since the SkyCity fire broke out on Tuesday afternoon. Photo / Supplied
A message written on a fire truck. Toxic, black smoke has poured into the Auckland CBD since the SkyCity fire broke out on Tuesday afternoon. Photo / Supplied

That and other factors contributed to the fire growing out of control.

"Normally we can go in with hooks from below and hook out the roof and pull the roof down but with it being so high [a two-storey room] we couldn't get to it."

The fire was burning inside the roof, made from wood and straw, but water being pumped onto it couldn't penetrate the exterior waterproof bitumen.

"It spread very, very quickly. We're normally in control but this one we just couldn't get control of.

"There's that uncertainty and danger. If we can't get control then where's it going to spread to and how are we going to stop it?"

The thick smoke intensified the work, with every firefighter requiring a breathing apparatus.

The firefighters in the building and on the roof were withdrawn and a change of tactic was employed as Fire and Emergency New Zealand attacked the fire from every possible angle.

"It was too difficult to put people on the roof. It was too far away to walk over so the decision was made to let it burn through and have crews on the fifth floor.

"So the crews were underneath the collapsing roof. Then they would wet down anything that was falling through."

Throughout his 26-hour shift, the firefighter had one two-hour break overnight on Wednesday.

When he saw Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, television cameras and media on site he said the realisation struck him about the impact of the fire.

There was a sense of excitement, of comraderie, of being part of something important, he said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met with firefighters at the scene of the SkyCity blaze on Wednesday. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met with firefighters at the scene of the SkyCity blaze on Wednesday. Photo / Jason Oxenham

On Wednesday Urban Search and Rescue installed a drone with a thermal camera on the roof of the neighbouring ASB building to determine where the fire was still burning, streaming the footage back to fire command vehicles on the ground.

That allowed firefighters to see where exactly the fire was burning, how to contain it and whether their tactics were being effective.

By Thursday morning most of the fire was out and firefighters were dampening down hotspots. The firefighter expected crews would remain on site until at least Thursday night.

Throughout the ordeal food and drink has continuously been delivered to Auckland fire stations and to the scene by kind strangers and neighbouring cafes.

"That was humbling."

The firefighter said there was also a sense of pride over the mammoth effort.

"There was a willingness to get stuck in and get it done."