When fire ripped through the roof of the New Zealand International Convention Centre nearly a year ago, it destroyed years of work, left millions of dollars of damage and lost revenue in its wake, and threw the CBD into chaos. Jane Phare looks back on the fire that refused to go out, and the lessons learned.
It was just a tiny wisp of white smoke at first, drifting unnoticed from the roof guttering of SkyCity's convention centre construction site. Only an Auckland Transport CCTV camera above registered that first ominous warning.
It was lunchtime, 1pm on Tuesday, October 22 last year, and the roof was deserted.
A crane operator, perched more than 60 metres above, noticed the puff of smoke below and watched it rapidly double in size. By the time he hit the crane's alarm siren in a desperate attempt to alert work colleagues in the building, the smoke had erupted into a small flame. Fire. The roof was on fire.
The continuous wailing siren worked. A few seconds later, at 1.09pm, a Fletcher Construction worker rang 111. There would be another 63 emergency calls after that.
Less than a kilometre away on College Hill, fire crews arrived at what turned out to be a false alarm. Firefighter Martin Campbell, a station officer at Grey Lynn, says staff gathered outside pointed urgently at black smoke billowing from somewhere in town.
That early warning meant fire crews were on the scene within minutes. To them, and to passers-by, it still looked like a fire that could be contained. But that small flame would eventually become a raging, complex and dangerous inferno that would light up Auckland's night sky in a burning wall of orange flame and smoke. And it would refuse to go out.
There would be questions later as to why firefighters were faced with such an impossible and dangerous task, and why the design of the convention centre's roof created a perfect host for the fire. It roared and raged unchecked through water-tight cavities, fuelled by bitumen, straw and acoustic material, despite eight million litres of water used in an attempt to stall it.
The fire would burn for days, as fire crews battled with hot spots and flare-ups when burning roof material dropped below, ignited walls and large gas tanks. It would destroy millions of dollars worth of work on the 32,000sq m convention centre and threaten the adjoining 300-bedroom Horizon Hotel next door. And it would leave SkyCity facing millions in lost revenue, including the eagerly anticipated 2021 APEC, pre-Covid-19.
The fire would belch black toxic smoke into the sky and settle across Auckland in a dusty orange haze. And it would cause millions of litres of dirty water to pour into the harbour, causing "do not swim" warnings at St Marys Bay.
Auckland became a city of eerily deserted streets, empty offices, workers sent home. Smoke seeped into the air conditioning of buildings, setting off fire alarms in deserted streets. People wore paper face masks or pulled up their collars and scarves to cover their noses. Building ventilation systems would later need deep cleans and this was still three months before Covid-19 hit our shores.
NZME journalists knew within minutes about the fire; it was practically on their back doorstep. Herald photographers and videographers scrambled to collect their gear, reporters grabbed notebooks and headed out the door. When they returned, their clothes reeked of smoke.
From our building, an NZME administrator watched as a site worker ran flat out across the burning roof away from a wall of flame and smoke and disappeared from view.
Nearby, the scene at Hobson St was chaotic: the noise of sirens and fire alarms; 400 stunned construction workers evacuated on to the street; apartment dwellers leaning over their balconies to watch the flames roar across the roof; black water running down street drains; the traffic still flowing and, bizarrely, cars still going into the SkyCity carpark entrance beneath the convention centre.
Nobody knows if those cars made it out. Thousands of litres of water seeped down to the basement four levels below the street, leaving hundreds of cars up to their wing mirrors in murky water tainted with oil, petrol and debris from the fire. The last of those cars would not be removed from their gloomy graveyard until five months later.
And there was confusion. Why was this site, seemingly made of concrete, steel and glass and still open through to Nelson St, burning so fiercely? And why couldn't Fire and Emergency bring it under control? And where were the big aerial fire appliances with the cherry picker-style buckets so that firefighters could get some height?
Journalists and bystanders watched as firefighters on trucks with short ladders, dubbed "baby aerials", tried in vain to squirt water up from street level to a fire on the roof – more than 30 metres above street level - hampered by lack of water pressure and lack of reach. A strong westerly wind that day didn't help. Misty water just blew away.
The smoke was so thick and toxic that even FENZ ground crew were forced to wear breathing apparatus, with heavy oxygen tanks strapped to their backs, making their job all the more difficult.
The nearest working fire hydrants on the site were below ground level and the only way to reach the fire was on foot, up staircases and ladders. Firefighters, wearing at least 20kg of gear and breathing apparatus were also lugging another 20 kilos of thick rubber hose and nozzles to get up to the roof. By the time they got there, they were exhausted.
It was that combined weight that caused Fletcher and Beca engineers to voice alarm about the roof, a "non-walk" structure designed to carry just 75kg of weight per square metre. A firefighter wearing full gear and hauling hoses would weigh nearly twice that.
If the roof gave way, the risk was they would fall at least 12 metres – and in some places considerably further – on to the concrete auditorium floor littered with construction hazards.
By late afternoon, faced with major safety concerns, FENZ pulled firefighters off the top of the building and a hectare of roofing was left to burn.
Campbell, who worked for 18 hours on site that first day, thinks that up until that point firefighters were managing to at least stall the fire, just. Once they were taken off the roof, all they could do was try to stop the fire spreading from below as burning roof debris dropped through.
There were lessons to be learned that day about a fire that FENZ's national commander Kerry Gregory would later describe as "particularly complex and dangerous" and on a scale rarely experienced in New Zealand.
A review of the fire, commissioned by FENZ and overseen by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC), lists 11 recommendations, one of which zeroed in on FENZ's planning strategy for aerial appliances and the shortage of trained aerial operators.
On the day of the fire, only one aerial appliance, with a reach of 32 metres, was available in the Auckland region. By comparison, the "baby aerials" can reach just 18 metres, fine for two-storey buildings but woefully inadequate for the convention centre fire.
A relief aerial appliance was away being serviced and was later brought out to help with observation. A third appliance had been returned to the manufacturer due to a design fault. The Hamilton aerial appliance was called in but it would be another two hours before it arrived.
When exhausted aerial and ladder operators needed a break after long hours standing wearing breathing apparatus, there were not enough trained operators to replace them.
Firefighters later complained about having to work too many long, exhausting hours, that there weren't enough toilets available, that the mobile cafeteria ran out of decent food, that back-up help in the form of off-duty staff wasn't called in to help with what turned into Auckland's fire of the century.
Auckland region manager Ron Devlin granted a frank interview with the Herald during which he didn't try to dodge much of the criticism. FENZ has accepted the 11 recommendations from the AFAC review and has started work on implementing those, he says.
Training has started for additional aerial operators and plans are under way to add a new aerial appliance to the Auckland region within the next two years, one of four appliances to be ordered for New Zealand and worth millions of dollars.
And he acknowledges firefighters' complaints during the days of the fire. He points out there were toilets available in various buildings but FENZ's own portable toilets were away being serviced. Issues like a shortage of food and lack of replacement firefighters, or staff working for too long, are a management matter and those processes are also being reviewed.
"It wasn't done as well as it could have been done."
At times it is hard for managers to send firefighters home because "they love being there, they love being on that offensive aspect of firefighting", he says.
But firefighters should not have been on the fire ground for as long as 18 hours.
"That's about crew management. I think that's a space where we've got a bit of work to do."
A working party was set up in December to look at issues that arose as a result of the fire, he says.
Devlin is at pains to say how proud he is of the firefighters - "women and men" - who battled the fire in the following days. "It's important to remember they did a good job." And he also wants to acknowledge the "generosity and patience" of Aucklanders during the disruption.
And while the convention centre's roof couldn't be saved, other parts were. Up on the 27th floor of Auckland House in Albert St, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff Goff watched the fire take hold and wondered how artist Sara Hughes' beautiful glass panels below the roof could possibly survive the heat.
"I was watching the fire hoses playing directly on to the glass panels and expecting them with the force of a fire hose to shatter, and they didn't. I don't think we lost one of them, which was a small bright spot."
Wrapped around the building are 550 forest-inspired panels of glass and 98 glass fins designed by Hughes. She was in town that day and watched the smoke rise from Queen St, assuming the fire would be out before long.
But photos sent later by a friend living in town, and footage on the TV news, showed otherwise. Now there was a possibility that three years of planning and work might shatter under the intense heat.
"It was hugely disappointing after going through the process of getting it to where it was to think it was all going to be destroyed."
Firefighters, determined the save the artwork, hosed down the glass continually.
Hughes thinks because the safety glass was produced at high temperatures that helped prevent it from shattering. A second artwork, 13,500 terracotta tiles created by Peata Larkin and yet to be unveiled, also survived the fire.
SkyCity's CEO Graeme Stephens says to the layman the artwork does look relatively unscathed. In a written statement he said: "The damage to the site is still being assessed by the experts but if anything has to be replaced there are certainly no plans to change the design of the facade."
Auckland publican Paul Murtagh was also worried that day about the loss of the historic Albion Hotel which adjoins the convention centre.
With flames and smoke rising above the Albion's roof, Murtagh first had to locate house guests and arrange for them to move to other hotels. Then he worried that the 1873 pub would catch fire.
Two things saved the Albion from potentially devastating damage. Towering above the Albion was the huge site crane from where the crane operator had first spotted the fire. Over the next 24 hours firefighters, having given up on the roof, used the aerial appliance to direct thousands of litres of water at the crane to ensure the towering structure did not catch fire and collapse.
That water also stopped the pub from catching fire. And a new roof tolerated the cascading water well, saving the building from water damage. The previous year the Albion's owners had spent millions on upgrading the building, carrying out earthquake strengthening and reroofing the pub.
"The new roof probably saved the whole building, to be honest," Murtagh says.
It would be 11 days before FENZ could hand over the site to Fletcher. By then, SkyCity's pride and joy was a blackened, smoky, dripping mess of blackened, warped steel, tatty debris, burned-out gas tanks and charred timber. Since then, 3000 tonnes of debris has been removed from the site.
What caused the fire was, in the early days, the result of much speculation. A popular story, since found to be untrue, was that an apprentice roof worker accidentally left on a gas torch when he went for a lunch break.
That person never existed. Two experienced roofing MPM Waterproofing contractors were working on the western corner of the building that day but CCTV footage shows they moved their two gas tanks well away from where the fire started and turned them off before going to lunch.
It was at least 20 minutes later that the first wisp of smoke showed from the guttering. After much theoretical testing, FENZ concluded that half an hour before a cardboard roll inside the capping sheet had been accidentally touched by a gas torch and had been slowly smouldering before it ignited. The cause of the fire was ruled accidental.
At the time MPM Waterproofing rejected the findings and took legal action, calling on FENZ to withdraw the report until what the company described as inaccuracies were resolved. This week the company's general manager Andrew Pardington said that MPM Waterproofing's position had not changed but he was unable to comment further while the matter was ongoing.
SkyCity's Stephens had toured the site and the nearly completed Horizon Hotel, now due to open next year, only hours before the fire. He watched from the Sky Tower's observation deck as flames leapt from the convention centre's roof in walls of fiery orange.
"It was very depressing to see that there was no prospect of saving it," he said this week.
Fletcher had brought in new staff to their construction management team which had "definitely helped with motivation and an energy to get through this phase and get it rebuilt".
Fletcher's chief executive Peter Reidy said in a statement that as an industry "we have been determined to learn from this event".
Asked if the roof design has changed as a result of the fire, particularly to allow more weight on the roof, he said the company was working with SkyCity and Auckland Council on plans. "Alterations to the roof design are being considered, however, final decisions have not yet been made," the statement said.
Devlin says FENZ has supplied Fletcher and SkyCity with fire impact assessment reports, which included the construction of the building and how the fire spread.
"They would have read our reports and taken that on board I imagine."
Reidy's statement also said protocols around hot works procedures had been "strengthened" and hydrants were now installed and working at level five, directly below the roof.
Over the next 12 months work would focus on steelwork replacement, reinstalling the roof and completing services such as lifts, boilers and electrical equipment with a view to completing the rebuild by 2023.
The new Hobson St Airbridge is due to be fitted after Labour Weekend, linking the SkyCity hotels to the convention centre.
As for the outcome of the fire, both the AFAC review and FENZ say there was nothing more than could be done despite the lack of extra aerial appliances.
Devlin agrees, saying additional appliances would have made no difference because of the waterproof membrane and where the fire was located.