Investigation into whether marae fire alarms were working

2019-06-11 02:20:46

A strongly-worded email from Wellington City Council's boss unequivocally states Tapu Te Ranga Marae was a fire risk and lives were in danger.

Kevin Lavery's 2015 email, which was leaked to Stuff, warned councillors: "It is clear that the lives of the occupants of the marae complex are at risk – particularly if fire breaks out in any of the buildings."

Lavery's deathly prediction was proven thankfully wrong after 27 Scout cubs and others escaped from the Island Bay marae in the nick of time before it erupted in flames in the early hours of Sunday.

Now Fire and Emergency has confirmed that a key part of its investigation would be whether fire alarms in the building were working.

Lavery, on May 20, 2015, told councillors he had signed the documents to deem the buildings in the marae complex as dangerous buildings. It would have led to the immediate evacuations of a number of buildings on the site, he said.

"I realise the Council's action is likely to inconvenience a number of people who will have to find alternative accommodation in the immediate future – which is why I did not take this decision lightly."

The council on Monday clarified that the dangerous building notices did not apply to all buildings on the site and some were safe for occupation. It has been asked to clarify whether the main, now destroyed, building was safe.

Lavery told councillors in 2015 the marae had long provided challenges, "principally because of the amount of ad-hoc, unconsented, building work that has been carried out".

"In recent months, however, our [Building Compliance and Consents] staff have been made aware that features of the continuing construction are clearly dangerous in that they do not go anywhere near to meeting fire rating requirements.

"The multi-level and rambling nature of the complex also means it presents major problems in terms of emergency egress." "We are aware the marae is now regularly and increasingly being used as overnight accommodation for large numbers of people – this includes school and corporate groups."

Council staff had taken an independent fire expert to the marae. That fire expert was "extremely worried about the risk to the occupants of the site, particularly those who sleep there overnight", Lavery said. "Given his unequivocal opinions, the Council is required to take action – we cannot ignore the report."

Fire investigator Peter Fox on Monday said it was possible a spark from a brazier started the Sunday morning fire, that began in a storeroom attached to the marae.

There was no other obvious cause of the fire starting. It did not appear suspicious and there was no electrical cabling in the area.

Inside the room were plastic chairs - essentially a litre of petroleum each in materials - as well as paint.

Both would have fuelled the fire, he said.

Marae spokesman Gabriel Tupou said he was at a loss to explain why the marae was earlier labelled a death-trap.

If anything, the marae had saved lives, he said.

As well as taking in homeless people, it became a shelter for people following the Kaikōura quake, which resulted in the demolition of theoretically-more-compliant buildings around Wellington.

The building had passed a fire audit on April 16, and one of the requirements for that would be to check smoke alarms, he said.

That criticism dates back to 2016 when Wellington City Council spokesman Richard MacLean told RNZ the marae had major problems and could uncharitably be called a "death trap".

In the fire's aftermath, a Givealittle page was set up to help pay for the marae rebuild. It has raised almost $53,000 by Monday afternoon.

"It is very comforting and encouraging to see people willing to give back," Tupou said.

"It just goes to show - it is the Kiwi way."

The council and marae have been approached for further comment about Lavery's email.

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