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Hamilton blaze claims firefighter

Published: 6:05PM Saturday April 05, 2008 Source: ONE News/Newstalk ZB

Firefighters are mourning the loss of a well known and respected colleague after a huge fire in East Hamilton.

Senior Station Officer Derek Lovell died from injuries he received attending the Icepak Coolstores fire at Tamahere on Saturday evening.

He was caught in a massive explosion as his crew tried to break their way in to assess the extent of the problem. Six other firefighters who were on the scene are still in hospital - one of them, a 37-year old man, remains in Waikato Hospital's intensive care unit.

Fire Service National Commander Mike Hall is in Hamilton now, offering support to the injured firefighters and their families.

The cause remains under investigation, as the blaze continues. Between 70 and 100 firefighters were at the scene, and residents of a nearby house were evacuated.

Crews from Auckland, Hamilton and Rotorua continued to monitor all through the night and into Sunday, but at this stage are likely to let at least two of the three affected buildings burn themselves out - a process expected to remain there for much of the day. The crew say it remains to dangerous to approach them.

A heavy smell of gas was in the air just before the blast at around 4pm on Saturday afternoon, which ignited tonnes of cheese.

The coolstores are expected to be a total insurance write-off. Owner Jan Van Eden says the damage has been very extensive, but that it is too soon to know what caused the fire. No one was inside at the time.

But people living near the Icepak facility say they've been concerned about creeping growth on the site for years.

Resident Peter Whitihera says there have been discussions with the owners, but the company just kept getting bigger.

Some reports this morning suggest there was a problem getting water to the fire, despite the fact it was not initially large in size. Foam tankers from nearby Hamilton International Airport were used to help reduce the fire.

Dairy giant Fonterra ferried water with its tankers and a nearby swimming pool was also drained to cope with the fire.
Eyewitnesses to the blaze say a thick blanket of smoke covered Hamilton Airport and much of the city's southern parts and say the fire just got bigger and bigger.

The film of greasy, black soot left over from the fire is not believed to be a danger to health.

Medical Officer of Health Felicity Dumble says the hundreds of tonnes of cheese created a massive fat fire - which was more of a nuisance than danger to health.

She says the soot will settle on people's cars and houses, and there may be some contamination of roof water, although it's not thought to be toxic. Garden vegetables can be eaten as long as they are well washed.

Dumble says toxic fumes from polystyrene in the building could have been a risk to those very close to the fire - but would not affect people living any distance away.

Meanwhile, Waikato Hospital Incident Controller Hayley McConnell says anyone who has difficulty breathing should seek medical attention.

Hamilton Chief Fire Officer Roy Breeze says he is stunned by his team - who worked to fight the fire well into the night even after they helped perform CPR and first aid on their seriously injured work mates.

He says all the officers who worked on the blaze yesterday evening will be debriefed.

But the Firefighters' Union is blaming cutbacks for the disaster.

Spokesman Boyd Raines says it was an accident waiting to happen, and that the union has been calling for more than one fire truck to attend fire alarm calls for some time now .