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Motueka Cool Store destroyed by fire

Posted October 31st, 2012
Contributed by Gary Westbury, one of the firefighters present

Report - Nelson Evening Mail - Friday, April 12 1957
Photos by John R. Sharp

The New Zealand Apple and Pear Board's new cool store at Motueka, which cost £125,000 and had a storage capacity of 100,000 cases of fruit, was destroyed by a fire which was first noticed at 4.30 o'clock this morning. The store, which was covered an area of half an acre, contained over 67,000 cases of fruit estimated by board officers to be worth £84,000.

The building was officially opened by the Minister of Agriculture, Mr Holyoake, only seven weeks ago in time for this season's fruit harvest. Reports from Motueka state that the store and its contents are a 'complete write-off'.

Board Meeting Cancelled

The Apple and Pear Board members had assembled in Wellington for a meeting today. The meeting was cancelled and the acting chairman, Mr H.R. Sampson, the general manager, Mr D.F. Campbell, and board members Messrs K.B. Longmore and W. Benzies, caught the 10.10 a.m. plane from Paraparaumu for Nelson.

Reported By Nearby Resident

At the time of the discovery of the outbreak there were no employees of the board on the premises, the engineer, Mr A. Gilbert, having left at 9 o'clock last evening when everything was apparently in order.

The fire was first noticed at 4.30 o'clock by Mrs E. Van Dongen, of Trewavas Street, whose house faces the building across the tidal estuary of the Motueka harbour. The Motueka fire brigade was summoned and both its engines plus a trailer pump were rushed to the scene.

Raging Inferno

The rear wooden section of the building which houses the compressors, pumps and machinery for the cooling system was a raging inferno by the time the brigade arrived, and escaping ammonia fumes severely hampered the brigadesmen.

The Chief Fire Officer, Mr R. Primmer, sent an urgent call to the Nelson brigade for gasmasks and deputy-Chief H. Oliver and another member of the Nelson staff made a quick run to Motueka with the necessary equipment.

As the fumes gradually cleared the local brigade was able to attack the blaze from three quarters using six leads of hose.

Rapid Spread of Flames

It was soon apparent, however, that saving the building and its contents was practically impossible. With no fire-proof walls between the compressor room and the main building, the flames rapidly engulfed the rearmost chambers, spread quickly from walls to stacked fruit and then up into the roof.

Continuous layers of timber, malthoid, and aluminium foil provided the insulating between sheet aluminium outside and inside. The flames spread quickly through these materials and burst out at the eaves. Even when sheets of the outer covering were ripped off only a local area could be dealt with, and despite the thousands of gallons of water being poured onto the various parts of the building by the three pumps the fire steadily spread.

Elevated platforms for fire fighting were created from the limited resources available.

All that remained at 8 a.m. The fire was slowly and steadily spreading along the building.

Stacks Of Fruit 20 Feet High Inside the building the stacks of cases and their wooden supporting wooden pallets were rapidly engulfed and as the walls fell blackened heaps of fruit up to 20 feet high spilling from the containers could be seen.

The compressor room by this time was a mass of tangled pipes and gutted switchboards. The results of the terrific heat generated could be gauged by the effect on the steel wall and roof girders. Where there were a few standing many were twisted into fantastic shapes and most of the remaining roof supports were sagging downwards.

At 11.30 o'clock this morning the fire had crept along the walls and roof of the three hundred feet long store and was approaching the High street end of the structure.

The fire spread was often intense even though the efforts to control it were strong.

Firefighters Gary Westbury and George James attacking the fire in 'very wet' conditions.

Firefighters Gerald Rangi and John Taylor fight the fire from another inside position.

Total Loss

Apple and Pear Board officials watching the efforts of the brigadesmen who were still pouring water on in every available opening, agreed the building was a total loss.

Firefighters Gary Westbury and Peter Rudman make another attack at the fire.

Reception Of Fruit

Although faced with serious problems, the local officer of the Apple and Pear Board stated this morning that business would be carried on as usual from Monday. Some space available at the cool store at Port Motueka would be utilised for the receipt of export fruit and arrangements were already in train for extra shipping to uplift fruit as it was received.

Fork Lift Trucks Saved

At the time of the outbreak three fork-lift trucks valued at £3000 each were in the building. These were removed by members of the board's staff, but not before two of them were damaged.

Fruit Destroyed

Particulars of the fruit in store at the time of the fire are as follows:
Export Apples - 32,290 cases, Export Pears - 3,261 cases,
Local Market apples - 9938, Local Market Pears - 6358 cases,
Factory Fruit - 15,412 cases. Total Cases in all = 67,279 cases

Covered By Insurance

The Apple and Pear Board's office stated that the building was completely covered by insurance in the State Office.


The 20 Motueka fire brigade members had an exhausting time. Faced wth a task of extreme difficulties, they fought the blaze without letup, most of them soaked to the skin. Their efforts were praised by deputy-Chief Fire Officer H. Oliver of Nelson who said that they had done everything possible in view of their many difficulties.

The Mayor of Motueka, Mr W.J. Eginton, who inspected the damage, said the fire could only be described as a disaster for the district.

The cleanup starts although a little smoke still rises. (Note lack of a fire wall at this end).

New Cool Store Planned

The New Zealand Apple and Pear Marketing Board is taking immediate steps to replace its Motueka cool store destroyed by fire this morning. (Done)

Notes from one fire fighter who was there -
At 4.30 a.m. the roof was covered in frosty ice and one could not stand on it.
The unusual ammonia gas was potent and unseen in the early morning darkness.
Apples were available cooked, stewed, and burnt - but this was no apple pie!
Some building designs can pose special challenges to firefighters.


Comment by Liz McBride:
[Posted 31 May 2015]

I was born April 12 1957 at the Motueka Community Hospital around 9am. Apparently the doctor couldn't be found - he was at the fire. I read this with great interest. Mr Holyoake mentioned is my third cousin.

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