'Wall of flames' engulfs shops
Residents had to take refuge in the street as a fire swept through the rear of a nearby Invercargill shopping complex early this morning.
The fire is believed to be one of two arson attacks around 4am. The other involved a car in the Invercargill suburb of Gladstone.
Tenants in a block of flats behind the Salford St shops were abruptly awoken by police banging on their doors and forcing them out of their warm beds and outside into the chilly darkness.
Some barely had time to grab clothes while others were only wearing their pyjamas.
Witnesses described a ''wall of flames'' emerging from the back of the row of shops that include a dairy, fish and chip shop, education centre and a bridal shop.
Evacuee Valerie Shannon said she was woken up by shouts and bashing on her door.
She was greeted by police officers and her next door neighbour telling her she had to get out because the fire might spread to the flats.
"I had no idea what was going on," she said while watching the smoke rise from the shops from the safety of Salford st.
"It was horrible and a little scary."
Another flat tenant said there was "no bloody time to even grab some clothes".
But there were a lot of flames coming from the back of the shops, she said.
Ankur Joshi and his wife, who live in a house next to the shopping centre, were also asked to evacuate.
Standing outside his home, he said the sirens woke them up.
"I got home from work a few hours earlier and was not long asleep when we heard loud sirens," he said.
"When we came out, the police asked us to leave the house."
There was thick smoke rising from the shops, Joshi said.
Fire crews in breathing apparatus battled the blaze and had to kick in the doors to the shops to try and stop the fire from spreading.
Fire Service assistant area commander Julian Tohiariki said it appeared the fire started in a lean-to behind the shops.
The lean-to was well ablaze when fire crews arrived.
The shops including the bridal shop had smoke damage, he said.
A fire investigator would head to the scene of the fire this morning.
Senior Sergeant Maggie Windle said police were also investigating.
SHOP OWNERS WAIT TO SURVEY DAMAGE
Shop owners were waiting to get inside their premises to inspect the damage.
Several tenants gathered outside the centre as police, CIB and fire investigators arrived.
In the daylight the cordoned-off shops did not appear to be badly burned but a strong smell of smoke came from inside.
Quiffs For Hair owner Noelle McPherson said there was nothing anyone could do but wait until investigators gave the all clear to go inside and have a look.
Her husband told her about the fire this morning and she thought he was joking, McPherson said.
Johnny Chapman, owner of the Salford St Shopping Centre, said he had been visiting Invercargill from his home in Alexandra. He had been heading back today when he got a call saying his centre had been set on fire.
"I wondered if I dreamt the phone call that all my shops had burnt," he said while surveying the damage and talking to tenants.
"I'm gutted for them [the tenants]," Chapman said.
"They are all hardworking and this is their livelihood. I'll be pressing forward as soon as possible to get them all back in."
4 Ever After Bridal owner Sarah Barker-McBurney said she wanted to get inside and check the state of the wedding dresses before immediately contacting her customers.
- The Southland Times