South plagued by fires

Lucky escape for family

NEIL RATLEY
Last updated 05:00 24/06/2014
Rev Teremoana Utai
NICOLE JOHNSTONE/ Fairfax NZ

'IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE': The Rev Teremoana Utai surveys the fire damage to the house he rents with his wife and several family members. 

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The hair on the Rev Teremoana Utai's head burned as he battled to save his family home from the flames with a garden hose.

But they were too big.

It had begun as a typical Sunday evening for Utai, a minister at the Cook Islands Christian Church, with his family sitting down to a traditional meal.

But a family celebration turned to devastation when flames took hold in the lounge at the front of the house.

His 4-year-old granddaughter alerted her family to a fire ripping through the rented Invercargill home.

"She heard the noise and came out the back to let us know the alarm was going," he said.

One saving grace was the fire started a few minutes before 9pm. Utai normally helped hook his wife up to her dialysis machine at 9pm.

"I don't know what I would have done if she was already on the machine. I probably would have had to throw her out the window."

Utai said it appeared the fire started when something flammable too close to the electric bar-heater ignited.

With everyone safe and sound outside, Utai tried first to save some of the family's possessions, including his wife's dialysis machine, but it was too late.

He then tried to fight the blaze with a garden hose but when he neared the "burning hot" flames and burnt the hair on his head, he backed off.

Five fire engines and at least 20 firefighters were sent to the Pomona St house, in Georgetown, to contain the blaze.

Musical instruments and a small collection of other personal belongings that survived the flames sat on Utai's driveway. The rest was gone without insurance.

"We've lost a lot, including bibles, furniture and clothing," he said.

As he sifted through the remains of his damaged house yesterday morning, the quietly spoken man of God said it could have been much worse and, thankfully, no-one was injured.

His wife's dialysis machine was destroyed in the fire, which means the couple will have to travel to Dunedin for treatment until they

get a new machine and new home.

After his family's loss, Utai wanted to share a message with others: "It may be too late for us but please be careful with heaters, take care of yourself and your family."

Invercargill fire investigator Mike Cahill said people needed to remember the basics of fire safety including the metre heater rule and having working smoke alarms installed in your home.

The house fire in Invercargill comes 24 hours after 48-year-old Thomas Huiateroa died in a fire in Inch Clutha.

Huiateroa's partner and friends could only watch helplessly as he succumbed to the heat and smoke in his South Otago house.

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