Arson nightmare at shopping centre
Nearby residents were evacuated and several business owners have been forced out of their shops after an early morning arson attack at a shopping complex in Invercargill.
Tenants in a block of flats behind the Salford St shopping complex were abruptly woken by police at 4am yesterday.
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, takeaway shop, education centre, hairdressing salon and bridal shop.
Police confirmed the fire was one of two arson attacks in Invercargill early yesterday.
The second fire was in a four-wheel-drive vehicle that was torched nearby in the suburb of Gladstone about the same time.
Rosedale Chinese Takeaways owner Bruce Kwong said the fire started directly behind his shop and he believed a wheelie bin was set alight in a toilet cubicle.
The fire ripped through the toilets and storage rooms belonging to several shop tenants before spreading into the roof of the complex.
It was "very lucky" firefighters managed to contain the fire before it spread to a 40kg gas cylinder resting against the building several metres away, he said. "The whole place could have gone up if it had been another 15 minutes."
Mr Kwong said police took CCTV footage away with them which showed "a man in a mask".
Southland area manager prevention Inspector Olaf Jensen said police were looking at footage from the time of the fire. The investigation was focused on an area at the back of the shops where the fire was lit.
It was too early to determine if the two fires were connected, he said. "Police are working to determine which fire was lit first."
Fire investigator Mike Cahill confirmed the fire was suspicious and started in the shed or storage rooms at the rear of the complex.
The findings of his investigation were now with police and the building had been handed back to the tenants and to the owner of the building, he said.
The police cordon was lifted yesterday afternoon and the cleanup began for business owners.
Quiffs for Hair owner Noelle McPherson said her shop was water and smoke damaged. She was still waiting for a full assessment was unsure how long she would be out of business.
In a twist of fate, Mrs McPherson's stepson Brook was one of the volunteer firefighters called in to help. "My stepson was saving his stepmum's business," she said.
4 Ever After Bridal owner Sarah Barker-McBurney said she would check the state of the wedding dresses in her shop and contact her customers. Customer and bride-to-be Chantel Kent told The Southland Times she could only imagine how Mrs Barker-McBurney was feeling.
With a month to go before her big day, Ms Kent said she panicked when she first heard about the fire but she was one of the lucky ones. "There are people who will have dresses in the shop who are getting married this weekend. I still have some time on my side."
Shopping complex owner Johnny Chapman, who lives in Alexandra, said he was visiting Invercargill and was to head home yesterday but instead got a call that his property 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 his tenants. "I'm gutted for them. They are all hard-working and this is their livelihood. I'll be pressing forward as soon as possible to get them all back in."
Mr Chapman said he hoped all the clients of those businesses impacted would stick by them.
Salford Street Dairy owner Sam Chen said he was lucky and the only damage was to his storeroom. He lost a couple of thousand dollars of stock but remained open.
Neighbour Valerie Shannon said she was woken 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. "It was horrible and a little scary." Another tenant said there was "no bloody time to even grab some clothes".
- © Fairfax NZ News
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