Confusion as fire and armed police collide

SAFE AND SOUND: Devon Intermediate students evacuated on Tuesday after their library caught fire.
SAFE AND SOUND: Devon Intermediate students evacuated on Tuesday after their library caught fire.

Students and staff at a Taranaki school rushed from their classrooms when fire broke out yesterday and ran slap bang into the middle of an armed police callout.

Police were responding to reports of a gunman wandering the streets near New Plymouth's Devon Intermediate.

But when they tried to contact Devon, a fire had already broken out in the school's library and the sound of the sirens drowned out the caller so the school was largely unaware of the situation.

The "gunman" was later safely found at his nearby home.

Principal Fiona Parkinson said they couldn't hear the police instructions to lock down the school.

About 300 students were evacuated to the school's lower sports field but shifted to the netball courts when staff spotted the armed police.

They were soon on the move again, to nearby St Joseph's school, when smoke billowed on to the courts.

Five students suffered smoke inhalation and were taken to Taranaki Base Hospital.

The drama began about 1.55pm when police were told a man was walking along St Aubyn St past Devon Intermediate with a rifle.

Streets were cordoned as police tried to find the gunman. He was eventually found at his home on St Aubyn St about 300 metres from the New Plymouth police station. The firearm turned out to be a .177 calibre air rifle which Sergeant Pat Duffy said the man had gone out to sell.

Meanwhile, four fire trucks and 16 firefighters arrived to battle the school library blaze. New Plymouth fire deputy area manager John Nicholls said it was unclear where or how the fire had started but it spread through a large part of the building.

It took until 6pm to completely douse the fire.

"A library does have the potential to have a high fire load. They won't be using it tomorrow," he said.

Mrs Parkinson said the students had all behaved impeccably during the evacuation.

"I think everyone was very calm and the teachers were fantastic," she said.

Mailina Latavao, 11, a year 7 student, said the school librarian had been most upset by the fire, but she wasn't.

"It's good we won't have to read any more books," she said. When school ended at 3pm, Mrs Parkinson released the students from their evacuation point at St Joseph's and farewelled them as they walked home.

"Well done," she said. "School as usual tomorrow."

Taranaki Daily News