School blaze a cruel blow

JONATHAN CARSON
Last updated 08:13 15/11/2012
Whangamata Area School
Bruce Mercer/ Fairfax NZ

GUTTED: Whangamata Area School principal Ross Preece amid the devastation caused by yesterday’s technology department fire.

Whangamata Area School fire
Daniel Davie Zoom
Firefighters are battling a classroom fire at Whangamata Area School.

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A "$1 million" fire tore through the technology department at Whangamata Area School yesterday.

And as the flames engulfed the building, one man watched quietly as his pride and joy crumbled.

The school's head of technology, Bob "Pipey" Pipe, poured his heart and soul into the department over the past 20 years, building it into one of the region's best.

But yesterday, shortly before 11am, a fire started in the roof of the woodwork classroom and quickly spread throughout the rest of the building.

Whangamata chief fire officer Kevin Ryan said the flames were already through the roof when fire crews arrived.

Six crews battled the blaze, bringing it under control by about 12.35pm.

But the woodwork, metalwork and automotive classrooms could not be saved.

All that remains of the technology department is the outer shell and charred tables, chairs and equipment.

The smell of smoke and ash lingered yesterday afternoon as the fire service and police secured the scene.

"There's significant damage of the interior and to the roof as well," Mr Ryan said.

"I would think they'd have difficulty putting that back together."

Principal Ross Preece estimated about $1 million worth of equipment was damaged, including metal lathes, drill presses, mig welders and automotive hoists.

"I would say it's a $1 million fire."

He said it was fortunate that no-one was in the technology block when the fire started and that it didn't spread to the nearby computer and graphics suites.

Senior students were taking part in an athletics day on the field, others were on study leave for NCEA exams and the juniors and staff were the only ones who had to be evacuated.

Once students and staff were safe, Mr Preece's thoughts were with Mr Pipe - the long-serving technology teacher who invested two decades of his life into making it a "fantastic facility".

"He's a master of the scrounge," Mr Preece said.

"We've got all of the great stuff that most schools don't have because [Mr Pipe] has the support of the community."

Yesterday, while Mr Pipe - who is in his 60s - watched his department go up in smoke, a number of students hugged him.

Mr Preece said he was now at the mercy of the Education Ministry and its insurance assessors, but hoped they would "come to the party" and the building could be rebuilt by early next year. The cause of the fire is being investigated but it is not considered suspicious.

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- Waikato

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