Family's old heater explodes like bomb

Aaron Seymour has what is known as a "blast tattoo" - spidery scars that weave their way over his head, face and arms - caused by shrapnel from a terrifying explosion that tore through his home and almost killed him.

The 39-year-old father of two from Papamoa, near Tauranga, was caught in the powerful shockwave that emanated from the wet-back chip heater in his kitchen. He was knocked unconscious and has no memory of the explosion, which has been described as having the same force as a car bomb.

It destroyed the kitchen, blew out the window frames and concrete block exterior wall and sent a 10kg piece of cast iron flying through the house.

The next thing Seymour remembers is waking up two days later in Tauranga Hospital.

Speaking about the experience for the first time yesterday, Seymour described how he had been stoking up the heater before the explosion.

He and his wife, Trudie, bought the house from his grandparents two years earlier. The plumbing at the back of the heater had been decommissioned, but they wanted to use it for heating so had a flue installed in late October.

They didn't know it, but there was still water in the holding tank at the back, and the release valve was closed. Most wetbacks today use radiators rather than tanks.

The heat from the fire turned the water to steam, expanding 1700 times according to the Fire Service report.

"We didn't have any advice given to us to have all that plumbing checked before we used it," Trudie said. "Someone told us that's how they make car bombs, just in a cylinder like that."

Aaron, a gas technician, was sitting in the kitchen eating yoghurt. That's the last thing he remembers.

"I was at the top of the stairs and he said, ‘What's that noise?"' Trudie said. "And then it just went ‘bang', like a bomb going off. The neighbours three doors down thought a car had hit their house.

"I screamed. I came down and the kitchen was black, there was smoke, all the lights were out, I didn't know where Aaron was. I got the kids out the front door and went back and screamed ‘Aaron, where are you?' The smoke cleared and I saw him unconscious on top of rubble."

Trudie dragged her husband clear, and he regained consciousness, asking, "What's happened?" He was taken to hospital, where he was put in an induced coma for two days. He was in hospital for two weeks.

He suffered a fractured neck, lacerations, nerve damage and burns to 9 per cent of his body.

Aaron has been told his recovery will take months. "I've lost all my strength and everything now, I just feel hopeless."

The family are staying at an apartment in Mt Maunganui while an engineer's report is done on the house. Their insurance company has agreed to pay for repairs. "You think you're safe in your own home, I can understand how people in Christchurch feel," Trudie said.

The couple's advice to anyone thinking about recommissioning an old wetback? "Basically, just get it checked," Trudie said. "I'm just so grateful he's still here. I don't like to think about it too much - what could have been."