The Hawke’s Bay Herald-Tribune
Monday September 7, 1992
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Founded September 1857
Hastings landmark burns
By Mike Tod
Staff reporter, Hastings
The crack of breaking glass was the ﬁrst sound Sacred Heart priests heard of an inferno which burnt their church to the ground yesterday morning.
Four priests were asleep shortly before 6am in the presbytery less than 10 metres away from the 97-year-old Hastings landmark when the fire started.
Father Bill Leeming said he was woken by a crack – the sound of the fire. He woke the other priests – Father Maurice Scully, Father Paul Duncan and Brother Pius Keene.
Fr Leeming said that by the time he got outside, the church was almost totally engulfed in flames. He described the sight as a shock.
“Here was our church on fire and what were we to do? I could only helplessly watch it burn,” Fr Leeming said.
Fr Duncan said the sound of cracking glass stirred him from his sleep, but Fr Leeming woke him properly.
Fr Duncan dialled 111 and while he was talking to the fire service the phone went dead and the power stopped. He put a towel around his waist and ran across Heretaunga Street to a house to call the service again.
A spokeswoman for the service said at least 50 calls were received about the fire.
The other priests also fled the presbytery scantily dressed to seek sanctuary in nearby houses.
Fr Scully said his first reaction to being told the church was on fire was “Hells’ bells”. He was the last priest to leave the presbytery and was dressed only in his underclothes.
One stranger gave him a pair of sox and another gave him a dressing gown.
The residents of a house opposite the church in Heretaunga St were evacuated.
Debbie Vermunt said she woke to what she thought was a baby crying. She then heard a ﬁreman’s radio telephone.
Mrs Vermunt went to her lounge to investigate and was struck by the immense heat, with flames leaping at least 25 metres into the air.
The windows in the lounge were rattling and she thought they were going to break, she said.
She and her husband moved their three daughters and two other girls staying with them to the back of the house before getting dressed and fleeing.
The area commander of the fire service in Hawkes Bay, Peter Blackmore, said today the church was engulfed when fire-fighters arrived at 5:50am.
It could not have been saved and the primary concern of fire-ﬁghters was to save nearby buildings.
Forty-two fire-fighters and ten volunteers fought the blaze manning five pumps and a snorkel. The command vehicle was also taken to the scene.
Some fire-fighters wore breathing apparatus.
The heat from the fire was so intense it cracked presbytery windows and melted plastic bumpers on cars nearby.
Most of the steeple was standing after the blaze but fire-fighters deemed it a hazard. A digger was brought in to try to topple it but could not reach the top. So a mobile crane was called.
The crane knocked over the top section, leaving the digger to finish the rest.
Fire-fighters spent more than nine hours at the scene. A security guard kept people away overnight.
The four priests returned to the presbytery yesterday before lunch and slept there last night.
Yesterday morning, 350 people gathered to view the charred remains. Last night, groups of up to 20 also inspected the devastation.
Fr Scully said: “To my mind, it was one of the nicest wooden churches in New Zealand.
“It’s hard to believe this has happened. It’s an enormous loss, but, like many things in life, you’ve got to put it behind you and get on with living.”
Early morning help praised
Priests today praised the actions of six young people who feared the priests could have been hurt in yesterday’s ﬁre which destroyed Hastings’ Sacred Heart Church.
The group scrambled through the dark presbytery where four priests slept, less than 10 metres away from the blazing church looking for anyone.
They found Father Maurice Scully who was getting dressed.
Fr Scully said today they told him to “hurry out at once”. They thought the presbytery could catch ﬁre.
He and Father Bill Leeming today praised the efforts of the group – Leon Pryce, Adam Blummont, Shane Gibson, Leigh Harris, Mel White and Brendon Gray.
“The young people that helped were excellent and so keen to help. They were a great group,” Fr Scully said.
The young people’s actions at the fire were the culmination of an eventful night, which saw them help catch a vandal and alert police to the fire.
Leon Pryce said yesterday they were outside Munchies takeaway bar in Market St at 3.30am when they heard the sound of smashing glass.
Shane Gibson alerted a nearby policewoman while Leon and Adam Blummont chased one of the men who smashed a window. They caught him behind the Trust Bank where there was a struggle and he hit both of them on the head.
Adam suffered a cut to the eye and Leon received swelling to the side of his face. They used force to restrain the man on the ground until police arrived.
Adam, Leon and their four friends then went to the police station to give statements.
As they were leaving the station through the front door around 5:30am they noticed a bright red glow. They informed the police and then rushed in their car to the blaze. Shane said when they arrived the church’s windows were bursting and two priests were standing outside looking in a state of shock.
Leon said that within two minutes of arriving the church was “like a barbecue”. The fire was the most spectacular sight he had seen.
Shane said they unsuccessfully tried to find hoses and water to douse the flames.
Leon said the fire appeared to have started at the back of the church.
Prayers for arsonists, page 2
Further pictures, pages 2, 3
Sights set firmly on rebuilding
Sacred Heart parishioners have their sights firmly set on building a new church. The nucleus of a rebuilding committee could be announced later this week, parish priest Father Paul Duncan said today.
Father Duncan said the Palmerston North Diocese Bishop Peter Cullinane would have the final say about a new church. But there was a lot of ground work to be done before proposals were put to him.
A meeting would be held on Thursday night, at which he hoped to announce the names of a group to act as consultants for the rebuilding.
Also present would be Napier’s Monsignor Tim Hannigan, who had had first-hand experience of replacing a church lost by fire.
The parish administrative council and the chairman of its pastoral council would be at the meeting, said Fr Duncan.
The process of rebuilding was likely to be lengthy.
In the meantime, Mass would be held in the parish hall in Eastbourne St.
Fr Duncan said he had been inspired by a strong hope for the future among parishioners, who shared memories and tears at a mass last night.
Suspects for interview
Detectives hunting the arsonist who burned down the Sacred heart Church yesterday plan to speak to several suspects today.
Detective Sergeant Rick Graham said the names of several suspects had been passed on to the police.
Detectives would be speaking to those individuals, he said.
Police Senior Sergeant Terry Gray confirmed police had received a report that the church bell was heard at 3am yesterday – 2 hours and forty minutes before police were advised the 97-year-old church was ablaze.
The arson inquiry today included trying to confirm exactly where the fire started, and also how and where the arsonist broke into the church.
Det. Sgt Graham said the investigation would also take into account a theft last Wednesday of several religious medals from a display case in the church porch.
Those medals were stolen during the afternoon, and while there is nothing to link the theft to the arson, police are checking all possibilities.
While the police appreciated the information about the bell ringing, Snr Sgt Gray said that obviously they would have appreciated the call immediately the bell had been heard.
Photo captions –
Sacred Heart engulfed by flames.
Photos: Duncan Brown.
From left, Leon Pryce, Adam Blummont, Shane Gibson, Leigh Harris, Mel White and Brendon Gray.