Newspaper Article 2002 – Century of HB fire-fighting recalled

MERVYN HORACE TONG

Century of HB fire-fighting recalled

More than a century of fire-fighting in Hawke’s Bay was recalled at last Wednesday’s funeral of stalwart Hastings fireman Merv Tong, who died two days earlier on March 25, aged 93.

His grandfather, Sam T Tong, was the original superintendent of the Hastings Fire Brigade, when it was formed in 1886, for five years, and later served 21 years on the Hastings Fire Board.

A Cornishman who had served his time as a builder in England, he had arrived in New Zealand 10 years earlier, after an eventual journey on the Brodrick Castle which was dismasted en route in the Bay of Biscay.

After marrying Napier woman Isabella Waterworth, he moved to Hawke’s Bay where he founded an undertaking firm, remembered now in the name of Tong and Peryer, although the family has not been involved for many years.

Merv Tong was born in Hastings on June 8, 1908, the son of George Tong and wife Edith (nee Warren). He went to Hastings Central and boarded at Napier Boys High School, and became a motor mechanic in an era in which, says his son-in-law, Brian Cuff, motor mechanics were the equivalent of today’s computer whizzkids.

He strengthened the family fire-fighting tradition when he joined the brigade as a volunteer two months after his 20th birthday, continuing alongside his career in the motor trade which included 40 years with Hawke’s Bay Farmers and the Baillie Farmers merger, and a period as a service manager.

On St Patrick’s day 1929 he married Willa Dorward, from across the road in Hastings Street, and they had five children in a marriage which lasted more than 70 years before she died in 1999.

His only sister, Valda, married another fireman, and his only son, Owen, joined as a 16-year-old, but his service was cut tragically to just two years when he died of leukemia in 1960. A grandson, Kevin Dunlop is a fireman in Gisborne, in his Gold Star year (25 years’ service), while Ashley Woon, another grandson, is a volunteer in Havelock North.

Merv Tong, who drove the fire trucks through most of his career in the service, as well as fighting the fires, was a permanent paid fireman for just 10 years, from 1956 to 1966. After retiring from the Hastings brigade as a Senior Fire Fighter at the age of 60 on February 13, 1970, he served three more years with the volunteer brigade at Haumoana, near where he was living at Te Awanga.

The major events in his 42 years’ service to the Hastings brigade are related in its first-century history Fighting Flames, by Russell Kirkby, and start with the Hawke’s Bay Earthquake on February 3, 1931, less than three years after he joined.

When the shock hit Hastings at 10.47am, he was working as a motor mechanic at Williams and Kettle’ s garage, and recalled years later: “I got a hell of a fright”… Things started to go upside down in all directions”.

Most of the Market Street building collapsed around him and he crawled his way through the debris, emerging to see “seven or eight girls coming down on their jacksies” on the precariously-sloped roof of the Club Tearooms, on the site now occupied by the central Hastings branch of WestpacTrust.

By the end of the day, firemen in Hastings had seen some of the worst of the tragedy, recovering bodies of 25 of the 93 killed in their town.

In between the fires which then raged through several buildings in the town centre, he was seconded to rescue and patrol work and recalled his own successful hands and shovel rescue of a severely injured woman in the rubble of Cliff Press.

Alerted by a boy who had heard voices coming from beneath the rubble, he dug her out. She was taken to the emergency hospital at the Hastings Racecourse, and ultimately recovered.

From the Tuesday morning of the ‘quake, Mr Tong worked sleepless until dozing off on the back of a Dennis fire truck some time on Thursday morning

In February 1941, he was one of three firemen caught amid the collapse of a ceiling while fighting a large fire in the cool stores of W Sisson, York Road. Struck on the back by falling timber, he was taken from the building and spent a night in hospital.

On November 30 that year he helped fight one of Hastings’ most spectacular fires, in a 60-year-old kauri grandstand at the racecourse.

Heading home after the second of two calls to buildings where firemen could not find any fires, despite a mystery and growing cloud of smoke around the town, he spotted the real fire, but it was too late. By the time the brigade had regathered at its station and was heading out, just before 11.30pm, the racecourse building was ablaze – “lighting-up the entire area like brilliant sunshine,” the book recorded.

He helped fight many other major fires, including the huge January 1957 blaze which razed the Williams and Kettle store and offices in Ahuriri, Napier, several fires which destroyed landmark Hawke’s Bay homesteads, such as the 22-room Frimley Homestead (March 1950) and a fatal fire at Waipiropiro Station (October 1957), and the Watties fire in February 1962.

But it wasn’t all a life of quelling fires, with quelling a riot dominating one phase as he drove the engine from which the hoses were played when violence and mayhem erupted among Blossom Festival crowds in 1960.

His interests were varied, though mechanics and knowledge figured prominently, and Popular Mechanics dominating his reading material.

He built yachts and boats in the back yard, and he grew orchids and bred canaries.

In his 80’s, he still wallpapered, and at 92, he finally relinquished the driving licence which dated back to the days when he courted Willa Dorward on his motorbike, and they toured the countryside in his first car, a Pontiac.

Merv and Willa Tong are survived by four daughters, 13 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.

Photo captions –

MERV TONG as a young fireman.

MERVYN TONG, 93, pictured on an historic fire engine in February this year.

HBTODAY PICTURE: LYNDA FORREST

Original digital file

ColwillVM1123_loosePapers_06_MHTong.jpeg

Date published

March 2002

Format of the original

Newspaper article

Publisher

Hawke's Bay Today

Acknowledgements

Published with permission of Hawke's Bay Today

People

  • Valda Colwill
  • Willa Dorward
  • Kevin Dunlop
  • Russell Kirkby
  • Edith Tong, nee Warren
  • George Tong
  • Mervyn Horace Tong
  • Owen Tong
  • Sam T Tong
  • Ashley Woon

Accession number

1123/1886/41941

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