Little Bits of History

New Zealand’s Worst

Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 18, 2014
All that was left after the Ballantynes’ Department Store fire

All that was left after the Ballantynes’ Department Store fire

November 18, 1947: The Ballantynes’ Department Store fire takes place. The store was located in Christchurch, New Zealand. More than 300 people were employed there at the time. The upper floors of the store, located on the corner of Colombo Street and Cashel Street were devoted to staff work areas such as dressmaking, credit, and accounting departments. At 3.31 PM, a woman employee reported smoke coming up the stairs. The smoke was coming from the basement, beneath the furnishing department. There were no flames or sounds associated with burning. The woman was instructed to call the fire brigade, which she did. She also alerted the owners, Kenneth and Roger Ballantyne, who worked on a higher level floor.

The fire brigade was called a second time at 3.46. There were about 250 customers as well retail staff on the ground floor. These people were evacuated. The upper floors were filled with people just returned from a tea break and they did not leave the building. Flames erupted through to the furnishing department. At 3.47 PM, the fire brigade arrived on site. They were first led to believe the fire was contained in the cellar. They were also not made aware of people trapped on higher floors. The two most senior staff of the fire brigade were not working on this day and the company was understaffed. A decision was made not to bring a turntable ladder as the fire was thought to be relatively minor.

Suddenly, the center of the store exploded into flames, blowing out windows. Within just minutes, the entire building was engulfed. A call went out to help bring in all the area fire appliances, but this call was delayed as the telephone system was overloaded. It took a further ten minutes for the firemen to discover the source of the fire. Some of the upper floor departments had bosses who told their employees to leave earlier and they had arrived safely outside. However, those in the credit department had been told to wait and when the decision to evacuate was finally made, the stairwells were filled with smoke and the people could not leave. Some tried to use the fire escape, but this exit route was also unusable. Forty-one people died in the blaze or while attempting to escape.

The firemen were unable to contain the fire. Kenneth Ballantyne was saved when he escaped through a broken window and climbed onto the parapet. Hoses kept him wet and relatively safe until ladders could be brought to his rescue. He was the last to be rescued from the inferno. It took over 200 fire fighters and 20 appliances were used to get the blaze under control. By 6 PM, it was possible for beginning searches to look for bodies in the charred ruins. The fire was completely extinguished by 8 PM. The last of the bodies was not recovered until November 21. The store itself was a link of seven smaller buildings and was four stories high. It was completely destroyed. No primary cause for the blaze was ever determined. There had been no emergency plan and no fire alarms installed in the unsafe structure. When it was rebuilt, these oversights were addressed. It remains the worst fire disaster in New Zealand history.

Fire taps something ancient and vital in each of us, something both snarling and reverential. – Caroline Paul

The fire was followed by a period of grieving and then by an incredible lightness, freedom, and mobility. – Martin Puryear

If there was a fire at my house I would throw more things on it. The only thing I would take out? Myself! – Jean Nouvel

Ever since we invented fire and the wheel, we’ve been demonstrating both our ability and our inherent desire to fix things that we don’t like about ourselves and our environment. – Aubrey de Grey

Also on this day: Jonestown – In 1978, a mass suicide takes place in Jonestown, when 913 of Jim Jones’s followers kill themselves.
Great Shot – In 1307, William Tell shot an apple from his son’s head, according to legend.
Steamboat Willie – In 1928, the cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse was released.
Antipope – In 1105, Antipope Sylvester IV claimed the papacy.

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