A Maori Legend
Kiri Te Kanawa
November 18th, 1947
The fire which raged through Ballantyne's department store in Christchurch was the worst fire in New Zealand history. A huge three-storey drapery department store Ballantyne's was often busy and on this day there were over 300 customers and dozens of shoppers inside the building.
At approximately 3.30 p.m. one of the salespeople discovered a fire in the basement beneath the furniture store. There was a delay before the fire department was called and it took another twenty minutes before they were on the scene. By this time the fire had a strong hold and was spreading rapidly.
Those most in danger -- and most oblivious to what was going on -- were the girls working on the third floor. Some leaned out the windows to watch the fire engines, not realising they were coming to the very building they were working in. Gradually the workers in the upstairs departments received word to evacuate. For many it was already too late.
Those in the dressmaking department raced out with flames following them close behind and parts of the building already falling in.
In the credit department workers were told to make for the fire escape but black smoke blocked their way. Then the lights failed confusing and trapping them further. Smoke and flames poured through the floor. Only two women from this section survived when they climbed onto a window and leapt to the verandah below.
Gradually the customers and most of the workers reached the streets. Black smoke now poured from windows and flickering tongues of flame could be seen. The crash of windows exploding and the roar and crackle of the fire filled the air. Above this could be heard the screams of those still trapped inside.
Then Kenneth Ballantyne appeared at a third four window and climbed out onto a ledge. He perched there waving his handkerchief while firefighters played their hoses on him to offer some protection from the heat. A ladder was propped against the building, it was too short. Quickly another one went up and there was a cheer when firefighters finally bought him down. He was probably the last person to leave the building alive.
The heat became so great firefighters were forced to retreat. To push the crowds back they played their hoses over them. Powerlines snapped and live wires squirmed on the ground. The heat of the fire intensified further and great blocks of concrete peeled away crashing to the street below. A water tank on the roof of Ballantyne's warehouse boiled furiously.
Two hours later the fire burnt itself out and firefighters entered the building. Now was the time to try and establish how many people had died. The employees of Ballantyne's were lined up for a roll call. In the confusion figures the next day put forty-nine people missing of which thirty-four were known to be dead. The confirmed tally showed that forty-one people had lost their lives, all of them employees, no customers. Many of these people died within sight of the exits. Bodies were burnt beyond recognition, in some cases there were only body parts left. Identifying victims was impossible so the remains were buried in a mass grave.
The Commission of Inquiry found there too long a delay in calling the fire department and that the firefighters lacked the training and experience needed to deal with a fire of that size. The lack of an efficient evacuation procedure and alarm was also criticised. It was felt that these two things would have resulted in many more lives being saved.
As to the cause of the fire, this was never established. A carelessly discarded cigarette was one idea, an electrical fault another. Several people reported seeing flashes of light before the smoke appeared and this suggests electrical trouble.
As a result of this horrible fire safety standards and regulations were upgraded. Sprinklers, alarm systems and strict safety precautions are all a result of this event.
Today, Ballantyne's trades on having recovered from the fire that so marred its history and the history of New Zealand.