Two Far North men are being hailed as heroes in their isolated coastal community after dragging a kuia from a burning home and performing CPR until emergency services arrived.
Sadly, the 72-year-old died despite their efforts — and those of other neighbours plus the St John medics, volunteer firefighters and police who responded to Monday night’s blaze.
Yesterday investigators were still sifting through the ashes hoping to find the cause of the fire at Taemaro Bay, on the east coast between Mangonui and Taupō Bay.
There was no power to the century-old house with the woman relying on candles for light and gas for cooking.
Gary Watson was among the first to notice the blaze just after 10pm from his home up the hill.
He had just finished watching Vegas on TV when he heard his dogs howling and barking.
”I looked out the window and it was all red. I jumped in my truck and went down there. The fire was really going for it.”
The front door was open but he couldn’t see anyone inside at first.
”I yelled and yelled and I heard her murmur. Then when I looked into the fire I saw her legs. I went in, grabbed her legs and pulled her out. As soon as I got her out the front just took off and the house pretty much collapsed.”
The kuia was still conscious enough to tell Watson off for being rough as he dragged her outside.
Meanwhile, Mark Peterson was asleep a few houses away when the sound of Watson’s teenage son tearing past on a motorbike woke him.
With no cellphone coverage in the bay the young Watson was on his way to one of the few homes in the bay with a landline phone so he could raise the alarm.
Seeing a red glow outside Peterson jumped out of bed and raced to the fire, where he found Watson calling for help as the kuia lost consciousness.
The former firefighter started CPR while another neighbour, who did not want to be named, started administering shocks with the bay’s defibrillator in a bid to restart her heart.
They continued until St John paramedics arrived.
Volunteer firefighters responded from Mangonui and Taupō Bay but with the settlement located at the end of a long, steep, private road, there was nothing left to save once they arrived.
The two men were described as heroes in the tight-knit community yesterday but it was a term they rejected.
”It’s just normal, it’s natural instinct. If you see anybody in a fire and you have a moment to save them, you jump in and do it,” Watson said.
”I think we were just helping each other out,” Peterson added.
The Advocate has chosen not to name the woman until police have informed all next of kin.
She is understood to have two children in the Wellington area who were yesterday on their way north.
She returned to ancestral land about 15 years ago and had lived alone in the oldest house in Taemaro Bay since her husband’s death some years ago.
Taemaro resident Sandra Heihei said the whole community gathered together to help, from those who brought tea and biscuits at 2am to the kaumātua who arrived at first light to bless the site.
She was ”really, really thankful” to the emergency services who had attended, despite Taemaro’s challenging access.
”It was very humbling,” Heihei said.
She described the deceased as an active and kind-hearted woman who ”gave and shared a lot without saying anything”.
With her children living far away she became something of a communal nanny with locals taking turns to mow her lawns, take her shopping and bring her books.
Though her home was small and in poor condition she refused to leave.
”She loved Taemaro and that house. That’s why she’d never leave.”
While Watson and Peterson were unable to save her life, they saved her body which meant she could have a proper farewell. The details of her tangi had yet to be decided yesterday.
A neighbour, who did not want to be named, said the tragedy was a reminder to keep an eye out for the elderly, especially those who lived alone.
Though fire investigators had yet to determine the cause she said it was also a reminder of the danger of candles.
She was pleased the bay had its own defibrillator and that many locals were trained in first aid.
While Taemaro Bay has no mains electricity most homes now rely on solar power rather than candles for lighting.
Three people died in house fires in New Zealand on Monday. The other deaths were in Waihī and Hunterville.
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