24 Oct 2019

SkyCity fire battle moves to recovery phase: 'It's affected everybody'

7:16 pm on 24 October 2019

The fire at the SkyCity Convention Centre is still smouldering, but there are signs things are getting back to normal in Auckland's CBD.

Cordons around SkyCity.

Cordons around SkyCity. Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

People were told to stay away from the area for a second day, with cordons still in place and the pungent smell of smoke in the air.

Paul Murtagh, general manager of the Albion Hotel that's next door to the convention centre, said the hotel would be closed until further notice.

"We basically had to evacuate the building and relocate any guests that we had, and for any upcoming books we also have to relocate all the guests."

They have no idea when they might be able to reopen, and were waiting for word from Fletcher Building, Mr Murtagh said.

But he said the closure would have a big financial impact for businesses.

"Having our doors closed for three, four, five days - it's huge."

Mr Murtagh said the fire was a shock.

"We've been waiting for this building to be finished for so long and now it's going to be dragged out even more.

"It's a bit crazy, I can't believe it's happened. It's not just for us, it's for the whole city. It's affected everybody."

SkyCity closed its entire precinct - including its hotels, the casino, the Sky Tower and restaurants - after the fire on the roof of the under-construction International Convention Centre broke out on Tuesday.

But it said it would start reopening this afternoon and it hoped to be back to business as usual tomorrow.

Down on Queen Street, some businesses have stayed shut today because of the smoke, while others like Pawlina Lechuga were getting back to work.

"They gave us the option to either stay home and work from there or to just come into the office.

"But I prefer to work in the office because then I can talk to everybody and it's easier."

Poppy Hodgekinson's hairdressing academy has remained open over the past couple of days.

"A lot of people on our course have been feeling quite lethargic and headaches and things from the smoke."

Roads around the fire are still closed, but Fire and Emergency said the cordons would start to be reduced and some lanes will be reopened.

The closures have meant delays and diversions for people driving into the central city, and some bus stops have had to move.

But people who did come into the city by bus this morning said there were more empty seats than usual.

Recovery phase: Dampening the hot spots

Firefighters battling the blaze at the SkyCity convention centre in central Auckland say they are moving into a recovery phase, but there is still eight million litres of water in the basement to get rid of.

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Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

In a press conference this afternoon, Fire and Emergency said they were locating and extinguishing hot spots and any fire that was in the interior of the building.

They hoped to reduce the cordons soon, but it's likely a cordon in the immediate area around Nelson Street, Wellesley Street and Hobson Street will remain up for some time.

Auckland Council's Safeswim manager Nick Vigar said there was believed to be about eight million litres of water in the basement, and at this stage they do not know the level of contamination.

Meanwhile, the union for firefighters claims more ladder trucks would have made all the difference in the first few hours at the fire.

The Professional Firefighters Union vice president Joe Stanley said the fire could have been put out very quickly if crews had more options to fight from above.

Fire and Emergency Auckland City area commander Richard Twomey disagreed.

He said an aerial appliance arrived at the scene within 10 minutes on Tuesday but it wasn't able to reach the fire.

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He said there was an urgent need to remove this, and it was currently going in to the storm water network and being discharged into the Viaduct Basin.

A crane has been brought in to help put out the fire.

A crane was been brought in to help put out the fire earlier today. Photo: RNZ/Amy Williams

Fire and Emergency's Murray Billing said the public shouldn't be alarmed if they see a flare up, this was likely to continue and this was able to be controlled.

Firefighters have been working inside the building for the past 24 hours, he said. Some of the construction materials have caught alight in this time but have been extinguished.

SkyCity said it would be working with Fletchers to investigate the damage to the international convention centre and work out how best to rebuild.

Fire and Emergency let the roof burn out and at about 7am managed to bring the fire under control.

They said they had thermal imaging cameras and drones up to find hot spots and flare-ups, and they believe the mission will go on through the night.

Equipment from Ports of Auckland is being hauled in to pump out millions of litres of water flooding the basement of the building.

Health concerns

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff is still asking people to keep away from this part of the city.

"The air quality should start to improve."

Auckland public health authorities are encouraging central city residents and workers to stay indoors if at all possible.

For those with children attending early learning services in the central city, the advice remains to keep them at home.

Auckland medical officer of health Denise Barnfather said people, especially those with respiratory problems should keep out of smoke if possible.

"We're still awaiting analysis of the components of the smoke. We know that smoke contains toxic matter and other pollutants that can have harmful health effects."

She said face masks wouldn't be able to keep out fine particles of air pollution but covering the nose and mouth would stop larger particles.

Otago Medical School lecturer Lutz Beckert said the toxins in the smoke were likely to be carcinogenic.

But he said people exposed to it for a couple of days wouldn't be harmed.

Professor Beckert said people near the fire who have underlying lung conditions, such as asthma, should make sure they were taking their preventive medication.

Road closures

With road closures and bus diversions still in place, drivers are being told to expect significant delays.

Auckland Transport said while the city was open for business, people should avoid travelling around the central city at peak hour, and leave earlier or later if they could.

Train services aren't affected by traffic diversions, so if people have the option to travel by train, they should.

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