‘Within 12 minutes it was gone’

Home Range magazine

In just two minutes, Courtney and Daniel Thomas’s house on Woodlands Rd, Gordonton, was thick with black smoke. Within 12 minutes it was gone.  They talked with Annette Taylor for Home Range magazine last year.

THE COUPLE’S daughter Addilynn, 13 months old, was sleeping inside when the fire started.

It was late afternoon, Friday 29 June, a freezing day in the middle of winter.

Earlier in the day, Courtney had taken Addilynn and her three-year-old twin brothers Mason and Landen to Chipmunks Playland, in Hamilton, to escape the cold house.

“I was home about 3.30pm and Daniel had finished work. I’d asked him to light the fire, it was so cold. I’d bought new toys for the kids and the boys walked over to Nana and Poppa’s, which is the big house on the section, to show them the toys.”

She put Addilynn down for a nap and Daniel started installing a heat pump. “I was sick of the fire.”

Halfway between the two houses was a picnic table. “It was a place we could hang out so I went over there and started talking. Dan came over and said he’d put the heat pump on the wall, could I go and check it was in the right place.”

They were at the table talking for just a minute or two when Daniel’s Uncle John asked, ‘Is that smoke normal?’ “And you could see smoke coming out of the roof from the kitchen.’

Daniel said he just started running. “Then you just started hearing all the smoke alarms going off. I watched Daniel run, we all sort of ran. Through the glass you could see inside the house, and within two minutes it was black with smoke, so thick.”

Smoke had crept into the hallway by their daughter’s bedroom but an almost-fully-closed door stopped smoke getting to her.

“He just ran in, scooped up Addilynn and got out through the window.”

Fire investigator for the Waikato Kevin Holmes, who attended, called Daniel a hero for what he did that day.  “He also said in one more minute he wouldn’t have been able to get to her that way.”

Daniel said he did what he had to do. “Something bad was happening and it was just – get in.”

He was no sooner outside with baby Addilynn, than the fire took over. “I was incoherent,” Courtney said. “I’d rung 111, and was half screaming for Landen, who I couldn’t see. I was like, did he follow us in there? Twelve minutes, that was it, our house was gone.”

She remembers people stopping on Woodlands Rd. “They weren’t sure if it was just a shed burning down, then they heard me screaming and started running.”

FIVE FIRE engines came out, and later, an ambulance took Daniel and Addilynn to hospital.
“He had burns on the inside of his throat, and smoke in his lungs. And they wanted to check Addi.”

The boys wanted to say goodbye to their father and sister as the ambulance was about to leave.

“But they didn’t have any shoes. All their shoes were on the front deck and they were all burned. That was when it set in for me as a mum. I realised we had nothing.”

Later that night at the hospital Courtney and Daniel just lay on the bed and cried. “I wouldn’t let Addi out of my sight,” Courtney said. “I wouldn’t let anyone else take her because I had so nearly lost her.
“And then we had to… just… get over it.”



The Thomas family
Before the fire….


THREE MONTHS LATER we are sitting in a rented house in Orini, the sun pouring through the window. Their landlords, the Jubys, have been absolutely fantastic. “So supportive. They just let us move in, they didn’t do any background checks, anything – ‘you need a house, just move in’.”

Addilynn is again napping but the twins, now four, are playing.

“A lot of little things had to line up for the fire to happen,” said Courtney.
Daniel had cleaned the fire out the night before.

“He took out all the soot, so it burned hotter. The cane basket was next to it. The fire investigator said these baskets heat up and cool down so often, they get brittle…. and can ignite. Ours was really old…”

It’s where people keep their kindling, fire starters and a stash of wood.  Opposite theirs, was the couch – the next thing to burn. Daniel had tried to light the fire that morning before he went to work in Hamilton. Courtney said it’s a good thing it didn’t catch.

“It would have caught the house on fire in the morning when I was in bed with the children all asleep…”
The night of the fire, Courtney’s father and his partner delivered five massive bags of brand new clothes and shoes. Then her grandmother turned up with blankets and sheets.

This was the start of the giving, for the family, as people started to hear about the fire on Woodlands Rd. The support has been amazing, said Daniel. “Those first few days after the fire you couldn’t see the front porch. There was so much stuff donated from people, total strangers. A couple drove from Auckland with a bed for us. It was nonstop, we’d wake up and come to the house and stuff would have been dropped off. It was like a traffic jam sometimes.

“We had boxes turn up and we didn’t know who they were from. Brand new stuff.”

Courtney said people shopped online and sent things to them directly. “We were given vouchers for supermarkets. I opened the mail one morning and there was a card – ‘Hi, I know you don’t know me, but I just want you to know that we’re thinking of you’ – and a $300 Farmers’ voucher inside. I just cried.”
A Givealittle page raised $10,000.

“We’d like to thank everybody. The whole Gordonton community, people from Hamilton, from Auckland, strangers from everywhere.”

Christian agency WEC Aotearoa NZ in Gordonton not only gave them free accommodation in the days after the fire, they also put on the twins’ birthday party when they turned four in July. “Balloons, cake, pass-the-parcel, I didn’t have to do anything, just walk into the room,” said Courtney. “They were so kind.
“We went from losing everything to having more than what we had to begin with in one week.”

THERE HAVE BEEN misconceptions about what caused the fire, and about the house they lived in for four years. “From the outside it looked like a shed,” said Daniel. “It was the only dwelling on the property when my parents bought the section. A previous owner had converted it; my brother and I lived in it when we were young.

“When I was an apprentice and Courtney pregnant and not working, my parents said why didn’t we just do the place up and we could stay there.”

The couple put rent money into completely modernising the building. “From the road it looked like a rough shed, which meant nobody came to our house, nobody robbed it but once you drove round the back it was amazing. All open plan living, all new – kitchen, carpet, all kept tidy. It was our home,” said Courtney.  The woodburner was modern, and fully enclosed. “People have thought the fire was caused by an open fire, or faulty wiring. And we had heaps of smoke alarms.”

And Daniel said the reason he was able to get baby Addilynn out so quickly was that he always knew what to do in case of a fire.

“We’d talked about it. Fire will often start in the lounge. Close the doors. Don’t go back, go out the windows. I always had a plan.”

The Friday before the fire he’d taken a fire extinguisher refresher course at work. “Our kids know what to do as well – don’t look for mum and dad, get out of the house.”

The twins were invited to visit the fire station in Chartwell, and got to sit in a fire engine as it drove around Porritt Stadium. “They [the Fire Brigade]have been so good to us and given us so much support and information.”

The two are optimistic they’ll live in their own home one day.

“What do you do?” asks Courtney. “You can sit there being depressed or you carry on. We’ve got three kids; we have to look after them.”

Daniel agrees. “We’re making a good thing out of a bad thing.”

The Thomas family
The family in Orini


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Number 8 Network - a community website for the rural areas northeast of Hamilton, NZ, is run by Gordonton journalist/editor Annette Taylor.

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