A wheelchair-bound man killed when fire gutted his intellectually and physically disabled centre flat in Napier's southern rural outskirts early yesterday would have had no chance of escaping the ferocity of the blaze, witnesses say.
Thought to be a 57-year-old man paralysed many years ago in a motorbike crash but last night still to be positively identified, the victim was found dead when firefighters entered his gutted flat at the Riverbend Rd entrance to Kahukura, a 10-unit complex opened by Whatever it Takes Trust (WIT) for intellectually and physically disabled residents 18 months ago.
While police were at the scene throughout yesterday, acting Hawke's Bay CIB head Detective Sergeant Mark Moorhouse said the scene was being "locked-down, cause undetermined" pending a post mortem today he hoped would establish the cause of death and the cause.
The unit was ablaze when the alarm was raised at 5.08am, and the body was discovered only after the flames were extinguished.
WIT chief executive Caroline Lampp said with a single staff member on "wake-over" overnight, all the other clients in the complex were evacuated before the arrival of the first of two appliances from the Napier station.
Tankers from Bay View and Hastings were also used, but while the surrounding area is as dry as anywhere else in the Hawke's Bay drought there was no threat to structures on neighbouring properties, the nearest being at least 200m away.
Nearest neighbours Allen and Liz Street were unaware of anything amiss until Mr Street looked out from a window and saw the glow from the flames in the distance.
"It was well involved in flames by then," Mr Street said. "It was four or five minutes before the fire brigade arrived. We just stood in awe. It was gone."
Mrs Lampp was confident procedures including staffing levels had met requirements but, while "awaiting the outcome of the police investigation like anyone else" all aspects would be reviewed.
"[He] was a much-loved member of that community and someone who had been doing really well living out there and had been really happy in recent months. So it's a tragedy for him, for his family and for all of us."
Fire Service Hawke's Bay area manager Chris Nicoll said he understood the evacuation of all residents had taken place by the time firefighters arrived. While police were still investigating, Mr Nicoll said it was thought the fire started in the bedroom of the unit.
The body was removed by an undertaker shortly before midday, and police were still investigating at the scene.
Mr Moorhouse, indicating that no suspicious circumstances had been found, said that like any fire it was treated "as suspicious - until we establish it's not."
While the gutted flat had had a ramp to enable ease of access for wheelchair residents, Mr Nicoll said such fires always highlighted the need for people to ensure escape routes are available to be used by all occupants at times of fire.
According a Fire Service spokesperson it was the 12th "avoidable residential death" caused by fire in New Zealand in the eight-and-a-half months since the start of July last year, which compares with 13 for the previous 12 months and 19 for the 2010-2011 year.