Should Ballantynes ​​department store apologize for its devastating fire?

The Ballantynes ​​department store fire remains one of New Zealand’s deadliest disasters. An investigation found that store management “failed to take all reasonable steps” to protect staff. 75 years later, should the company just apologize? Reporting by MICHAEL WRIGHT.

75 years ago, on November 18, 1947, a fire engulfed the Ballantynes ​​department store in Christchurch, killing 41 people. The devastation unfolded in full, appalling sight for thousands of people in the city centre.

“For those in the nearby buildings who heard the screams of the women and saw them moving frantically through hell, those minutes will forever be etched in their memory,” he added. The press wrote.

“Spectators of a frightening panic, with a tragically inevitable end, they were helpless.

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Many of these cries belonged to the victims. Thirty-eight of the 41 people who died were Ballantynes ​​employees. Many of them are young women working in the millinery and accounting departments, housed on the upper floors of the store.

As the fire from the basement quickly consumed the building, they found themselves trapped.

In 1948, a commission of inquiry listed the store’s labyrinthine network of vents and openings among the reasons for the rapid spread and devastating effect of the fire. He also found that Ballantynes ​​management had failed its staff.

Employees continued to work as smoke thickened in the workshop and customers were admitted until 20 minutes after the fire was first detected. When the evacuation took place, it was carried out ad hoc, by staff members.

A wall in Ballantynes ​​department store is demolished after the 1947 fire.


A wall in Ballantynes ​​department store is demolished after the 1947 fire.

“In our opinion,” the commission concluded, “all steps reasonably possible in the circumstances have not been taken to [staff and shoppers’] safety and escape.

Despite this, there was never a public clamor for penance. The commission found that although Ballantynes ​​did not have a sprinkler or alarm system, it only violated minimal city regulations regarding unauthorized construction work involving improper materials.

Even the building’s surprising lack of exterior emergency exits was not considered a breach, as Ballantynes ​​had never been commandeered by firefighters due to their absence.

The brigade itself was also censored. He arrived on the scene woefully ill-equipped to fight the fire, found the commission, and then wasted crucial minutes doing little to contain it.

Jessie Smith, 18, was one of three teenage girls among the 41 victims killed in the blaze.


Jessie Smith, 18, was one of three teenage girls among the 41 victims killed in the blaze.

Whatever outcry there was, it faded over the decades. Ballantynes ​​was overtaken in the public consciousness by bigger and deadlier disasters, although a rump of dissent persisted.

In 1994, New Zealand Geographic magazine interviewed several survivors. “Kenneth Ballantyne, that mean, mean man,” one said, referring to a corporate executive at the time, “[He] was thinking about money, not people.

The company has never apologized for its role in the tragedy. Asked directly this week, the current chief executive, Maria O’Halloran, did not mention any plans to make one. “Due to the time lapse and the absence of those who were actively involved, it is difficult for me to comment on this,” she said.

“I understand members of the Ballantynes ​​family have personally visited the families of all those affected. I can only imagine what a trying visit it would have been for all.


Local drama Ablaze re-enacts the 1947 Ballantynes ​​fire, one of New Zealand’s deadliest disasters. (Video first published in September 2019)

Jessie Smith, 18, was one of the youngest victims. Recently graduated and about to study nursing, her job in the accounts department at Ballantynes ​​was a stopgap. Di Keenan never met his Aunt Jessie, but never forgot his grandparents’ grief over their daughter’s death.

“My grandmother never went to Ballantynes ​​again,” Keenan said. “My dad died of a heart attack. I think he was 56. They said it was the stress of it all.

“For me it’s not about apologies. I appreciate Ballantynes ​​always acknowledging the date with the wreath at the memorial. The loss of my mother’s family has been immense and has caused so much pain and loss. sadness. I would have loved to have her as my aunt.

Lyn Hughes also lost an aunt – Joyce Street, who was 28. Her father Noel Street, Joyce’s brother, never mentioned any acrimony towards his sister’s employer.

“I talked to dad a lot about it,” Hughes said, “I don’t remember him ever saying anything about being upset [at Ballantynes] Or anything.

“We evolved 75 years later, didn’t we?”

Lyn Hughes and Noel Street laid flowers at the Ballantynes ​​memorial after it was restored in 2014. Hughes said his father, who has since died, suffered a

Dean Kozanic / Stuff

Lyn Hughes and Noel Street laid flowers at the Ballantynes ​​memorial after it was restored in 2014. Hughes said his late father suffered a “huge closure” while attending the rededication: “He’s never went to Joyce’s funeral”.

Ballantynes ​​will again lay a wreath at the victims’ memorial at Ruru Lawn Cemetery in Bromley on Friday. Floral tributes will adorn its Christchurch and Timaru stores and it will hold a memorial service for the victims at Christchurch’s Transitional Cathedral.

“We will never forget the precious lives lost or the solemn lessons learned from the fire,” O’Halloran said.

Keenan will be there. After laying peonies on her Aunt Jessie’s grave, as she does every year.

“I wish I had known her,” she said. “I remember mum always talking about it… the heartbreak of [losing] an 18-year-old girl that everyone loved. A bright sparkling little thing. All she wanted to be was a nurse.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Jessie Smith was the youngest victim of the fire. The youngest victim was Claire Aileen Hamilton, 16. (As amended at 9:49 a.m., November 18, 2022)