People rushed toward the fire beginning to burn out of control in the grocers and drapers shop of Benge and Pratt on Upper Hutt’s Main Street.
Many wanted to help get stock out. It was what we did, helped our neighbours out.
But this time it would turn deadly.
Benge and Pratt was a well known store. It had expanded only a few years before. There was little it did not sell.
When the fire broke out late on a Saturday night in March 1914 it was not immediately noticed in a back room to the grocery store.
Senior partner Herbert Victor Benge (sometimes referred to as Victor Herbert) left the store about 10pm. He was at the back of the premises in the bakehouse.
The fire was noticed shortly after. People ran to help, other storekeepers and police. Fire was always a danger and everyone pitched in. Upper Hutt had no fire brigade.
Members of the public and other store owners were trying to move goods and assemble hoses to fight the fire when there was a huge explosion.
It was so large it was heard as far away as Kaiwharawhara.
The hands of the clock on the Post Office were frozen at the time of the explosion - 12.09am on March 29, 1914.
The nearby Provincial Hotel was badly damaged, with nearly every window blown in, the porch destroyed and doors blown off their hinges.
The night train from Auckland to Wellington had just pulled into Upper Hutt and one of its guards was killed by the blast.
The train was quickly repurposed to take the injured into Wellington.
But by the end, eight had died.
They were Constable Denis ‘Dinny’ Mahoney - who had been one of the first to arrive to help, train guard William Flynn, Upper Hutt’s postmaster James Comesky, railway porter George Taylor, bridge contractor Michael Toohey, assistant storeman John Wesley Vivian, town board member Virgil McGovern and blacksmith Everard Pelling.
Initially it was unclear what had caused the explosion.
The store owners denied there was any explosives in the store but it was discovered that there was a barrel of gelignite illegally stored. It had been set off when the fire reached it.
The police station was across the road and it was Mahoney who was first on the scene helping to get people out of nearby buildings and trying to get goods out.
He had just made the decision to get all the helpers out when the shop exploded.
Mahoney had been born in Limerick, Ireland about 1873 and came to New Zealand with his siblings. He worked as a miner before becoming a police officer. He had been stationed in central Wellington and Woodville before becoming Upper Hutt’s cop in 1905 when he also married Mary Dennehy and had three children.
He is buried, along with three others killed in the disaster, in the St Joseph’s Catholic Church graveyard.
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