Betela resident Helen Henry phoned in the alarm around 11.45pm late on Friday night, after she and husband John Hay were woken by what they described as “explosions”.
“The first fire truck arrived at 12.05am, which is impressive – although it felt like a long wait,” said Hay.
Firefighters appeared to have the blaze mostly under control within 20 minutes, and “out completely” within an hour, according to a police statement.
“The alert on the fire was raised by several callers shortly before midnight – and resulted in the teamwork of six fire trucks with Rescue Fire Service personnel being joined by all the available Volunteer Brigade services,” said the statement.
Although it’s not yet known for certain, the “explosions” Henry and Hay heard may have come from gas bottles stored at the site. Also at risk was the store’s petrol bowser, although police described it as “apparently undamaged” come Saturday morning.
The building itself – and all its contents – was destroyed throughout however, as was a new vehicle parked alongside.
“The blaze was a mass of thick black smoke and cinders, and witnesses say there was a strong toxic odour emanating from the fire, possibly due to the aerosols and chemicals within the premises,” said a statement issued by Cook Islands Police on Saturday night.
The statement went on to say that officers from CIB will be working closely with fire service personnel to investigate the incident, and that the store’s interior will be examined by fire experts, assisted by a police investigation team.
The Cook Islands Police Service would also like to “assure the community that all available staff will be assigned to conduct any necessary investigative work once the fire experts are satisfied with the findings on the cause of the blaze”.
“Police will pursue all lines of inquiry and ask that should anyone have any information relating to the circumstances and/or events in the vicinity around the time of the fire, to please make contact with the police.”
It was only eight days prior to the destruction of the Betela Tex Mart store that Arorangi’s iconic Friendly Mart store was also destroyed by fire late on Thursday, June 14, the same night the Cook Islands general election took place.
The interior of Friendly Mart was also completely destroyed, although the building remained standing.
Asked if there might be any link between the two fires, a Cook Islands Police spokesman said it was “too early to make judgements” and stressed that “steps are being taken to resolve these incidents as swiftly as possible”.
“The police would not like to see people panic or speculate prematurely,” he added. “Investigative work is underway and the public is being asked to come forward with any information that may be helpful to gaining more details about the circumstances and activity around the fires.
“The worry and concerns are understandable but the safety and security measures are being strengthened while the necessary work gets done with the investigation.”
The spokesman also informed CINews that two fire experts from New Zealand who arrived on Saturday to assess the Friendly Mart fire had also offered to assist with the Tex Mart fire, and attended the scene there as well.
In a second statement released Sunday afternoon, the Cook Islands Police Service declared that they would be initiating a new deployment strategy “to help boost safety and security measures around the island”.
“Following the destruction of two retail outlets and subsequent investigations into the cause of these recent fires, police are taking steps to provide assurances and help alleviate concerns around Puaikura, and the island,” it read.
“The Commissioner of Police confirms that changes to the duty roster will result in a boost in checkpoints and surveillance, with additional patrols by police officers.
“Police also want to hear from anyone who might have relevant information about these incidents. Witnesses or anyone with knowledge about the events or circumstances connected to the fires should come forward, including information about any suspicious activity.”