‘I heard a loud bang and woke up’

Saturday May 23, 2020 Written by Rachel Reeves Published in Local
The 60-year-old house was razed to the ground. 20052247.Inset: Papa Teina Ataera Sr by the remains of the home he built. TURAMA PHOTOGRAPHY 20052228 The 60-year-old house was razed to the ground. 20052247.Inset: Papa Teina Ataera Sr by the remains of the home he built. TURAMA PHOTOGRAPHY 20052228

Papa Teina Ataera Snr built his home 60 years ago for his new wife, the late Rangi Wichman. On Thursday afternoon, it burnt to the ground.

The cause of the fire is unknown, but police investigators say it is not suspicious.

Papa Teina, 78, was home alone, napping, when smoke began to pour through the louvres in the room where he was sleeping.

Everyone else who was living in the house until Thursday -- two of his sons, two of his grandchildren, and one of his great-grandchildren -- was at school or work.

Minutes earlier, Papa Teina’s son Daniel had left to pick up the kids. Papa Teina laid down.

“And then I heard a loud bang and I woke up,” he recalls. “I start calling to Daniel, I said Daniel! Daniel! I was half asleep, and there’s no Daniel, so I call Ken next door and while I’m calling I am covered with smoke.”

Tom Marsters Jnr, who was building next door, saw the smoke and flames and sprinted toward them. He found Papa Teina, who walks slowly these days, struggling to flee, picked up both the old man and his walker, and carried them away.

At 1:46pm, Janelle Namana, the owner of the Black Pearl Resort on the other side of the fence, called 999. A call was put through to the Fire Service at 1:53pm.

Police arrived first, followed by a voluntary fire brigade from Titikaveka and a Crash Fire team from Nikao.

By the time the trucks arrived at about 2pm, the house was a pile of rubble and charred punu.

When Daniel returned from picking up the kids from Arorangi School, just minutes down the road, his childhood home had vanished.

Papa Teina began building the home with a $200 loan. He took out another $200 loan for the windows. With no building experience, but with a steely determination and the work ethic of a man who rests only on the Sabbath, he slowly assembled a seven-bedroom house.

Over the years, eight children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren grew up in that house; they all recall shooting hoops on the cracked concrete, riding their bicycles in the grass, and enjoying carefree Cook Islands childhoods.

Papa Teina and his wife returned home in 2013 after spending years in New Zealand. Rangi, the love of his life, died in 2018; her grave, sheltered by a roof, was unaffected by Thursday’s fire.

Neighbours, friends, and the village of Kavera rallied around the Ataera family yesterday. People took time off work to help clear the land of a half-melted water tank, rubble, and ash. Infrastructure Cook Islands covered the cost of removing loads of roofing iron and of hiring a digger and a tip truck from T&M.

George Maggie dispatched a crew of prisoners to help with the clean-up.

Relatives overseas are feeling the heartache of being unable to send clothing and bedding to Rarotonga because of travel restrictions related to Covid-19 and the limited space on planes and ships.

Asked what his family needs right now, Papa Teina is quiet.

“Money and prayers,” Kiri Ataera, his daughter-in-law, responds on his behalf. “We’re just really grateful for all of the help that we’re getting. So, so many people are offering their time and their skills and their machinery and we really appreciate it.”

“The house is flat on the ground,” Papa Teina says, his voice cracking. “All burned down. But something good will come out of this.”

* You can donate at https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/support-for-the-ataera-family. All funds will go directly into Papa Teina’s bank account.

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