Parliament Buildings

Page 8 – Disasters

Fires and earthquakes have been major threats to New Zealand's parliamentary buildings. Fire was the worst danger because wood was used in the buildings for a good part of their history. Earthquakes have not substantially damaged the buildings, but Wellington's location on a fault line worried engineers, and several times recommendations were made to demolish parts of the parliamentary complex because of the earthquake risk.

The great fire of 1907

At 2 a.m. on 11 December 1907 Parliament's nightwatchman made his regular check of the buildings and returned to his office for a hot cup of cocoa. He thought he heard rain on the roof, but when he went to check, he found a substantial blaze had broken out. He sounded the alarm, threw open the gate for the fire brigade and tackled the fire with a hose, which soon burned right through.

Did you know?

Parliament was evacuated in February 1990 because of an earthquake which struck during question time. The Members of Parliament (MPs) did what generations of New Zealanders have been told to do during an earthquake: get under a table and stay inside until the quake has finished. Labour Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and several MPs dived under the Table of the House, but a couple of members tried more unorthodox measures: one put a pillow on his head and another hid under a sheepskin rug.

The fire was probably started by a short in the electric wiring in the ceiling of the interpreters' room. It spread rapidly through the old wooden parts of the buildings and then into the masonry additions of the 1880s. By 5 a.m., Bellamy's was destroyed and firemen were battling desperately to save the library. The morning light revealed the scale of the devastation to the crowds and parliamentarians who had come to watch: the wooden buildings were completely destroyed, and the library had been saved only by its fire walls and metal fire door.

1992: the year of three fires

In 1992 the refurbishment of Parliament Buildings began, only to be disrupted three times by fires. The first occurred in July in the penthouse of Parliament House, but it was not too serious as this part was to have been removed anyway. It was the library's turn in October, and this time the fire was more serious; it severely damaged the main staircase, plaster work, stained glass and roof. To cap it all off, another fire destroyed some of the original toilets in the library's basement.

Disaster-proofing

A few potentially serious outbreaks of fire in the 19th century finally led to fire-fighting equipment being installed in the wooden buildings. A high-pressure water main was installed in the 1870s, and a battery-powered bell linked the building with the nearest fire station. Parliament was full of fireplaces for warmth, but many of these had wooden surrounds, themselves a fire risk. Slate or iron surrounds replaced these by the end of the century, and there were also 'hand grenades' – small extinguishers that vaporised into gas when thrown on a fire. All of the modern buildings have smoke detectors and sprinklers, but for a good part of Parliament's history, nightwatchmen had the task of regularly inspecting the buildings to check for signs of fire and smoke.