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Fire destroys Rotorua church

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 8/02/2017

Fire engine © Phil Walter/Getty Images Fire engine Fire engine © Phil Walter/Getty Images Fire engine Investigators are headed to the scene of a blaze that's torn through Rotorua's St John's Presbyterian Church as residents mourn.

Central Rotorua was wreathed in palls of smoke after a fire engulfed the church on Wednesday night, its roof collapsing despite the efforts of a dozen fire engines called to the scene.

The fast-spreading blaze could been seen over a wide area and burnt particles were falling in a suburb at least 5km away.

Only the building's hall had survived - with some smoke damage - and it is possible the entire church will have to be demolished, says Fire Service assistant area commander Hamish Smith.

Fire investigators would be at the scene on Thursday, but it was too soon to speculate on the cause or whether it was suspicious, he said.

"Hopefully we'll be in a position in a couple of days to tell the minister and the congregation of the church what we believe was the cause."

Veterinary surgeon Chris McKenzie, whose practice is close to the church, says it was heart-wrenching to watch the church burn.

"We could see flames jumping above the roofline," he told NZ Newswire.

"It was a beautiful church. A very sad loss. "

His wife, Carol McKenzie, ran a parenting programme from the church, which she says was very community-oriented.

It had a food bank, a drop-in cafe and a major Christmas programme, and did a great deal for people in general, she said.

"It's going to be a huge loss for the community because they [St John's] are very involved in so many things for the community."

Mr McKenzie said their 12-year-old daughter, Keighley, had begged them to stop watching the fire as it began to turn to black smoke and asked to be taken home.

Nearby resident Judith King said the sight of the church on fire made her cry.

Also mourning its loss was Judi Hart, whose grandmother, Ellen Whitely, lived on the site of the church's present car park.

"My aunty, uncle and cousin lived with her - it was a real heritage part of Rotorua." Mrs Hart said.

"The church was modern but beautiful. It's very sad it has gone like this."

The church was built on its present site in the 1980s and was constructed of brick but with a lot of woodwork inside.

A prime feature was its stained glass windows donated by earlier parishioners of the original St John's, which stood on a hill in the central business district.

The new St John's was built when the hill was bulldozed to accommodate the building occupied by WINZ and CYFS.

No other buildings were damaged in the blaze.

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