Ballantyne's Store Disaster

There have, however, been terrible examples of the loss of human life by fire.

Chief among these was undoubtedly the holocaust in a Christchurch department store in 1947 which cost 41 lives. The sudden development of a minor basement outbreak into a raging inferno represents the most shocking tragedy by fire in the history of New Zealand. It occurred during the afternoon shopping hours on 18 November 1947 in Ballantyne and Co.'s three-storey store in Colombo Street, Christchurch. The dead were all members of the store staff and, the bodies being unidentifiable, were buried in a common grave.

The Ballantyne's Department Store Fire on 18 November 1947, remains the worst fire disaster in New Zealand history. Forty one people died in the blaze, mostly employees who had failed to evacuate the second floor workrooms at the time of the fire.

J. Ballantyne & Co, located at the corner of Colombo Street and Cashel Street in Christchurch, employed about 300 people at the time of the fire. Many of these worked on the second floor in various departments, including millinery, dress-making, and bookkeeping. The store consisted of seven conjoined buildings, the main ones being of three stories.

When the fire was first noticed, at 3:31 in the afternoon, the owners were informed and the fire department was called, but were informed it was only a cellar fire. The shopping area on the ground floor was evacuated by sales employees. When firemen arrived shortly after, they initially did not realize there were still people on the upper floors of the building.

Many of the victims on the second floor died of smoke inhalation as they tried to leave via fire escapes. Kenneth Ballantyne was the last person to be rescued by firefighters.

The fire was put out by 8pm leaving the building as a gutted shell. It took four days to recover all the bodies, and a civic mass funeral was held on 23 November.

A commission later determined that the fire response was inadequate and the building did not meet fire codes, though it had passed its last inspection. It has been noted that office employees were not evacuated because the stores' owners required that insured equipment be stored away in a fireproof safe first.

Ominous grey skies and a cool easterly wind greeted Christchurch residents on the morning of November 18, 1947.

The 432 staff of J. Ballantyne and Company, Ltd. prepared for another busy day. Every department was fully stocked for Christmas, just five weeks away.

Keith Smith spent most of the day shining vacuum cleaners in a basement furniture storeroom. He went to afternoon tea in the staff cafeteria at about 3.30 p.m.

Instead of returning to the basement after his tea break, he went to a drapery store on Colombo Street for a quick smoke. He heard the sirens of passing fire engines, but took no notice of them.

While Keith Smith was having afternoon tea the woman in charge of Ballantyne's approval office, Edith Drake, noticed a wisp of smoke filtering from the basement.
She told a salesman, Percy Stringer, who grabbed a fire extinguisher and went to investigate. Thick smoke was quickly filling the basement… then the lights failed. He was forced to retreat.