23 Oct 2013

Cook Islands police probe Rarotonga school fires

5:23 pm on 23 October 2013

The Cook Islands police say they are not ruling out arson as being behind a pair of fires which destroyed two schools in Rarotonga on Sunday local time.

Six classrooms at Nukutere College were burned to the ground after a fire was reported around 1am.

A second fire was reported at Avatea School in Nikao just after 4pm.

Sally Round is in Rarotonga and asked a senior Cook Islands Police official, Superintendent Aka Matapo, about the fires.

AKA MATAPO: At the moment, the police is working closely with our fire service here in Rarotonga in trying to establish the seed of the fire and what may have happened in terms of how it started off. We have our people doing area enquiries, people who have been around the area that have been mentioned to us at the moment. And we've also been trying to seek assistance from the general public in terms of who may have been around these two schools just prior to the incident being reported to the police. As you probably know, the first school was reported after 12am on Saturday night. The recent one was yesterday afternoon some time after 4pm.

SALLY ROUND: Is there any indication that this was arson?

AM: Like all other cases that we do we are approaching it with an open mind, based on our gathering of information from the people. And we'll take the matter from there.

SR: The schools themselves, are they totally destroyed?

AM: The majority of the two schools have been gutted by fire and the ministry of education has actually been working to try and accommodate the schools so they can continue with the normal schooling in makeshift classrooms, especially at the time that school children were due to come back to school today at the school holidays.

SR: It's not the first time there have been fires at schools in the Cook Islands, though, is it?

AM: No. One of these schools that has been gutted by fire on Saturday night was actually burnt in 2006 or 2007.

SR: So the Cook Islands police, are you very concerned about this?

AM: We are very concerned, as much as the community. And we'd like to assure the community that we are doing our best and what we can in trying to identify how this fire started and hopefully identify who was responsible.

The government has reportedly committed to rebuilding the classrooms in time for the start of the new school year. The Finance Minister Mark Brown says he will look at bringing in outside help like forensic scientists to determine if the fires were the work of arsonists.