On Sunday night I watched Siege, a two hour TV docudrama about a tense 50 hours in May 2009, during which a ruthless gunman – Jan Molenaar – killed a police officer, critically wounded two others, shot one of his own friends, then holed up in his hillside house, where he held a town hostage with random gunfire from his frightening arsenal of illegal weapons.
Last night I watched a documentary featuring the survivors.
It wasn’t academic for me. Or morbid curiosity. The town was my home town, Napier, and this just doesn”t happen in New Zealand. Per capita we have a quarter the firearms of the US, strictly controlled. Most are for recreational hunting or work-related use on farms. The police don’t carry guns. Maniacs don’t cut loose with automatic weapons. Usually. In our entire national history there had been just three other ’massacre’ incidents involving firearms – the worst at Aramoana in 1989 when one man with one gun killed 14 people.
But nobody had been armed like Molenaar.
He had, it turned out, over a dozen firearms with thousands of rounds, makeshift bombs, gelignite, booby traps. The police described the house as a stronghold. All in a quiet suburban street. Very, very frightening.
This was unique in New Zealand’s history. I’m a writer. I’m a historian. I wanted to know why. So I watched TV. Normally I don’t.
Besides which, I have family in Napier – I was brought up there. It’s not a big place. Molenaar went to the same primary school I did. Years before me, I never knew the guy (luckily) but he probably had some of the same teachers, some of whom had been there for years and were highly skilled at breaking children. I knew the street where the siege happened, I knew people who lived in that street, knew others in the area. As I say, Napier’s not a big place.
That was the other thing. Scale. Molenaar lived in a hillside valley that opened out across the city. About a quarter of Napier’s homes were in range of this angry lunatic. Had been, in fact, for a long time – unknowing, until that morning when he snapped. And that’s scary.
When he snapped, he really snapped. During the siege, Molenaar’s fire was so intense police couldn’t even collect the body of their fallen colleague and friend, who lay outside the house for two days. It was awful. But the police were trying to keep everybody alive. Including the gunman. Molenaar had other ideas. Some time during the second day, he turned one of his many guns on himself – denying authorities the chance to bring him to trial.
I was relieved when news came that it was over. A worrisome time – not least for my own family who were in Napier and within range of Molenaar’s weaponry.
So is it too early to make a movie? Some neighbours thought so. Not least because it was filmed on the actual location, last year. So did the paper I used to write for. Here’s what the media had to say:
What impressed me was the way ordinary, everyday people in the area responded. Some – elderly, untrained in anything military – went to help the injured as the maniac fired into this quiet suburban street. They knew what was happening, but acted to help and save others without hesitation, at huge risk to their own lives. One was badly hurt. It was an outstanding lesson for the rest of us - in courage, in doing what sometimes has to be done. Heroic and selfless actions that, I think, are what defines us as human. A needed counterpoint to the dangerous, angry madman who had caused such grief and hurt.
Have you ever had anything left-field scary explode into your life? How did you respond?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012