Things that shouldn’t happen in your home town

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


7 thoughts on “Things that shouldn’t happen in your home town

  1. I’ve never experienced anything like this but we all saw from the earthquake last year how brave and resourceful New Zealanders are. I should think, though, that a natural disaster is easier to cope with than a massacre.

    1. Thank you! It was an appalling couple of days in Napier’s history. Unprecedented for the town. The Christchurch quakes brought the best out in people too – but as you say, it wasn’t a deliberate act. Still pretty difficult. They keep getting clusters of new quakes which probably run under the international radar, but have held up reconstruction and made everybody very jittery.

  2. You might have heard of the massacre in Austin, Texas, when Charles Whitman took to the Tower on the University of Texas campus and killed 36 (I think!) people. The more recent Virginia Tech massacres were compared to this earlier one, which happened in the 60s.

    I was quite young then, but I remember being in my G’ma’s bedroom with her and my mom, watching her black and white TV, a live feed of the tower. My cousin was on campus that day, and we were worried.

    We needn’t have been, on his account, anyway. He was fine.

    You can read about the incident here:

    They closed the tower’s observation deck for several decades after that. There’s more on that here:

      1. It was one of the first, back in the day before the authorities had any real idea that someone would do such a thing.

        And it looks like I was wrong – it wasn’t 36 people, more like 18 + injuries. But still… College kids. 😦

  3. I’m fortunate enough that something like this has never happened to me. The closest thing is the same Virginia Tech incident that was mentioned above. I was in college at the same time it happened and it definitely put things in perspective for all of us. We had a lot of drills after that happened.

    This is interesting to me though – and quite relevant. At my job, my boss’ husband has a gun bluing business, so I’m around (unloaded) guns every day. At any one time we have 20 or more in the house, and that’s on top of his person collection. It seems strange that a dozen guns is considered a lot when – around here, out in the country – that’s probably an average for a lot of people. My boss and her husband are of the opinion that if everyone had more guns, we’d all be more safe. They think students should be allowed to bring them to class in order to protect themselves from these school shootings that are becoming more and more commonplace. That just sounds completely insane to me. Although still tragic, obviously, it’s “nice” to hear that NZ has only had a few incidents. Maybe the States should take a leaf out of your book and try to follow suit. Like that will ever happen. People would be up in arms (ha ha) about that.

  4. New Zealanders have a very different attitude to firearms than many in the US, largely, I think, for socio-cultural and historical reasons. On the other hand, we have ‘sacred cows’ of our own, flowing from our own founding document (the Treaty of Waitangi) which cause all kinds of conniptions when tipped.

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