Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Fleeing car explodes - driver sets fire to drug equipment

The Northern Advocate


New Zealand - A Whangarei man had a harsh lesson in the danger of drugs when his car exploded during a police chase.

He was apparently trying to set fire to cannabis and drug-making equipment in his vehicle yesterday when disaster struck.

The chase on mainly unsealed roads north-west of Whangarei could have been a scene from a Hollywood movie involving a helicopter, drugs, a fiery explosion, and a police dog keen for action.

Today forensic scientists were expected to examine the man's car and home, where it was believed the man had been making the drug P, or pure methamphetamine.

The drama began when police arrived at a Matarau Rd home, 15km north-west of Whangarei, to search for cannabis yesterday morning.

Hikurangi police Senior Constable Russell Rawiri said a man fled in a car and led police on a medium-speed 20km chase around the countryside.

A police helicopter followed the vehicle, the pilot watching as the man allegedly set fire to drugs and drug-making equipment around him in the car - while he was still being chased by police.

The pilot then saw how the man's apparent attempt to destroy the evidence went horribly wrong.

As the driver stopped around 10am on Riponui Rd and prepared to flee on foot, the car went up in a chemical-fuelled fireball.

"The car ignited when he was getting out and he ran off down the paddock. A dog unit was close behind and caught him," Mr Rawiri said.

A container of isopropyl alcohol, a common solvent also used to extract cannabis oil, was thought to have caused the explosion. The man, believed to be in his late 30s, sustained burns to his legs and was taken to Whangarei Hospital in a serious condition.

"He was very lucky to escape death," Mr Rawiri said.

Police said cannabis, glass containers and a large metal pot were found in the car.

A fire sparked by the blast spread through the grass and up a tree. Blackened branches eight metres above the ground showed the scale of the explosion.

Whangarei Fire Brigade chief fire officer Allan Kerrisk said firefighters approached the blaze with caution because there were still highly explosive chemicals in the car.

Firefighters took 10 minutes to put out the blaze. They also helped the injured man who was lying in a paddock about 50m away.

"We were keeping him cool with water and saline solution and covering his burns with a towel," Mr Kerrisk said.

The man was seen being taken by stretcher to an ambulance around 11am. He was wrapped in a heat blanket and was shaking violently.

Whangarei police organised crime unit boss Detective Sergeant Grant Smith said police found cannabis plants at the man's house, and it appeared P was also involved.

"In an outbuilding the man was sleeping in, we found drug paraphernalia and traces of some chemicals consistent with methamphetamine manufacture," Mr Smith said.

Another person at the house was helping police with their inquiries.

Roading contractor Rex Nelson was working a few hundred metres away when he "saw the helicopter, the police and a cloud of smoke".

Mr Nelson ran up the hill to see what the commotion was about.

"A man was lying on the ground and he was badly burned. We gave the police some water to give him ... It was action for a rural area," he said.

Yesterday's drugs search was part of a Whangarei-wide crackdown.

By Natasha Harris

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