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West Auckland family forced to live apart after fire destroys home

Grace Tinetali-Fiavaai

Insurance payout limbo leaves father sleeping in van for work after house fire

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

A West Auckland family who lost everything in a house fire is stuck in limbo waiting for an insurance payout, with one member of the whānau having to sleep in a van during the week to be closer to work.

The Vaganā family, of Avondale, lost their home of more than 20 years in a fire that ripped through their Canal Rd property in late October last year.

They are made up of Leuluaiali’i Leaoaniu Lila, her husband Tusaniali’i Ne’emia, an elderly aunt and the couple’s three children aged 14, 20 and 22.

They were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs and stayed in a local motel for several weeks as they struggled to find more suitable accommodation while waiting for an insurance claim to come through.

“We just want to return to a place where we can reclaim our old life and be together again properly as a family,” Leuluaiali’i says.

Fire investigators outside what is left of the Vagana family home on Canal Rd, Avondale, West Auckland. Photo / Josef Nolan

Their neighbours, Emily George and Josef Nolan, were at home that day when someone saw smoke coming from next-door.

“I first heard the faint sound of a smoke alarm beeping and then noticed light smoke coming from an open window,” Nolan said.

“The fire brigade arrived in five minutes. But at [that] stage, the whole house was engulfed and unable to be saved.”

Forced to sleep in van to be closer to work

The cause of the blaze is still being investigated by authorities.

Witnesses at the scene have told the family that a fire investigator pointed out it appeared to have accidentally started in the corner of a bedroom, near a multi-plug.

Neighbours raised the alarm after seeing smoke and then flames coming from the property on Canal Rd, Avondale, West Auckland. Photo / Josef Nolan

Those witnesses include Leuluaiali’i’s work chief executive, who had arrived at the home to offer support to the family.

A week after the fire, the Vaganās suffered another devastating loss when her husband’s mother died.

Family living apart

Almost three months on, the family members are living separately - the children with relatives and Leuluaiali’i with her boss in Whangaparāoa. Her husband stays in the family van during the week so he can be close to his workplace.

“My husband works the night shift and has opted to sleep in the van because we don’t have the money to do so without paying petrol.”

Tusaniali’i Ne’emia Vagana is sleeping out of the family van during the week to be closer to his job and save money on petrol. Photo / Supplied

Leuluaiali’i said she let their insurance company, Tower Insurance, know earlier this month that their current accommodations would be unavailable by the end of the month.

Tower Insurance chief claims officer, Steve Wilson, said on Friday: “Claims for the total loss of a home due to fire are complex and require in-depth assessment before they are accepted.

“This is commonplace in the insurance industry. Due to this complexity, assessments and investigations for these types of claims can take longer to accept and settle.”

Wilson said they worked quickly as possible to give their customers certainty during stressful circumstances; providing temporary accommodation and emergency contents payments.

“While we can’t comment on the details of this claim due to privacy, we can share that we’ve spoken with our customer today and are committed to supporting the family as we work to settle their claim.”

Leuluaiali’i’s eldest children are both studying and working part-time as teacher aides at an intermediate school in central Auckland.

She said one of her daughters, who bravely confronted the blaze before it got too big, has been suffering from psychological effects ever since.

“We feel displaced, stressed and disheartened.”

Despite their situation, she acknowledged the value of appreciating life’s simple joys.

“I urge others to cherish the moments they have and appreciate the home they have because it could be gone tomorrow.”

The family also wanted to share their gratitude to members of the public who had donated to a Givealittle page that was set up for them by a family friend, Rachel Falwasser.

“It made our Christmas special.”

Hero image: Leuluaiali’i Leaoaniu Lila, her husband Tusaniali’i Ne’emia and their children Tu'u, Siana and Lofi are living separately after a fire destroyed their home in Avondale. Photo / Grace Tinetali-Fiavaa

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