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Tarneit childcare centre rises from the ashes

‘‘It’s not what happens, it’s how you handle it afterwards.’’

This is Sam Johnson's mantra, every time she remembers the harrowing sight of her western suburbs childcare centre burning to the ground at 5am on June 5 last year.

Just eight months later, Ms Johnson and her husband Ian are ready to reopen Tarneit's Kool Kidz childcare, in a brand new building on the same site, on February 26.

The centre was destroyed in a bizarre fatal car crash, as a vehicle already on fire veered off the road and ploughed into the building.

It was just one and a half hours before 130 children and 35 staff were due to arrive for the day.‘‘There were explosions going off, the roof was collapsing and the flames were getting higher and higher,’’ she said.

Acting Assistant Commissioner of road policing Deb Robertson said later that day that patrolling police saw a flash of light, smoke and flames inside the car as they drove up behind it.

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After the car smashed into the childcare centre’s reception room, the fire spread rapidly and gutted the three-year-old building. The intense heat prevented police from rescuing the driver, who got out of the car, collapsed and died.

The Johnsons have succeeded in their vow to rebuild in six to nine months. Ms Johnson says it’s been an emotional rollercoaster, but she has drawn strength and love from the community.

Two local childcare centres took on the children after the fire and also her staff. Parents helped run a playgroup twice a week at a council building in Werribee and a Christmas party in a park.

Ms Johnson said 89 families were returning, and their encouragement and support had kept her going. Enrolments are at 60 per cent capacity and more enrolments are welcome.

Ms Johnson often thinks about the dead man, and was touched when a relative of his visited after the accident, to say sorry.

She doesn’t feel the place is haunted.

‘‘I know that this centre was full of love beforehand, and we had a really strong team and a strong community.''

She has learned that it’s feelings and connections with people that matter. ‘‘A building’s just a building. And that can be rebuilt.’’

A police spokeswoman said the investigation ‘‘remains ongoing’’ and the matter is with the coroner.

Kool Kidz Tarneit is holding an Open Day on February 24 with music, yoga, face painting and an animal farm.

For more information go to https://www.facebook.com/KoolKidzTarneit/