Authorities have described a “confronting” scene at a Wellington hostel where at least six people died in a blaze early on Tuesday.
Up to 30 people remained missing on Tuesday morning as police and emergency services began desperate efforts to confirm how many died when the four-storey Loafers Lodge caught alight.
It came as it emerged many of the hostel’s residents were Kiwis deported from Australia as convicted criminals being sent home.
Harrowing stories also emerged on Tuesday of survivors jumping from windows, crawling to safety or being trapped on the roof of the hostel in the southern Wellington suburb of Newtown.
NZ Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has confirmed six deaths, while there are reports of up to 30 people still missing. Up to 100 were thought to be in the hostel when the fire began.
“We will get through this. We’ll make sure the victims are supported. We’ll make sure our first responders are supported as well,” Mr Hipkins said on a visit to the still-smouldering scene on Tuesday.
“For our fire and emergency crews who are on the scene, clearly this is traumatic for them as well. I know they put everything they could into getting people out of the building. It’s an absolute tragedy what’s happened here.”
Mr Hipkins said it was a very “difficult morning” and described the scene as “quite confronting”.
“We’ve not seen an event of this scale in quite some time. I know they’ve done everything they could. I want to reiterate my thanks and gratitude to them,” he said.
About 90 emergency personnel responded to the blaze, which was doused about sunrise on Tuesday. Helicopters winched about five people to safety from the roof of the hostel, which was reportedly at capacity.
Tamrat Isse Adan, who had lived at Loafers Lodge since last year, described how he ran down the stairs to escape the fire.
“There was smoke and the alarm was going from upstairs,” he said.
“I’m very sad, very sad. My neighbour, he’s missing, maybe he’s dead, police say there’s a lot of people missing. Very sad.”
Mr Adan, whose children live in Australia, said he had lost everything except for his jacket and phone.
Police have confirmed six deaths, and say they expect more, after Tuesday’s fire. Photo: Getty
Another resident, Tala Sili, said he had lost all his possessions after jumping from a window. Mr Sili said he landed on a roof, spraining his ankle.
He said he could see heavy smoke but it was very dark. He could also feel the heat from flames.
“It smelt like poison,” he said.
Paul Jury, who had lived at the lodge for 18 months, said he initially ignored the alarms after months of false alarms. But when it became clear Tuesday’s danger was real, he fled downstairs with just the clothes on his back.
Another tenant, who gave his name only as Chris, said he also ran to the stairs when he realised the danger.
“I’ve managed to get there quite easy, but it’s other people who are further in the building because I couldn’t even see, so other people who are deeper in the building will probably find it harder to find their way out,” he said.
“It was just getting to the stairwell, it was black as, thick as smoke, it was hard to breathe.”
Deportee advocate Filipa Payne, from lobby group Route 501, told NZ news website Stuff that many Loafers Lodge residents were deportees from Australia.
Ms Payne said prisoner rehabilitation services and the government used the hostel to house returned deportees, who she said were “vulnerable and disconnected”.
“There was quite a family unit. This is a horrible tragedy that will affect people that have been placed there through a traumatic and barbaric system,” she said.
“It will affect families left in Australia who have already been through trauma and heartache.”
Local police commander Inspector Dean Silvester said the hostel was “relatively transient”.
“One of the challenges for us is to determine who has either resided or been residing at this location,” he said.
“I encourage people to come forward to [the] police with that information.”
Inspector Silvester was reluctant to confirm the overall toll, but said he understood it was fewer than 10. He said police remained focused on determining who had been living at Loafers Lodge.
Earlier, police said the building was still unsafe and they were working to secure it so they could get in.
‘Until we can access the building – and reconcile numbers of people who are safe – we are not in a position to determine how many people are deceased or unaccounted for,” NZ Police said in a statement.
Some survivors are being treated at Wellington Regional Hospital, which is just 100 metres away.
Stuff reported the fire was being treated as suspicious by police.
Authorities have confirmed the building had no sprinklers. NZ’s housing minister said the hostel passed a building inspection in 2022.
Fire and Emergency New Zealand district manager Nick Pyatt said “it doesn’t get worse than this” for his crews.
“This is a once-in-a-decade fire for Wellington. It’s the worst nightmare for us,” he said.
“This is a tragic event for all involved. My heartfelt condolences go to the loved ones of those who have lost their lives.”
Mayor Tory Whanau described it as a “truly tragic situation”.
“Possibly a lot of vulnerable folks [are affected], which makes this even more devastating,” she said.
“We’ll find out more in the coming hours and days.
“Wellington is feeling deep sadness and sorrow at what has happened.”