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Homicide probe as NZ police confirm deadly blaze was likely arson

Survivors speak out after deadly hostel blaze

New Zealand’s deadly hostel blaze has become a homicide investigation, as police confirm they suspect it was deliberately lit.

A police reconnaissance team finally entered the 92-room Wellington accommodation building caught fire on Wednesday afternoon, after two devastating fires sparked a frenzied evacuation early on Tuesday.

At least six people died. Their bodies remain in the Loafers Lodge hostel as police and emergency services try to ascertain a final toll.

Acting Wellington District Commander Inspector Dion Bennett said police had accounted for 92 people by Wednesday afternoon (local time), but 20 remained unaccounted for.

“We know there are many people waiting for news of family and friends, including residents who escaped the fire and who are keenly waiting for news of their fellow tenants,” he said.

“I want to provide the reassurance that we have a large number of officers working on this investigation with the aim of providing a swift and timely outcome any answers that we all need.”

Access to the building will allow police to search for more bodies, and to try to work out to how the fire began.

Inspector Bennett earlier confirmed reports there were two fires in the four-level building. One, just before midnight on Monday, was quickly put out by security staff, and not reported to police.

The second started just after midnight, very early on Tuesday.

“The couch fire was not reported to emergency services at the time,” Inspector Bennett said.

“As part of our inquiries, we will be seeking to confirm any link between that couch fire and the subsequent fatal fire.”

Inspector Bennett confirmed the twin blazes were being treated as arson, although he refused to give more details.

“As we are speaking now, [the reconnaissance team] are still inside the building. I can say, having seen some early photographs, that the damage is extensive,” he said.

“Some of the floors, and on the third floor in particular, the floor has collapsed and in places on the floor a pile of debris and burnt debris has stacked as high as one metre.”

On Tuesday, a convicted arsonist who was staying at the Loafers Lodge when it caught alight told New Zealand media he had been questioned by police.

“The police are still interviewing me … I don’t even know why … but it’s frustrating,” he said.

Inspector Bennett confirmed police had a list of people they wanted to speak to in connection with the deadly inferno. No arrests have yet been made.

Police have warned the public not to expect quick answers on a final death toll, identification of victims or fire cause.

They are limited to searching the building during daylight hours, because it has no electricity. At least one local road in the surrounding area also remains closed.

Police are also evidence-gathering outside of the hostel, speaking to survivors and reviewing CCTV footage from the area.

There were about 92 residents at the 92-room hostel. But some residents were absent when the twin fires began, while there were also additional visitors in the building.

Police are desperately working to reconcile a list of residents and people inside the building at the time of the blaze, attempting to make contact with them all.

It is challenging work: Some may not want to be found, or are distrustful of authorities.

The Loafers Lodge had a mix of short-term and longer stay occupants, including shift workers from the nearby Wellington Hospital, welfare recipients and those under corrections orders.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Brittany McNamara said nine people on a community sentence order were living at the hostel. All had been accounted for by Wednesday morning.

One of the missing has been named by NZ media as Liam Hockings, a university associate of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.

The inferno has raised other questions, including the suitability of the 1970s-built building to house vulnerable tenants.

There are also reports the main entrance was broken.

The disaster is New Zealand’s deadliest building fire since 1995, when a deliberately-lit fire inside the New Empire Hotel in Hamilton killed six people including one who jumped from the building.

Should officials confirm two more deaths, it will be NZ’s worst since 1947 when 41 people died in the Ballantynes department store in Christchurch.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese offered Australian assistance in the recovery effort.

The offer is yet to be taken up as a full assessment of needs is only possible after a thorough police investigation.

Australia experienced a similar tragedy in Childers, Queensland, where 15 people – most of whom were foreign travellers – died in the burning of the Palace Backpackers Hostel in 2000.

-with AAP

Topics: New Zealand
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