WELLINGTON: New Zealand police charged a man with arson Thursday over a hostel fire that killed at least six people in the country’s capital. The man will face Wellington District Court on Friday, police said, adding that further “more serious charges” in relation to the deaths have not been ruled out. “The investigation is ongoing,” they said.
Police said they were not seeking anyone else in relation to the blaze, which engulfed the four-storey, 92-room hostel in the early hours of Tuesday. Hours before announcing they had arrested and charged the man, police removed the first two bodies from the charred interior of the Loafers Lodge hostel.
As a white car drove the remains away from the building in central Wellington, emergency workers bowed their heads and a man and a woman chanted in a mark of respect. Firefighters said they had located six bodies within the hostel but a collapsed roof on the top floor made it impossible to search everywhere. Police say the toll may rise.
The scale of the fire shocked the country, with Prime Minister Chris Hipkins describing it at the time as an “absolute tragedy” while promising a thorough investigation. Some survivors crawled through smoke in the dark of night to escape the fire, while others were rescued from the rooftop by firefighters using ladder trucks. The remains of at least four of those killed still lie in the charred building.
‘Felt like a cigarette’
A police reconnaissance team has been searching for evidence and trying to locate the dead since the building was declared safe for them to enter on Wednesday. Fire damage inside was “extensive”, police said earlier, with burnt debris reaching as high as one metre (three feet). One of the survivors, Simon Hanify, told AFP he only escaped by chance. Smoke alarms in the building often went off without reason, he said.
“I wasn’t even going to leave my room. But I felt like a cigarette. I thought I’d go outside because I usually share them with other people,” Hanify said on Wednesday. “There was smoke coming down the stairwell, on the ceiling and our hallway,” he added.
“I’ve been through fire before so I did a quick lap of our floor, knocking on doors, saying ‘this one’s real, evacuate’.” The Loafers Lodge advertised itself as a “convenient and affordable” accommodation, with laundry, kitchen facilities and a lock on each floor.
It was used as a cheap home by a mix of long- and short-term residents, including some on lower incomes or those staying temporarily in New Zealand. Many were shift workers, making it difficult to be sure of everyone’s whereabouts at the time of the blaze. – AFP