A man arrested and charged after an alleged "arson attack" at a four-storey hostel in New Zealand’s capital used to house vulnerable people is now facing five murder charges.
Emergency services were called to the Loafers Lodge hostel, in the central Wellington suburb of Newtown, at about 12.30am on 16 May. Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told local media later in the day that six people have been confirmed dead in the badly fire-damaged building - although this number was later revised to five.
Police confirmed they were "treating the fire as arson", and Wellington district commander Dion Bennett said the deaths would be investigated as homicides. On 18 May, they said officers had arrested and charged a man with two counts of arson in connection to the blaze. He was accused of setting fire to a couch, and to the hostel itself.
On Thursday (1 June), the 48-year-old suspect was also charged with five counts of murder. He has remained in jail since his arrest two days after the fire.
Wellington Fire and Emergency district manager Nick Pyatt told reporters shortly after the deadly blaze that “our thoughts at this time are with the families of those who have perished and with our crews who valiantly rescued those [that they could], and attempted to rescue those that they couldn’t".
“This is our worst nightmare,” he said. “It doesn’t get worse than this.” Officials started removing the bodies of victims from the burnt-out building two days after the fire. Officers had initially expected more bodies may be found as officers continue to examine the scene of the suspected arson attack.
Wellington City Council spokesman Richard MacLean told the Associated Press they were supporting around 50 people who had escaped the fire, and were now at an emergency centre the council had set up at a local running track - that had showers and other facilities.
He said there were a number of elderly people who had escaped with only the pyjamas they were wearing. “A lot are clearly shaken and bewildered about what happened." The hostel provided a combination of short-term and long-term rentals, Mr MacLean said. He did not have all the details, he said, but he believed it was used by various government agencies to provide emergency accommodation.
Some residents have told local media they were able to survive by jumping out of windows, sometimes several storeys above the ground. Tala Sili told Radio New Zealand he saw smoke creeping under his door, and opened it to find the hallway pitch black.
He jumped out the window, where he fell to a roof two storeys below. "I was on the top floor and I couldn't go through the hallway because there was just too much smoke so I jumped out the window," he said.
"It was just scary, it was really scary, but I knew I had to jump out the window or just burn inside the building." Mr Sili said he was rescued from the roof by paramedics, and treated for a sprained ankle.
On its website, Loafers Lodge advertises itself as an affordable place for people to stay while they are in the capital, whether on business or needing to visit the nearby Wellington Hospital. It has 92 rooms and promotes them as being available long term.
The New Zealand Herald reports a large number of its residents included people who were previously homeless, unemployed, or were recently-returned 501s - people deported from Australia after being jailed for a serious crime.
Wellington's City Missioner Murray Edridge told the Herald most in the building "had some vulnerabilities", which was why they were staying there. "You wouldn’t stay there unless you had very few options... It wasn’t the most salubrious place you could stay, obviously. But it was still a community of people, and they were still housed.”
Local media outlet Stuff reports there were no sprinklers in the building, and that there were reports of a couch fire at the premises earlier in the night which saw the building evacuated - before occupants were allowed to return.
Another resident told RNZ that fire alarms did not sound in the fatal blaze, and he only knew he had to evacuate after hearing someone in the hallway shout a warning.