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Man charged with two counts of arson after fatal hostel fire

Author
Sam Sherwood,
Publish Date
Thu, 18 May 2023, 10:00pm
Police and fire investigators on the top level of Loafers Lodge as they search the site of the deadly arson attack. Photo / George Heard
Police and fire investigators on the top level of Loafers Lodge as they search the site of the deadly arson attack. Photo / George Heard

Man charged with two counts of arson after fatal hostel fire

Author
Sam Sherwood,
Publish Date
Thu, 18 May 2023, 10:00pm

A man has been charged with two counts of arson in relation to the fire at the Wellington hostel that left six people dead.

A police spokesperson said the investigation into the fire is ongoing, however more serious charges in relation to the deaths have not been ruled out.

The Herald also understands the man charged is a resident of the building

Acting Wellington District Commander Inspector Dion Bennett is confident that the police are not seeking anyone else in relation to the fire.

Police revealed they had been treating the deadly blaze as a homicide yesterday after the fire ripped through the building on Tuesday.

At least six people are confirmed dead and ‘less than 20′ remain unaccounted for after fire ripped through the Loafers Lodge hostel in Newtown overnight Tuesday.

Earlier today, police recovered two bodies, and said the rest of the bodies would be recovered tomorrow.

Emergency services have formed a guard of honour along a footpath near the hostel as they await the first body to be removed from Loafers Lodge. Photo / George Heard

Emergency services have formed a guard of honour along a footpath near the hostel as they await the first body to be removed from Loafers Lodge. Photo / George Heard

Police began a scene examination this morning but said the damage on the third floor was “significant” and there was a lot of debris for search crews to sift through.

 “We are doing everything to recover the deceased from Loafers Lodge as quickly as we can,” acting district commander Inspector Dion Bennett said.

The investigation into the suspected arson is in its third day, with the total number of deaths still unconfirmed.

Police also confirmed that Adelaide Road will partially re-open from 6 am tomorrow.

The fire tore through Loafers Lodge on Tuesday. Photo / Angelia Zhang

The fire tore through Loafers Lodge on Tuesday. Photo / Angelia Zhang

Loafers Lodge, in the Wellington suburb of Newtown, housed more than 90 people; some aged in their 80s.

A sizeable proportion of its residents included people who were previously homeless, and were unemployed, as well as a number of people who were reportedly 501s deported from Australia.

Survivor recounts the chaos

A survivor from the deadly fire described the chaos and confusion of the midnight blaze.

Simon Hanify was awake in the hostel when a fire alarm rang out through the building at around 10.30pm - but he said this was common at the hostel.

“I didn’t leave the building, I just went out to the balcony and had a cigarette and sure enough the alarm was turned off two minutes later.”

Hanify said the alarms activated so frequently that he doubted the initial alarm would have brought people out of the building.

“It’s happened so many times where it’s either a cooking thing or someone smoking in bed – most people, when we have to evacuate, just to stand on the street for a bit and get sent back in – most people don’t even leave their rooms.”

Hanify was still awake when the second alarm rang out – this time at 12.30am. And this time, it was not a false alarm.

Simon Hanify survived the Loafers Lodge fire in Newtown, Wellington. Photo / George Heard

Simon Hanify survived the Loafers Lodge fire in Newtown, Wellington. Photo / George Heard

“I smelled a bit of smoke so went straight to the kitchen thinking someone had left a pot on – no smoke in the kitchen and in that 20 seconds, I came out and there was smoke in the hallway I could smell the acrid burning smell of plasticky material.”

He had been through a house fire before and knew it was real so ran around the floor, knocking on people’s doors and urging them to evacuate.

By the time people were moving, Hanify said thick smoke was filling the hallway all the way up to the ceiling.

“The smoke was billowing out the top windows – really thick, black horrible smoke.”

As the fire crews turned up, the flames erupted from the building.

“They were licking out of those windows, double the height and all the way up to the roof,” Hanify said.

By 4am Hanify said fire crews had pumped so much water into the building it was “cascading” out of the windows – but the fire continued to burn.

It wasn’t until today that the gravity of the situation set in.

“We didn’t know there was going to be loss of life – it was upsetting, there was a fair bit of anger – it was so intense and just thanks to the fire brigade and that.

“I feel really sad especially for the families and yeah, shocked. It was more shocking the next day finding out about the deaths – at the time it’s just get the people out.”

He counted himself lucky, as he was able to leave the building with his phone and wallet, as well as wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

“A lot of people were in nightgowns and bare feet. A lot of people have no ID, everything they own is burned.”

Claim of heavy price for ‘substandard conditions’

The sister of a man who used to live at Loafers Lodge said he was charged $250 a week to stay in “shamefully sub-standard” conditions.

The lodge director wouldn’t comment on claims of poor conditions and high prices, but noted there were bound to be “disgruntled” people in a place that could house “90-odd people”.

The woman’s brother, Andrew, was a previous resident of the hostel, on Adelaide Rd in Newtown.

New Zealanders needed to do more to keep vulnerable people out of poor accommodation, she said.

“We as a society have failed our most vulnerable people.”

Her brother lived at “that horrendous lodge” for several months about three years ago, and the woman, who did not want to be named, said she still remembered the poor conditions from the times she visited him.

She and her loved ones bought a flat for Andrew to live in until his unrelated death last year.

“We got him out of that place as soon as we could.”

The scene of the Loafers Lodge hostel fire in Newtown, Wellington. Photo / George Heard

The scene of the Loafers Lodge hostel fire in Newtown, Wellington. Photo / George Heard

She said Andrew was being charged $250 a week for a dirty room with a window that didn’t shut and allowed rain and traffic fumes in. Each floor shared a bathroom and there were communal kitchens and living areas.

“You had to wait and queue up for a turn at the stove.”

Other boarding houses in Wellington with communal kitchens and bathrooms currently have rooms listed at prices ranging from $190 to $265 a week, expenses included.

She remembered Andrew’s concern for a quiet and gentle woman in the room next to his, who barely ventured out due to her fear of “the level of alcoholic male violence in the place”.

When Andrew moved in, there was white poison powder on the carpets to kill bed bugs, with a sign warning people not to vacuum up the powder. It was still there weeks later when his sister visited Andrew again.

When Andrew finally managed to move into the flat his family organised for him, his possessions were infested with bed bugs, which continued to cause him discomfort up until his death.

Loafers Lodge, a 92-room, short-term accommodation block, had fire alarms, a smoke extraction system and two exit stairwells, but did not have sprinklers.

The building passed its most recent warrant of fitness and was not required to have sprinklers.

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