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Police expect to recover bodies from Loafers Lodge today

NZ Herald ,
Publish Date
Thu, 18 May 2023, 10:13am

Police expect to recover bodies from Loafers Lodge today

NZ Herald ,
Publish Date
Thu, 18 May 2023, 10:13am

Police investigating the fatal inferno at Loafers Lodge in Wellington say they expect to start recovering bodies from the building this afternoon.

In an update today, Acting District Commander Inspector Dion Bennett said it’s likely two bodies will be removed today.

He said police have begun a scene examination, but described the damage on the third floor as “significant”.

“The debris is piled high, and there is much for [search crews] to move and search underneath.”

Bennett said they will try to recover another two bodies from the building tomorrow.

“We are doing everything to recover the deceased from Loafers Lodge as quickly as we can.”

Police will conduct a karakia before the first body is removed. They will then travel to the mortuary where there is a specific process for disaster victim identification.

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

While police know of at least six dead following the fatal blaze at Loafers Lodge on Tuesday morning, they cannot confirm final numbers as multiple people are still unaccounted for. They also cannot confirm the identities of the deceased yet.

Bennett said at the update they would be unable to confirm that final number until the scene examination was complete.

Police had been working through an extensive list to track down everyone who might have been staying at the Newtown hostel on the night of the fire. So far, 92 people are now accounted for, and less than 20 are unaccounted for.

Some residents may also be unable to get their property back, due to safety concerns.

“We have had inquiries from residents asking about when their property may be returned. Until the scene examination has been completed it will not be possible to retrieve any property from the building.”

The property was also damaged by fire and asbestos, and decisions would need to be made about whether it was safe to return that property, he said.

Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ) also provided an update this morning, focusing on the trucks and appliances that were sent to the fire.

Chief executive Kerry Gregory wanted to reassure the public FENZ had the staff and appliances needed to respond to Tuesday’s fire appropriately.

“We dispatched 33 trucks, over 80 firefighters from all over Wellington for the duration of that event,” he said.

FENZ deployed a number of specialist capabilities, operational support, fire investigations, urban search and rescue, and two ladder appliances among other things.

The Newtown trucks arrived within five minutes, and the aerial appliance from Thorndon arrived another three minutes after that.

They deployed “significant resource to successfully manage this incident”. He said the firefighters did an “excellent job”.

“I think you have to understand how it works when you arrive at an operational incident. When our first crews arrive at an incident, it is chaos.”

With everything that was going on at the scene, the extra three minutes for the aerial appliance to arrive was not significant.

“Any fire you go to it’s about what tactics you can put in place with what you’ve got.”

He acknowledged firefighters who were on the scene that day told him they had concerns about which appliances were deployed, and that they had to adjust their tactics.

Gregory said they’d be doing an operational review from the Newtown fire to see what they could learn.

“When I spoke to the crews that I spoke to, this is the day after, it’s really raw for firefighters.

“Most firefighters their whole career don’t go to a fatality in a building . . . let alone multiple fatalities.”

“You feel like you question yourself around could I have done anything different, what happened?”

That was why it was important to wait for the operational review, he said.

When he met with the fire crews the day after the blaze, he was not questioning them on the tactics they used, he said.

With this fire, the floods, and the loss of two firefighters in Muriwai, it had been a challenging year.

He acknowledged they did have issues with ageing fleets and stations that weren’t fit for purpose, noting 27 per cent of fire appliances were beyond their target life of 20-25 years.

“The legacy condition of many of our stations and our fleet varied significantly from what we would consider fit for purpose vehicles to some that were barely safe to use.”

FENZ has a 20-year capital budget forecast of more than $2.9 billon to improve and replenish main assets. Based on the current forecast income, they can only afford $2 billion, he said.

FENZ officially handed control of the scene over to police yesterday so a painstaking examination could begin into the tragedy.

A major homicide inquiry is under way, with Acting District Commander Dion Bennett yesterday saying the fire was being treated as arson.

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

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

Police had a “large number” of officers working on the investigation, he said, “with the aim of providing a swift and timely outcome and the answers that we all need”.

Bennett confirmed police had a “list of people” being treated as persons of interest to the investigation who police wanted to speak to. He declined to say how many were on that list, and whether any were residents. No arrests had been made.

He declined to say why the fire was being treated as an arson, or whether accelerant was part of the cause of the fire.

Asked if it was likely more bodies would be found he said his “gut feeling” was the numbers might climb.

“However, without that confirmation from the examination, it would be irresponsible of me to say that.”

He said a “small reconnaissance team” entered the building on Wednesday after the scene was handed to police, and they were conducting an initial examination of the building.

Today’s examination is expected to be carried out by specialist staff.

One of Wellington’s main commuter routes also remained closed this morning, with Adelaide Rd shut off to traffic between the Basin Reserve and John St.

Motorists are being warned to expect delays.

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