Six dead after fire engulfs hostel in Wellington, New Zealand

The cause of the fire is not known, but emergency services are treating the incident as suspicious.

Firefighters work near a hostel in central Wellington, New Zealand
Firefighters near the hostel in central Wellington, New Zealand, on May 16, 2023, where several people were killed after a fire broke out overnight [Ben McKay/AAP Image via AP]

At least six people have been killed after a fire engulfed a hostel in New Zealand’s capital Wellington and authorities fear the death toll could rise when rescue team can safely search through the gutted building.

Fire crews were alerted to the blaze at the 92-room Loafers Lodge hostel in central Wellington at about 12:30am on Tuesday (12:30 GMT, Monday). Fire and Emergency incident commander Bruce Stubbs said six bodies had been located so far but a full search of the premises had not been possible due to the extent of the fire damage.

“There is a significant amount of debris from the roof collapse but at this stage, we have located six people,” Stubbs told a news conference.

“We won’t know … how those people perished at this stage until we work with police and our fire investigators to determine that with the coroner … At the moment, I’m working on the six and police are working with their teams to determine other people,” he said, according to state broadcaster Radio New Zealand (RNZ).

Earlier, police said 11 people were still missing while 52 had escaped from the building, with at least five rescued from the roof by fire crews. Five were taken to hospital, with two in a serious condition.

“We have yet to fully reconcile a list of all of those people who were here last night, we will not speculate on how many people were here and where they have gone,” acting district commander for Wellington police Dion Bennett said.

The blaze broke out on the top floor of the hostel, located in Wellington’s Newtown neighbourhood, which provided accommodation for people including construction workers, hospital staff and those serving sentences in the community for minor crimes. The cause of the fire is not known, but emergency services were treating the incident as suspicious.

Loafers Lodge resident Tala Sili said he saw smoke coming under his door and opened it to find the hallway full of smoke. He decided to jump out the window onto a roof two floors below.

“It was just scary, it was really scary, but I knew I had to jump out the window or just burn inside the building,” he told state-owned RNZ.

A second resident said fire alarms would sound regularly in the hostel but none sounded to alert residents to the fire.

Resident Chris Fincham said he was only alerted to the fire because people were shouting warnings.

“I heard a voice coming down the passageway saying ‘evacuate, evacuate, the place is on fire’ – and I didn’t think much of it because the fire alarms would go off two or three times a week and we’d just ignore it,” he told RNZ.

“But then when I heard this guy, or this person, screaming ‘there’s a fire, evacuate’, I sat there for about five minutes and then I put my shoes on, got my wallet together, and I thought maybe I should leave.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins visited the site and spoke with emergency service providers.

“It is an absolute tragedy and it is a horrific situation,” Hipkins told reporters after the visit.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies