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New Zealand Police have opened a homicide investigation into the deadly fire at Loafers Lodge in Wellington, which they believe was arson, with fears the number killed in the blaze may still climb.
Acting Wellington District Commander Dion Bennett said police have a list of people of interest with whom they wish to speak while warning the death toll could be higher than the six confirmed so far.
Fire Service staff survey roof damage the day after a fire at Loafers Lodge.Credit: Getty
“My gut feeling is yes, it may climb,” he said on Wednesday.
The 92-room Wellington hostel caught fire in the early hours of Tuesday, prompting a frenzied evacuation. According to deportee advocate Filipa Payne, of the advocacy group Route 501, the lodge frequently housed people recently deported from Australia under the 501s legislation.
Residents jumped from the roof and crawled to safety, while at least six were trapped inside and killed.
All bodies remain in the hostel, which has been off limits to police until Wednesday afternoon, when Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) technicians finished work securing the property.
Fire trucks outside the burning hostel in Wellington.Credit: NewsHub
A police reconnaissance team has since entered, conducting an initial sweep “to develop plans for a more extensive search”.
“This scene examination will be an extensive and methodical process, and we expect it to take some time, likely several days,” Mr Bennett said.
“Alongside the scene examination, officers will be working to locate and recover those who lost their lives in the fire.”
No arrests have been made, but initial investigations have firmed up the view of police that the fire was suspicious and deliberately lit.
A Fire Service staff member walks past an ‘out of order’ sign at the front entrance of Loafers Lodge.Credit: Getty
“We are treating it as an arson. I’m not prepared to say why,” Mr Bennett said.
“We do have a list of people that we want to speak to.
“Because if it is arson and there is a death toll, it is a homicide (investigation).”
Police also confirmed there was a second fire on a couch at the hostel – as reported by residents who survived – which preceded the deadly blaze by two hours.
That link will be investigated, as are claims the fire alarm – which did not go off for the second, deadly fire according to residents – did not work.
Police are also evidence-gathering outside the hostel, speaking to survivors and reviewing CCTV footage from the area.
Alongside the investigation, police are working on tracking down every person they believe to have been in the property.
Mr Bennett said 92 people had been accounted for, with less than 20 remaining on their search list.
That number includes bodies still inside.
The personnel search is challenging work – some may not want to be found, or are distrustful of authorities.
The Loafers Lodge had a mix of short-term and longer stay occupants, including shift workers from the nearby Wellington Hospital, welfare recipients and those under corrections orders.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Brittany McNamara said nine people on a community sentence order were living at the hostel, with all accounted for by Wednesday morning.
One of the missing has been named by NZ media as Liam Hockings, a university associate of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.
The inferno has raised other questions, including the suitability of the 1970s-built building to house vulnerable tenants.
There are also reports the main entrance was broken.
The disaster is NZ’s deadliest building fire since 1995, when a deliberately-lit fire inside the New Empire Hotel in Hamilton killed six people including one who jumped from the building.
Should officials confirm two more deaths, it will be the worst structure fire since 1947 when 41 people died in the Ballantynes department store in Christchurch.
Firefighters rinse off after a fire at Loafers Lodge.Credit: Getty
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese offered Australian assistance in the recovery effort.
The offer is yet to be taken up as a full assessment of needs is only possible after a thorough police investigation.
Australia experienced a similar tragedy in Childers, Queensland, where 15 people – most of whom were foreign travellers – died in the burning of the Palace Backpackers Hostel in 2000.
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