WELLINGTON – A fire ripped through a hostel in New Zealand’s capital overnight, killing at least six people and forcing others to flee the four-story building in their pajamas in what a fire chief on Tuesday called his “worst nightmare.”
Six bodies were found but not all areas of the building had been searched yet because the roof on the top floor had collapsed, bringing down debris and making the area unsafe, said Bruce Stubbs, the incident controller for Fire and Emergency New Zealand.
Officials said 52 people had made it out of the building alive but they were still trying to account for others.
Loafers Lodge resident Tala Sili told news outlet RNZ that he saw smoke pouring through under his door and opened it to find the hallway was pitch-black.
“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," Sili said.
He said he fell 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," Sili told RNZ. He said he was rescued from the roof by paramedics and treated for a sprained ankle.
The Loafers Lodge offered basic, affordable rooms with shared lounges, kitchens and laundry facilities to people of a wide range of ages. Some were placed there by government agencies and were considered vulnerable because they had little in the way of resources or support networks.
The hostel has 92 rooms and features billboards on one side. Dark smoke stains extended up the exterior walls on the top story of the building in an industrial area near Wellington Regional Hospital.
Firefighters were called to the hostel at about 12:30 a.m. Emergency officials said the building had no fire sprinklers, which Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said was not required in New Zealand’s building code for older buildings that would have to be retrofitted.
Police said the cause of the fire was not known yet but they didn’t believe it had been deliberately lit. Police Inspector Dion Bennett said the plan was to begin a thorough scene investigation Wednesday after fire officials handed building access off to them.
Residents told reporters that fire alarms would regularly sound in the building, possibly from people smoking or overly sensitive smoke monitors, so many had initially thought it was another false alarm.
Hipkins said it could take authorities some time to confirm the number of dead. Police said they did not have an exact count, although they believed the death toll was less than 10.
“It is an absolute tragedy. It is a horrific situation,” the prime minister told reporters. “In the fullness of time, of course, there will be a number of investigations about what has happened and why it happened. But for now, the focus clearly has to be on dealing with the situation.”
Health authorities said two people who had been in the building were being treated at hospitals and both were in a stable condition. Three others had been treated and discharged, while a sixth patient had chosen to leave before getting treatment.
Nick Pyatt, the Wellington district manager for Fire and Emergency New Zealand, said his thoughts were with the families of those who had perished and with the crews, who had rescued those they could and tried to rescue those they couldn’t.
“This is our worst nightmare," Pyatt said. “It doesn’t get worse than this.”
Wellington City Council spokesperson Richard MacLean said city and government officials were helping about 50 people who escaped the fire and were at an emergency center the council set up at a running track that had showers and other facilities.
He said a number of elderly people had escaped the building with only the pajamas they were wearing.
“A lot are clearly shaken and bewildered about what happened,” he said.
The hostel provided a combination of short-term and long-term rentals, MacLean said. He didn't have all the details, he said, but he believed it was used by various government agencies to provide clients with needed accommodation.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters he'd spoken with Hipkins and offered Australian assistance.
“This is a dreadful human tragedy," Albanese said. “I expressed my condolences on behalf of Australia to our friends in New Zealand at this very difficult time.”