WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — An overnight fire at a hostel in New Zealand’s capital killed at least six people and forced others to leave the four-story building in their pajamas, a fire chief said Tuesday, his “worst nightmare.” .”
Six bodies have been recovered, but not all parts of the building have yet been searched because the top-floor roof collapsed, bringing down debris and making the area unsafe, Fire and Emergency New Zealand incident controller Bruce Stubbs said.
Officials said 52 people got out of the building alive, but they were still trying to count the others.
Tala Cili, who lives at Loafers Lodge, told RNZ she saw smoke coming from under her door and opened it to find the hallway very dark.
“I was on the top floor and I couldn’t get through the hallway because there was so much smoke, so I jumped out the window,” Cili said.
He said falling on a roof two stories below.
“It was very scary, it was very scary, but I knew I had to jump out of the window or burn into the building,” Chiles told RNZ. He was rescued from the roof by paramedics and treated for a sprained ankle, he said.
Loafers Lodge offered basic, inexpensive rooms with shared lounges, kitchens and laundry facilities for people of all ages. Some were placed there by government agencies and were considered vulnerable because they lacked resources or support networks.
The hostel has 92 rooms and has billboards on one side. Dark smoke streaked the outer walls of the top floor of the building on an industrial estate near Wellington Regional Hospital.
Firefighters were called to the hotel around 12:30 a.m. Emergency officials said the building had no fire sprinklers, which Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said is not required in New Zealand’s building code for older buildings that need to be renovated.
The cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained, but they do not believe it was arson, police said. Police Inspector Diane Bennett said a full scene investigation was scheduled to begin Wednesday after fire officials gave them access to the building.
Residents told reporters that the building often sounds fire alarms, perhaps from smokers or hypersensitive smoke detectors, so many initially thought it was another false alarm.
Hipkins said it may take some time for authorities to confirm the death toll. Police said the death toll was believed to be less than 10, but did not have an exact number.
“It’s an absolute tragedy. It’s a terrible situation,” the prime minister told reporters. But for now, the focus should clearly be on handling the situation.
Health officials said two people in the building were being treated at hospitals and were both in stable condition. Three others were treated and discharged, while a sixth patient chose to leave before receiving treatment.
Fire and Emergency New Zealand’s Wellington district manager Nick Piatt said his thoughts were with the families and crews of those who died, saving those they could and trying to save those they couldn’t.
“It’s our worst nightmare,” Piatt said. “It doesn’t get any worse than this.”
Wellington City Council spokesman Richard MacLean said city and state officials were assisting around 50 people who escaped the fire and were in an emergency centre.
He said many elderly people fled the building in their pyjamas.
“A lot of people are clearly shocked and confused about what happened,” he said.
The hostel offered a mix of short-term and long-term rentals, MacLean said. He didn’t have all the details, but he believed it was used by various government agencies to provide accommodation to clients.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters he had spoken to Hipkins and offered Australian assistance.
“It’s a terrible human tragedy,” Albanese said. “My condolences on behalf of Australia to our friends in New Zealand at this difficult time.”