WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A fire ripped through a hostel in the New Zealand capital overnight, killing at least six people and forcing others to flee the four-story building in their pajamas in what a fire chief called Tuesday as his «worst nightmare.»
Fifty-two people had made it out of the building but firefighters were still trying to account for the others, Wellington Fire Chief Nick Pyatt said.
Loafers Lodge resident Tala Sili told the RNZ news outlet she saw smoke coming from under her door and when she opened it she found the hallway pitch black.
“I was on the top floor and I couldn’t go through the hallway because there was too much smoke, so I jumped out the window,” Sili said.
He said he fell onto a roof two stories below.
“It was scary, really scary, but I knew I had to jump out the window or just burn myself inside the building,” Sili told RNZ.
He said paramedics rescued him from the roof and treated him for a sprained ankle.
The Loafers Lodge offered basic, affordable rooms with shared lounges, kitchens, and laundry facilities. It attracted people of a wide range of ages. Some were placed there by government agencies and deemed vulnerable because they had few resources or support networks.
The hostel is in an industrial area and has billboards on one side. Dark smoke streaked the outer walls of the building’s top floor.
Pyatt said firefighters were called to the shelter around 12:30 a.m. Emergency officials said the building did not have fire sprinklers, which Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said was not required under New Zealand’s building code. for older buildings that would need to be refurbished.
Residents told reporters that fire alarms would sound regularly in the building, possibly from people smoking or overly sensitive smoke monitors, so many had initially ignored the alert early Tuesday.
Hipkins said the building was currently not safe for police to enter and it might take some time for authorities to confirm the death toll. He told the AM morning news show that he knew six people had died and that the number of deaths was likely to increase. Police said he did not have an exact count, although he believes the death toll was less than 10.
Police said the cause was not immediately known.
“It is an absolute tragedy. It’s a horrible situation,» the prime minister told reporters. “In the fullness of time, of course, there will be a series of investigations into what 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 stable. Three others had been treated and released, while a sixth patient had chosen to leave before receiving treatment.
Pyatt, the fire chief, said his thoughts were with the families of those who perished and with the crews who rescued those who could and tried to rescue those who couldn’t.
“This is our worst nightmare,” Pyatt said. «There is nothing worse than this.»
Wellington city council spokesman Richard MacLean said city and government officials were helping around 50 people who escaped the fire and were at an emergency center the council had set up on a running track that It had showers and other facilities.
He said that several elderly people had escaped from the building in only the pajamas they were wearing.
“Many are clearly shocked and bewildered by what happened,” he said.
The shelter provided a mix of short-term and long-term rentals, MacLean said. He didn’t have all the details, he said, but he believed various government agencies used it to provide necessary accommodations for clients.
Loafers Lodge is close to Wellington Regional Hospital and has 92 rooms.