15 Feb 2017

Flatmate tried to alert others to fire, inquest told

10:24 am on 15 February 2017

The flatmate of three young people who died in a Hamilton house fire has told a court of how he desperately tried to alert them to the danger.

The Fire Service said it was called to the fire in Collingwood Street in Hamilton just after 5am.

The cause of the fire at the Collingwood St house is still unknown. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Connor Swetman, 17, Jake Hayes, 19, and Toni Johnston, 23, died from smoke inhalation when an old villa went up in flames following a party in November 2014.

A flatmate in the house, Joseph Soutar told an inquest into the trio's deaths yesterday of how he tried to alert others to the danger.

"I ran straight to Toni's room and tried to climb up to her room and just [started] punching the wall, telling her to wake up, and I didn't know if she was in there, whether she was in there or not."

Partygoer Bailey Reid told of how he managed to escape the fire while his friends were less fortunate.

"I then saw the glow coming from Jake's window. I would describe the glow as a big bright orange flame. I wrapped my jersey around my hand and punched the window once. I was the first to climb out of the window," he said.

"I don't know where Jake and Connor were because I never saw them after I climbed out of the window."

Police told the inquest they referred the fire to the coroner after exploring all lines of inquiry.

It was believed the fire started on a couch in the lounge but fire investigator Peter Hallett told the inquest the cause of its ignition could not be proven.

There were two possibilities, he said.

"One of them being potentially accidental with the careless discarding of a cigarette or a match ... that has landed on a combustible item; the second is that the fire has been deliberately lit by persons unknown."

Forensic scientist and fire investigator Marnix Kelderman outlined factors suggesting the fire was deliberately lit.

"A significant altercation [or] fight had occurred between several attendees of the party. Defecation had occurred on one of the cars. Someone had intentionally let down the tyre of a car by jamming pieces of wood into the valve of the tyre," he said.

"It appeared that certain attendees of the party were still bitter and angry within the hour preceding the fire."

The party-goers had drunk large amounts of alcohol, and had taken marijuana and other drugs on the night of the party.

But other factors, including the condition of the couch, meant it could have been accidentally set alight by a cigarette, Mr Kelderman said.

"It is well-documented ... that old furniture with torn materials and fabric and foam paddings and squabs are much more susceptible to ignition by smouldering cigarettes than intact and newer furnishings."

Fire investigator Peter Hallett said that unlike most other countries New Zealand is yet to introduce legislation requiring flame retardants to be placed in locally-made furniture.

Mr Hallett also noted that none of the occupants of the house could recall any smoke alarms operating during the fire.

He said the tragedy had acted as a catalyst for legislation requiring smoke alarms in all rental properties.

But that change was only the first step, he said.

"It is dependent on the people who the law is directed at to actually take it into account. Daily we go to house fires in rental properties [where] landlords still haven't abided by the law and still refuse in some cases to install smoke alarms."

No charges have been laid in relation to the fire but police said they would reconsider the case if fresh information emerged.

The inquest resumes on Friday.

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