16 May 2023

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins on fatal Wellington hostel fire: 'It is a horrific situation'

1:07 pm on 16 May 2023

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins says New Zealanders have woken up to the tragic news of the events that have been unfolding in the Wellington region as a result of a fatal fire.

Fire and Emergency has confirmed there were multiple fatalities at the Loafers Lodge on Adelaide Road in Newtown and said they were expecting that number to rise.

"I want to extend my condolences to those who have lost their lives and their families. I also want to, on behalf of the whole country, extend our support to the first responders who are on the scene, particularly our firefighters, our police, our ambulance services and others who are working to secure the situation, to get people out of the building, and to deal with the aftermath of this fire," Hipkins says.

"It is an absolute tragedy and it is a horrific situation.

"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 needs to be on dealing with the situation."

Hipkins says there will be ample opportunity to look at the incident in coming days, including multiple investigations from police on behalf of the coroner.

"I am sure there will be things that will need to be followed up as a result of those."

Hipkins says the latest advice from police is that it is fewer than 10 dead at this point. No specific number is available.

Crews were alerted at 12.12am to the blaze at the 92-room hostel.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, Wellington Central MP and Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Wellington mayor Tory Whanau at the scene of the fire at Loafers Lodge hostel, Newtown.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkin and Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson at the scene. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Fifty-two people were taken out of the building and at least five were rescued from the roof, but others remain unaccounted for.

Five people were taken to hospital, two in a serious condition.

Answering questions about the hostel building, he says there had been a recent inspection.

"The Wellington City Council of course do building inspections for buildings of this nature. I understand that there was a recent building inspection but of course, that's probably a question better addressed to the council who would have the most up to date information about building inspections."

He says there could be quite a large number of buildings like this that do not have sprinkler systems.

"The building code does not require the retrofitting of sprinkler systems into existing older buildings, so there will be a number of buildings that fall into that category.

"For older buildings, there are fewer requirements than for newer buildings. People who have apartments and so on and older buildings that have been there for a long time, there may not be sprinklers required in those buildings."

On whether someone has broken the law, Hipkins says that's "purely hypothetical".

"We don't have any information on that at this point."

Hipkins is going down to provide support to those responding to the incident.

"It's a really difficult situation there. My visit is likely to be a relatively brief one, I do want to be able to provide support to those who have been dealing with a pretty tragic set of circumstances and let them know that the New Zealand community is behind them."

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, Wellington Central MP and Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Wellington mayor Tory Whanau at the scene of the fire at Loafers Lodge hostel, Newtown.

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

He also says the local members of Parliament Paul Eagle and Grant Robertson will be at the scene.

Eagle has already arrived and Robertson is on his way over there to make sure that all the support necessary is being provided to those people who have been evacuated, Hipkins says.

Hipkins says they need to understand what has happened, and making pre-emptive judgement calls before knowing what happened would be unwise.

He doesn't have any information on who the victims may be.

Hipkins says police are unable to access the building as the risk is too high.

He says they can't get the confirmed number of deaths until that happens.

But he understands a number of shift workers, MSD clients were living there. But he says, it's not currently used as emergency housing.

It's too early to talk about a government review into regulations, he says.

"Too early at this point, I think let's let them get the fire out, let's get an understanding of the nature of what we're dealing with. At this early stage I would never rule out doing something extra in terms of review, but there are a number of existing reviews that automatically kick in and it's important we allow these to happen and there's already legal processes that will kick in in a situation like this."

There will potentially be short-term hostel-type accommodation for people in a vulnerable situation.

"We will work very hard to make sure they have a roof over their head. We will make sure we work hard to make sure we have somewhere for them to stay."

Hipkins says some of the information he has received is coming through NEMA.

Fire and Emergency (FENZ) has pulled in resource from across the region to deal with event of this scale, Hipkins says.

"I want to acknowledge that this would have been an incredibly traumatic event to respond to for our first responders. These are people who put themselves in harms way on behalf of all of us on a regular basis and I just to acknowledge, whilst they train for these sorts of things, being confronted with the reality of it would have been incredibly difficult and I know the whole country would be grateful to them for their efforts and will be very supportive of their actions," Hipkins says about Fire and Emergency responders.

"I acknowledge we have work to do to in terms of making sure our first responders have the gear that they need in order to response to every situation that they may face."

Building passed inspection this year - Housing Minister

Housing Minister Megan Woods says officials told her the building passed an inspection as recently as early this year.

"My understanding is there were standalone fire, a standalone alarm system in there and the requirements were all being met and the building had been inspected as recently as early this year.

"The briefing I had this morning was in terms of the requirements of that building under the Building Act, that it was meeting all those requirements."

She says while it had been thought to be up to code, Wellington City Council is the regulator and MBIE is in close contact with them.

"MBIE are obviously talking to Wellington City Council, they are the people that carry out the inspections of buildings but as you can imagine MBIE has been thoroughly engaged with Wellington City Council this morning."

It is far too early to say whether any regulations needed to change, she says.

She says officials told her the building was not being used as emergency housing.

"This was not a facility that was being used for emergency housing, we weren't using it as a contracted facility and there wasn't anyone receiving an emergency housing special needs grant in there."

'I'm personally shocked,' 'My heart goes out' - Local MPs

Adelaide Road straddles the electorate boundary between Wellington Central and Rongotai.

MP for Rongotai Paul Eagle says he was told of the fire at the top of the road this morning.

"I knew then it would probably be Loafers Lodge, so I got on site reasonably early, the police and fire service were at that point taking people off the top of the building making sure people were safe, getting as many people out as possible.

"I'm personally shocked... I've been there several times to say hi, doorknocked, I mean you name it. So I'm always mindful that there are others who've got loved ones who may not have made it. And those tears were on display.

"Throughout the morning there's been lots of calls around saying 'look, my friend's up there', people were meant to be at work - they haven't showed, and so people have been looking for information making sure that they can account for their mates who were staying in that lodge."

He says the building is familiar to him, and its lodgers are often in transient, short-term stays.

"It's a simple place, there's a roof over their heads, simple lodging, but you've got people there who are transient, you know, they come and go ... it's not unusual that they won't know exactly who's there right at that moment because people can come and go all the time.

"I've had a hospitality business ring me saying 'one of our chefs is staying there, he's okay, he's just come to Wellington' so they're looking for places to stay. Also elderly people - and that was one big concern ... but look when I saw what the police and fire service were doing they were doing a great job to get people out."

He says people showing up at the cordon have been offering others a place to stay if they need it.

"Kia kaha, I mean, it's devastating. I mean, people were coming up to the cordon area going 'we've got food, people can come and stay with me, we've got a spare room,' and that's the nature of Newtown, you know, it is the world in one suburb, you've got every ethnicity there, lots of diverse people, and so yeah, my heart goes out to them."

He advises people to check the council's social media for the latest information about how they can help, or get help.

"I know for example the city mission and other social services providers have been in there quickly to say 'look, we know some of these people, how can we help too'.

Ibrahim Omer is Labour's candidate for the Wellington Central electorate and says it's a dark day for the city.

"My heart goes out to all the victims and their families, and the emergency service firefighters who were heroically saving lives.

"We are trying to find out who lived there and from the inquiries that I made we've got quite a few low-paid workers who work in the hospital for example, that would have been affected. It's really early now, so we're just trying to figure out."

He says Wellington City Council has set up a mayoral relief fund but is still in the early stages of assessing the situation.

His message to Wellingtonians was a simple one: "Thinking of you, and that this is obviously the time that we need to come together and think of those who were affected and Wellington has proven in the past - we've been affected by tragedies and we all came together and supported each other and this is the exact time that we need to do the same."

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