Wellington hostel fire: What you need to know

10:08 pm on 16 May 2023
Fire and Emergency responders and Loafer's Lodge fire

Photo: RNZ

Up to 10 people are dead after a devastating fire ripped through Loafers Lodge in Wellington in the early hours. Here is what we know so far.

Crews were alerted just after midnight to the fire at Loafers Lodge on Adelaide Road in Newtown.

At the height of the blaze appliances from as far away as Porirua were assisting.

At midday Fire and Emergency said 11 people remained unaccounted for.

By the end of the afternoon, Fire and Emergency NZ said six bodies had been located inside the building, but could not yet be reached, and not all of the building had been searched, as the building was extensively damaged with debris everywhere and a collapsed roof.

Residents told RNZ about escaping by crawling down smoke-filled corridors or jumping out of windows onto roofs. Some were rescued from the roof by firefighters on ladders. Many said they did not hear an alarm, and some said people living there had banged on their doors or phoned them to alert them.

Some of the occupants said many living there were elderly and they had fears about their mobility in trying to escape.

Investigators expect to be able to enter the building on Wednesday.

Asbestos in the building means Wellington residents have been told to keep their doors and windows closed and wipe up any dust with a damp disposable cloth. The City Council said the asbestos in the roof would be kept damp to reduce the chance of it becoming airborne and spreading, but it believed the risk to those in the area was low.

On Tuesday morning police said they were expecting a death toll of fewer than 10 but could not be more specific due to uncertainty on how many residents were in the building at the time the fire started as well as fears over the building's stability which was making searches difficult.

Four people were admitted to Wellington Hospital's emergency department on Tuesday morning; three in a stable condition and a fourth person in a serious condition was transferred to the Hutt Hospital ED.

By Tuesday evening only one person remained in hospital - they were in a stable condition at Hutt Hospital.

Responding to reports in some media that the fire was suspicious, police said they would not be commenting at this stage.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said the fire was "an absolute tragedy" and "a horrific situation".

Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson said those who escaped the deadly blaze were extremely traumatised.

Firefighters are still searching the hostel for casualties and an Urban Search and Rescue team is also involved. A drone was used today to help emergency services see inside the building.

Wellington mayor Tory Whanau told media she broke down while she was at the scene when she realised people had died and described it as a tragedy for the city.

Two large funds were established to collect donations to help those affected by the fire and their families; one by the Wellington City Mission and a Wellington mayoral fund started with $50,000.

The fire took several hours to bring under control. Photo: Denise Garland

The building

Loafers Lodge is at 160 Adelaide Road and has four floors, the ground floor is commercial and there are 92 rooms on its three floors of accommodation available for occupancy on both a short-term and long-term capacity, according to its website.

It was not equipped with sprinklers - and the building code does not require them to be retrofitted in older buildings.

Housing Minister Megan Woods said it had passed a building inspection earlier this year.

She was briefed by housing officials this morning, who have told her the Loafers Lodge met its building requirements.

After some hours emergency services had access to a full list of occupants and were working their way through it.

They asked that anyone who fled the fire in its aftermath and who had not given their details to emergency services to get in touch by calling 105.

Wellington City Council said it was working with other government agencies to find accommodation for those left homeless. About 52 people were taken from the hostel to an emergency centre to warm up, have showers, food and to find out what help was available. By Tuesday evening, only eight residents from the hostel remained at the emergency centre.

Kainga Ora did not have any placements at the lodge, however, Corrections said it had at least two people on electronic monitoring were staying there at the time of the fire and they were both safe.

Loafers Lodge site - map

The lodge, marked with the red symbol, is close to the Wellington Regional Hospital. Photo: Google Maps

Death toll

By daybreak FENZ announced the incident would result in multiple casualties. By that stage four people had been taken to hospital for treatment, with one suffering serious injuries. Another 20 were treated at the scene.

At 8.30am police said the death toll would likely be fewer than 10 but they could not be more specific.

They asked any resident who has not spoken to emergency services to call police on 105 and reference Operation Rose, or go online.

Fire and Emergency deputy district commander Brendan Nally said crews were assessing the structural integrity of the building before an investigation into the cause of the fire could begin.

Six crews were on site including an Urban Search and Rescue Squad this afternoon, and teams were being brought from around the country to work at the scene during the week.

Nally said once the building was safe to enter, they will mop up fire hotspots and begin the investigation.

Follow live updates of the tragedy

Political response

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Police Minister Ginny Andersen were preparing to join local members of Parliament Paul Eagle and Grant Robertson at the scene this morning.

Eagle, the MP for Rongotai, said the building provided simple lodgings, with many of its residents transient, which was making efforts to ascertain exact numbers more difficult.

Robertson said when he visited the emergency centre where evacuees were being looked after, they immediately asked what he knew about their friends who were unaccounted for.

Many of them were vulnerable and did not have a permanent home, he said.

Hipkins said he wanted to offer his support to all the first responders who were handling "an incredibly traumatic event".

He planned to convey the country's gratitude for their response to such a difficult situation.

The tragedy has also thrown a spotlight onto the Building Code and Hipkins has not ruled out a higher-level review into safety regulations.

National leader Christopher Luxon who has visited the fire scene with his deputy, Nicola Willis, said it was a shocking incident.

He expressed admiration for the firefighters' bravery.

Willis said there was no doubt that there were questions that needed to be answered regarding regulations - but that was not for today.

She wanted to pay respects to those involved and said the time for those inquiries lay ahead.

Labour MP Ibrahim Omer said it was a dark day for Wellington and those who managed to escape will need a lot of support.

He said some of those staying at the hostel last night included low paid hospital workers.

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.

Chris Hipkins and Grant Robertson at the fire scene. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

FENZ response

FENZ district manager for Wellington Nick Pyatt said the fire was a worst case scenario for firefighters who donned breathing apparatus as soon as they arrived at the scene to find the building well alight.

He described it as a once in a decade event for Wellington and his heart went out to the victims and their families.

Nally confirmed the building had no sprinkler system - instead it had a dry riser system which meant that firefighters could pump water into it for firefighting.

The alarm had been triggered manually by a resident, not by smoke alarms, he said.

One resident has told RNZ the fire alarm would often go off more than once a week so he was initially sceptical when he heard a person yelling that people should evacuate.

Nally said he was incredibly proud of firefighters' work and they would be feeling the pain of not being able to get everyone out.

He singled out the work of crews using an aerial truck. Several people had been plucked to safety from an area directly above the fire.

"Those people were going to perish except for the intervention of our team. The young officer that led that did an outstanding job. Multiple people are walking around because of it," Nally said.

Investigations are already underway and Nally said their findings would be critical for the country's building industry to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Wellington Loafers Lodge fire

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Hospital appeal and health warning

Wellington City Council said there was asbestos in the roof of the building and some small pieces of the cement contain asbestos fibres. The material will be kept damp until removed, to stop fibres being released into the air.

It said the risk to neighbours was low but people should keep their windows and doors closed as a precaution, and wipe up any dust with a damp disposable cloth.

The Asthma and Respiratory Foundation said the fire could pose a health risk for those in surrounding areas.

Smoke is reported to have been thick in the air of nearby suburbs.

Foundation chief executive Letitia Harding said nearby residents needed to ensure they protected their respiratory health.

People should stay indoors if possible, and keep doors and windows closed until the smoke cleared.

Those out in Wellington's central business area should wear masks.

Meanwhile, non-urgent patients have been asked to stay away from Wellington Hospital today.

There is limited access to the hospital due to road closures related to the fire.

Te Whatu Ora said patients who have non-urgent and safely-deferrable appointments are being rescheduled.

People are asked not to call about appointments as they will be contacted if their appointment is affected.

Te Whatu Ora says anyone who requires urgent or emergency care will receive it.

Impact on traffic

The tragedy is also affecting traffic flows in the city.

Waka Kotahi is warning people heading to the airport and Wellington Hospital to expect delays on State Highway 1.

Adelaide Road, a major thoroughfare, is closed while emergency services continue to respond to the fire.

The transport agency said traffic flows in the central city impacted during both the morning and evening commute, and they expect traffic would be snarled again on Wednesday.

The Mt Victoria tunnel was serving as a detour route for people travelling to the south coast. Because of this, a maintenance closure planned for the tunnel tonight has been deferred.

Mayor launches appeal

Wellington's Mayor Tory Whanau has opened a Mayoral Relief Fund to accept donations from the public.

The council has donated $50,000 to the fund.

She said the fund will be used to help those who have lost everything get the essential supplies they need as well as counselling and other support.

It will also support the families of those who died in the fire.

Anyone who wants to donate can deposit money via the Wellington City Mission website.

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