Loafers Lodge fire a year on: What has changed, and what has not

5:27 am on 16 May 2024

"I said, come on out! Come on out! There's fire, there's fire!"

A year ago, today former Loafers Lodge resident Tamrat Isse Adan's life was changed.

The blaze in the early hours of 16 May, 2023, killed five men, destroyed the home of 92 people and launched a series of investigations into the state of boarding houses in New Zealand.

Tamrat Isse Adan told RNZ he discovered the fire when he got up to go to the toilet.

"Everywhere was dark and smelly, so I knew something really bad was burning."

He saved the lives of two residents that night by banging on their room doors.

"I said, come on out! Come on out! There's fire, there's fire!"

He could not breathe properly and was struggling to find his way out of the building.

"By the time I got outside [the] fire brigade and everybody was outside."

Adan said he lost his friend Ken in the fire.

"You can get [back] any object, but you never, ever get back friend of your life."

He also lost all his belongings in the fire, besides his glasses and a damaged TV.

"Everything was inside - my jacket, clothes, so many documents, photographs of my kids and my grandma."

He said he would never forget the people that died in the fire. Adan now lives in a one-bedroom Kainga Ora home.

Loafers Lodge caught fire in the early hours of 16 May, 2023.

Photo: RNZ /Angus Dreaver

The blaze killed Michael Wahrlich, 67; Melvin Joseph Parun, 68; Peter Glenn O'Sullivan, 64; Kenneth Barnard, 67; and Liam Hockings, 50.

A man accused of murdering the five men has pleaded not guilty. He has also denied two charges of arson.

'There was just this strong shock' - Wellington mayor

Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau was first alerted to the fire at around 4.30am. She arrived at 6am, not long before Fire and EmergencyWellington district manager Nick Pyatt provided the first update to media.

"When he came out and said there have been multiple fatalities, there was just this strong shock and emotion, after he said those words."

Flames seen in the top storey of the Loafers Lodge building in Adelaide Road, Newtown, Wellington.

Five men died in the blaze on 16 May 2023. Photo: Supplied / Axel Dann

Reflecting one year on, Whanau said she thought about how the city responded to the event.

"I just saw the beauty of a community coming together to look after their most vulnerable."

She said while it was tragic and upsetting, she saw a lot of heart from Wellington residents.

"For me, I think that event and the way that our city reacted to it was probably one of the most significant events that I'll ever be part of in how tragic and beautiful and important it was."

Former prime minister heartbroken to lose university friend in blaze

In the hours following the blaze, then-Prime Minister Chris Hipkins would call it "an absolute tragedy" and "horrific".

Hipkins had known victim Liam Hockings.

"I had been at university with him, and you know he had an interesting and colourful life."

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

Hipkins said Hockings was a very honest and caring person, and it was heartbreaking to find out about his death.

He told RNZ what it was like to meet first responders down at the scene. He said to see the devastation and realise the speed with which the event unfolded was "pretty confronting".

'Our world changed overnight' - Wellington City Mission

Following the fire, Wellington City Mission helped find survivors a place to stay. Wellington city missioner Murray Edridge told RNZ their world changed overnight.

"We became the key agency on the ground, both working with the family of the five deceased and working with the 92 residents who got evacuated from the building."

Green Party co-leader James Shaw and Wellington City Missioner Murray Edridge.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw and Wellington City Missioner Murray Edridge. Photo: RNZ / Ruth Hill

Edridge said there were several issues residents were struggling with.

"Not only the trauma of what had happened and what they'd experienced, but the loss of possessions, the loss of livelihoods, the loss of key documentation that defined their lives and also the loss of their neighbours and their mates."

Edridge managed the mayoral relief fund, which raised $400,000. He said it was challenging at times for the organisation.

"Looking after publicly donated money for a particular cause and the desire to be absolutely transparent in the way we did, that was a difficult journey, because a number of the residents of the building thought they were entitled to a share of that - and we had a number of very difficult conversations as we sought to manage that fund in a way that was equitable and fair."

What happened next: The reviews

The Loafers Lodge fire launched a series of reviews across councils and government agencies.

A Wellington City Council audit released in June last year found 25 similar buildings to Loafers Lodge in the capital. Twenty-one had a current building warrant of fitness, one never had one and three did, but they were not current.

In September, Cabinet approved changes which saw harsher penalties for building owners who failed to supply a building warrant of fitness.

Following the fire, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) launched a review into 37 buildings like Loafers Lodge (at least three storeys tall, was a boarding house and had no sprinklers). It found more than 100 problems, including smoke detectors not working and unmonitored alarm systems.

It also found the boarding houses were on average 60 years old. Most were not built originally to be accommodation, and 69 percent had issues with safety systems.

Fire and Emergency's substantive review was yet to be released.

Possible changes to come

The Loafers Lodge fire prompted a series of questions from community leaders about what the legacy of the event would be, and how similar fires could be stopped in the future.

Chris Penk

Chris Penk. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Edridge told RNZ after the fire he hoped Wellington would change forever.

"The benchmark or threshold I use, and we tend to use in the City Mission, is that if I wouldn't live there myself or allow a member of my family to live there then it's not suitable for anybody else."

He said he worried 12 months on, there were still buildings that were not at an acceptable standard.

Minister for Building and Construction Chris Penk said following the MBIE review, the government was looking at fire safety regulations in the building code. Penk told RNZ the results of the review would be taken to Cabinet in the coming months.

"We need an evidence-based response to the question of whether the rules as they currently sit are appropriate."

He said the main lesson from Loafers Lodge for him was that the system as a whole had to be taken seriously, because human lives were at stake.

"Anything less than that is simply not acceptable."

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