A number of people are missing and at least six people have been confirmed dead after a devastating fire tore through a New Zealand hostel.
Swarms of emergency services crews rushed to the four-storey Loafers Lodge hostel on Adelaide Rd in the capital city of Wellington just before 12.30am local time (10pm AEST) on Tuesday morning.
Local media are reporting that authorities are treating the blaze, which started on the building’s top level, as suspicious, amid claims it was deliberately lit.
Several residents have also told local media there appeared to be two fires within the building.
Emergency services crews are still searching for 11 people, a significant drop from the 30 residents who remained unaccounted for earlier this morning.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins warned New Zealanders that the death toll was likely to rise, although it is believed at this stage that the total number of deaths is “fewer than 10”.
He described it as “an absolutely tragic set of circumstances”, and told reporters at the scene on Tuesday morning a full investigation into the tragedy would be carried out.
“This is a major event,” he said.
“We’ve not seen something on this scale in recent times. Wellingtonians will feel this … It’s a very tight-knit community.
“People will be feeling this today and I think, you know, I know the community will support each other, will give support to each other.
“The police, the coroner, a range of different investigations take place and of course we will follow those and await any findings that come from those.”
At least 52 people were rescued, including a number who were saved from the building’s roof.
One person was also seriously injured after jumping from the third floor to escape the fire, with at least five being treated in hospital.
Tala Sili was in the building when he saw smoke coming under his door. He opened it to find the hallway was dark and black, the New Zealand Herald reports.
He then decided to jump out of the window on to a roof two storeys below.
“I was on the top floor and I couldn’t go through the hallway because there was just too much smoke so I jumped out the window,” he said.
“It was just scary, it was really scary, but I knew I had to jump out the window or just burn inside the building.”
It is understood many of the inner city hostel’s residents were members of Wellington’s transient community, including so-called “501 deportees” – New Zealand-born ex-prisoners who were suddenly deported by Australia under a controversial policy announced almost a decade ago by the former Liberal government.
Other residents included shift workers and the elderly.
Wellington Fire and Emergency District Manager Nick Pyatt earlier told reporters more than 90 people were believed to have been staying at the hostel at the time of the fire.
He also warned that the building contained asbestos, and urged nearby residents to wear masks and keep their windows closed to avoid exposure.
“I can sadly report that this will be a multi-fatality incident. Our thoughts at this time are with the families of those who have perished and with our crews who valiantly rescued those and attempted to rescue those that they couldn’t,” Mr Pyatt said.
“It doesn’t get worse than this. This is a once-in-a-decade fire for Wellington. It’s the worst nightmare for us.”
‘Death trap’: Residents speak
Residents have began sharing their harrowing stories of narrow escapes with local media, with inhabitant Chris Fincham telling RNZ he believed the building was a “death trap” due to previous water and power issues.
“I didn’t feel particularly safe,” he said.
Others described crawling to safety as smoke filled the hallways.
In a statement, New Zealand Police said the building was not yet safe to access and that a priority was confirming exactly how many people were residing at the property, and how many had made it to safety.
“Our initial assessment is that the number of deceased is fewer than 10, however, we are not in a position to be any more specific until we can access the building,” the statement reads.
“It is currently unsafe and until we can access the building – and reconcile numbers of people who are safe – we are not in a position to determine how many people are deceased or unaccounted for.
“Our focus is on identifying those people as soon as we can.
“We are asking people to please come forward if they, or someone they know, has been staying at the property, so we can eliminate them from our inquiries.”
Police confirmed they were working with Fire and Emergency New Zealand to determine the cause of the tragedy.
FENZ has also confirmed there were no sprinklers in the hostel, and that the fire had spread to all floors, although one was most severely impacted.
Meanwhile, 501 deportee advocate Filipa Payne told Stuff the “true tragedy” will “affect families left in Australia”.
“Majority of (the deportees) are placed in accommodation like that throughout New Zealand … People that have no choice,” Ms Payne told the publication.
“I am so sorry to everyone in the lodge.
“It will affect families left in Australia who have already been through trauma and heartache.
“I struggle to understand the hurt and pain it will cause on people.”
Mayor Tory Whanau took to social media this morning to express her devastation and thank emergency services crew who risked their lives to help others.
“I am devastated to learn that we have lost Wellington lives in the fire at Loafers Lodge in Newtown last night,” she said.
“This is a tragedy. My heart goes out to friends and whānau (family) impacted, and I give my heartfelt thanks to the emergency services who worked tirelessly through the night to help those who needed it.”
More to come