The Big Read: Questions remain around fatal Hamilton fire, as victim's mother angry at inquest outcome

Toni Maree Johnston, 23, came home from a night out on the town at 4.20am. Her Collingwood St flat caught fire about 40 minutes later.
Toni Maree Johnston, 23, came home from a night out on the town at 4.20am. Her Collingwood St flat caught fire about 40 minutes later.

The mother of a woman who died in a horrific house fire in Hamilton is angry the inquest into her daughter's death has glossed over her movements that fateful night.

Sue McLeish is the mother of Toni Maree Johnston, 23, who along with Jake Lindsey Hayes, 19, and Connor James Swetman, 17, died in a fire which engulfed an old Collingwood St villa during the early hours of November 15, 2014.

McLeish made her views known after coroner Gordon Matenga opened the floor to the many family and friends who were at the final day of the inquest in Hamilton today.

The inquest began on Monday but was adjourned on Tuesday and resumed this morning so that Raine Tarawa and boyfriend Michael Heyes, who both lived in the house, could give their evidence.

Connor Swetman, aged 17, of Hamilton who died in the Collingwood St blaze.
Connor Swetman, aged 17, of Hamilton who died in the Collingwood St blaze.

McLeish said her family attended because they thought the inquest's purpose was "finding out information leading to Toni's death".

"And at this point I am really only concerned about the evidence pertaining to Toni, not the other two boys ... we sat here for two days and have heard an awful lot about a party at 192 Collingwood St and we haven't heard a lot about Toni's story.

"She will be forever connected to that party when our understanding of that event is that she went into town and came home at the wrong time. So her connectedness to all this is that she lived at that property and then came home to go to bed.

"We haven't heard anything until I have just asked the detective about Toni's movements at all that night. We'd known that she'd drunk [alcohol], left her car [at home] and taxied home. "

Coroner Matenga apologised for the oversight and said it was because the investigation focused on the fire and how it started.

"You haven't heard much about your daughter's evidence, I apologise for that and that's perhaps an oversight on my part and it was mostly because she was not really a focus of what took place that night. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Hamilton man Jake Hayes who was one of three to die in the ferocious house fire at Collingwood St on November 14, 2015.
Hamilton man Jake Hayes who was one of three to die in the ferocious house fire at Collingwood St on November 14, 2015.

'One witness has lied under oath'

McLeish said the most upsetting factor in the inquest was witness Oscar Schollum, who changed aspects of his testimony when giving evidence on Monday. Schollum admitted to being at the house closer to the time to the start of the fire, at least 4.20am, instead of the previously mentioned 3.45am.

McLeish labelled his evidence as "unreliable" and said although he might not have started the fire, it now changed in their minds what happened that night.

"The biggest frustration sitting here as a family ... [is] the unreliability of several witnesses ... I believe there was one witness who has lied under oath here in front of us," McLeish alleged.

"We have rights as a family to try and find out the truth leading up to [fire]. My question to you, as the coroner, what happens to a witness who lies under oath? There should be some repercussions ... because it links in with the time that Toni was coming home."

However, the coroner said there was a difference between perjury and being "deliberately dishonest". He added that it was up to the police to determine whether any criminality had occurred.

McLeish praised the two experts who provided evidence, forensic scientist Marnix Kelderman and senior specialist fire investigator Peter Hallett, which she said provided the family with more of an understanding of the intensity of the blaze and why the people inside the villa couldn't get out.

'Perfect storm'

Outside court, Greg Johnston, Toni's brother, said if anything, the fire and the deaths had shown the importance of smoke alarms.

"You've got a perfect storm situation to create a fire, smoke alarms are early detection to give people a chance to get out."

Kim Healey, Hayes' mother, said she hoped that the inquest would help bring some closure for her son's friends who had to give evidence and re-live that traumatic night.

"You could see some of the emotion on some of the kids who found it extremely difficult and there's relief now for a lot of them, now they have it over and done with they can try and move on."

As for her views on what happened that night, she said it was disappointing that there wasn't enough evidence to point in either direction.

"It's not going to change anything for the family but all of us would be extremely happy if more evidence could come to light that could lead to a conclusion rather than it being an open case."

The layout of the top storey of the Collingwood St villa. Toni Johnston, Jake Hayes and Connor Swetman died in the blaze of November 15, 2014. Diagram / Supplied
The layout of the top storey of the Collingwood St villa. Toni Johnston, Jake Hayes and Connor Swetman died in the blaze of November 15, 2014. Diagram / Supplied

When asked on her thoughts about the inquest, Swetman's mother, Sharon Otto, said it was a "really horrible" experience but it didn't matter as it wasn't going to bring her son back.

She said her son was easy-going and laid back and wouldn't have been causing any trouble that night.

"He was never one for being involved in any drama.

"He would be more the one looking at his hair in the mirror," aunty Leanne Otto joked.

'Thick smoke just poured into the room'

Earlier, flatmate Raine Tarawa, told the coroner she recalled noticing a small orange ember jump under her bedroom door after being woken by her partner Heyes' friend, Jesse Tudor.

"I could hear glass smashing downstairs, like windows being smashed and Jesse was yelling and running through the house so I thought there must be something serious going on ... I went to open the door and an orange light, a little orange ember seemed to be under the door and I stood on it so it wouldn't burn the carpet."

She then opened the door to a wall of thick, black smoke.

A diagram of the bottom storey of the villa. The fire began on couch one. However, there's a second possibility that it began after a substance was inserted through the window behind the bar.
A diagram of the bottom storey of the villa. The fire began on couch one. However, there's a second possibility that it began after a substance was inserted through the window behind the bar.

"This black, really thick smoke just poured into the room ... there was lots of it coming in. So much was coming in it almost shut the door again."

Realising they had to get out as quickly as possible, Tarawa said she and Heyes tried to get out via an internal staircase, however she could see flames coming out the doors and windows of the lounge.

The heat was also intense so they opted to jump out the window.

The flames were so big they couldn't go down the driveway so they went down the neighbour's driveway to the safety of the road.

Heyes also gave evidence and said it took about two seconds for their bedroom to fill with black smoke once Tarawa opened the bedroom door.

Their only option was to escape out the window which involved a short drop to an air conditioning unit below, and then the ground.

When they got to the road, they were met by flatmate Joseph Soutar, his friend, Bianca Peautolu, and Tudor.

Heyes said a man driving past stopped and called 111. They were then wondering if anyone was left inside and noticed Johnston's vehicle parked in the driveway.

They all started yelling out and Tudor ran up the stairs and kicked in the front door.

However, he was thrown back due to the intensity of the blaze.

Earlier in the week, the inquest heard how the fire started on a couch in the southwestern area of the downstairs lounge. Tudor was sleeping in the spare bedroom downstairs only to be woken by the smoke.

He then ran upstairs yelling at the occupants, firstly his friend Soutar, to get out as the house was on fire.

Bayley Reid was asleep in Hayes' room of Hayes along with Swetman. Reid wrapped his arm in a jersey and smashed the window of the door leading out onto the deck.

He last recalled Hayes and Swetman being less than half a metre behind him, however, when he got to safety they were nowhere to be seen.

They were later found still in the room, while Johnston had also succumbed to the smoke while still in her bedroom.

The coroner reserved his decision.

- NZ Herald

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