Fatal fire 'like some explosion had gone off', coroner hears

A fire inspector at the Slacks Creek house fire where 11 people died. Photo / Courier Mail
A fire inspector at the Slacks Creek house fire where 11 people died. Photo / Courier Mail

One of the first police to arrive at the scene of Australia's worst house fire says the intensity of the blaze prevented the rescue of 11 people trapped inside.

Constable Manelie Brier-Mills was called to the home at Slacks Creek, south of Brisbane, about midnight on August 24, 2011.

Ms Brier-Mills told a coronial inquest into the tragedy the two-storey timber home was "totally engulfed in flames".

A white four-wheel-drive parked outside was also alight. "Upstairs, there were flames streaming out of the top windows," she told the coroner.

"To me, it seemed like some explosion had gone off." Ms Brier-Mills said her partner noticed there were three or four gas bottles underneath the home.

"He said 'just get everyone back', because when we got there, there were about 30 people on the street."

Counsel assisting the coroner Megan Jarvis asked the constable if there was any prospect of performing rescues.

"You couldn't get in ... for one, because of the gas bottles, and because the four-wheel-drive was on fire," Ms Brier-Mills replied.

"The whole place was on fire, so no."

Eleven members of the Lale and Taufa families perished in the blaze, including mother Teukisia Lale and her five children, aged eight to 18.

Fusi, Anna Maria, La'Haina and Kahlahni Taufa along with Ardelle Lee also lost their lives.

Three men, Tau Taufa, Mark 'Misi' Matauaina and Jerimiah Lale, escaped.

Ms Brier-Mills was asked whether she heard any smoke alarms sounding that night.

"All I could hear was crackling. The crackling of the fire. And that was it," she said.

Sergeant Brad Bardell told the inquest a major concern was the structural integrity of the house and the safety of those trying to retrieve the victims' bodies.

"When I arrived, the QFRS (Queensland Fire and Rescue Service) was still going through the process of ensuring the fire was extinguished," he told the inquest.

Mr Bardell listed where the victims were found in the house. He said the floor of one bedroom had collapsed to the lower level. There were seven victims retrieved from that room.

Mr Bardell said it took crews three days to shore up the shell of the home using scaffolding and reinforcements to ensure that personnel could safely collect the remains of the victims.

"It was so structurally unsafe that in any other ordinary circumstances if it was a house fire, it would've been too unsafe to risk sending people in to determine the origin and the cause."

He said the recovery of victims necessitated a thorough exploration of the home. The court was shown a series of photographs from inside the burnt out house.

Mr Bardell explained various indicators which suggested the blaze began in a downstairs study.

Pictures of the study gave an impression of the ferocity of the blaze. "Essentially, everything's been consumed," Mr Bardell said.

He told the court the remains of a cigarette packet in that room suggested a cigarette may have been an ignition point.

But Mr Bardell could not exclude a desk lamp. He said his investigations revealed at the time the desk lamp was purchased, owners were able to buy 60-watt bulbs for it. But the lamp was rated to use a bulb of up to 40-watts.

The use of bulbs that were too powerful for the appliance was known as "over-lamping", Mr Bardell explained.

The 60-watt bulbs that were suitable for the particular lamp have since been taken off the market.

Mr Bardell tested the same model lamp with a 60-watt bulb he sourced from importers.

He said he was able to ignite regular printer paper within minutes. "For me, that was telling for the point of view of being a viable ignition source if it was in the over-lamped condition."

On Monday, Mr Taufa told the inquest he had been working in the study that night before heading upstairs for a bath.

He recalled seeing smoke seeping through the upstairs kitchen floorboards and attempting to battle the flames with a garden hose.

The inquest has previously heard the home had only one smoke alarm, on the upper level, but it was disabled years before the fire after it had gone off unnecessarily.

The inquest, before Coroner James McDougall, continues.

- AAP

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf02 at 21 Dec 2014 15:12:34 Processing Time: 564ms