A man has been charged with two counts of arson over the deadly Loafers Lodge inferno, and the “grim” task of recovering bodies from the charred remains has begun.
And as questions are being asked about how reliable the frontline firefighting fleet is, New Zealand’s fire chief has spoken of the multimillion-dollar funding shortfall and how some vehicles are “barely safe to use”.
The Herald understands the man charged is in his 40s and was a resident of Loafers Lodge hostel in the suburb of Newtown, where the fire occurred. He has lived in both Wellington and Auckland before.
The man faces two arson charges and is due to appear in Wellington District Court today.
Acting Wellington District Commander Inspector Dion Bennett confirmed in a statement he is confident police are not seeking anyone else in relation to the fire.
A police reconnaissance team began the work yesterday of recovering the first bodies from the central Wellington boarding house, with a karakia being carried out at the scene earlier. Two bodies were retrieved yesterday and further recovery efforts are expected to resume today.
But authorities are still unable to confirm the death toll. Aside from the six already confirmed dead, there are up to 20 residents unaccounted for.
As the specialist police team scoured the building, Inspector Dion Bennett, Acting Wellington District Commander, said the process of finding bodies was a grim one.
“A reconnaissance team conducted an initial, preparatory examination of the building [on Wednesday] afternoon.
“The team reported significant damage to the interior of the building, confirming debris up to one metre high in some places.
“The scene examination, which will involve disaster victim identification officers, will be a methodical and painstaking process. The recovery of those who lost their lives in the fire will be the immediate priority for the team.”
By the end of Thursday, police hoped to have removed at least the first two bodies. A further two are expected to be removed on Friday.
The bodies will then be taken to Wellington Hospital’s mortuary “where there is a specific process for disaster victim identification”.
Given the challenging conditions teams will face, the examination will take several days to complete.
“The damage on the third floor is significant, the debris is piled high, and there is much for them to move and search underneath,” Bennett said.
“This is an incredibly difficult time for all those impacted by this tragedy, particularly those who are still waiting for news of their loved ones.
“I can assure you that we are doing everything we can to recover those who lost their lives as quickly as possible, so that identification processes can commence, and we can get you the answers you need.”
Family liaison teams were working hard to help families, Bennet added.
He said police had been able to account for 92 people who were staying in the lodge when the blaze erupted early on Tuesday.
On the morning of the fire, more than 50 people were rescued by fire crews.
Their bravery was praised yesterday by Fire and Emergency New Zealand chief executive Kerry Gregory, who said he was “extremely proud” of everyone involved – including those on the scene and 111 call centre operators – and added the fire had been an “extremely traumatic incident”.
“When I spoke to the crews ... this is the day after, it’s really raw for firefighters,” he said.
“Most firefighters their whole career don’t go to a fatality in a building ... let alone multiple fatalities. You feel like you question yourself around could I have done anything different, what happened?”
Gregory also reacted to ongoing union concerns about some of FENZ’s fleet, and revelations from RNZ that a second fire truck with a long ladder was unable to respond to the incident because it had broken down.
He said it was no secret that the fire service had issues with an ageing fleet, and 27 per cent of appliances were beyond their target lifespan of 20-25 years.
“The legacy condition of many of our stations and our fleet varied significantly from what we would consider fit for purpose vehicles to some that were barely safe to use,” he said.
“The condition of these cannot be underestimated.”
FENZ would require a 20-year spend of more than $2.9 billion to upgrade the fleet.
But Gregory said that, based on the current forecast income, it could afford only $2b.
The FENZ board was looking at options to overcome the shortfall.
“In the meantime, we have a large and very complex fleet and specialist trucks,” he said.
“Like many older trucks, they do break down from time to time. Until we can address the modernisation of that fleet this will continue to happen.”
FENZ was in the process of buying four new fire trucks. It was hoped they would arrive in New Zealand by the end of next year.
* Police urge anyone who has been staying at Loafers Lodge in recent days to get in touch.
They are asked to call 105 and reference Operation Rose, or go online to https://www.police.govt.nz/use-105#online-report-options and select the form “Something Else”, referencing Operation Rose.