Urban search and rescue crews have started combing through the smouldering wreckage of a Wellington hostel where up to 10 people may have died in a horror fire overnight.
It has been confirmed by authorities this morning that there were no sprinklers in the building - and there are still 11 people unaccounted for. So far six deaths have been confirmed.
Emergency services converged on Loafers Lodge hostel in Newtown just before 12.30am after a fire was reported on the third floor of the four-storey building.
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The fire was well-involved and firefighters battled the flames as they engulfed the building.
Resident Chris woke to a fire alarm and walked into the corridor but could not see anything amiss.
“But then it was the neighbour [shouting] ‘fire! fire!’ and the whole hallway was filled with smoke,” he said.
He ran to grab his phone.
“I was then thinking ‘what else do I grab’, but then was like ‘ah, f... this I’m out of here,” he recalled.
Grabbing his hat on the way out, Chris fell to the ground and began crawling out of his room, towards the stairway that would bring him to safety.
He was based on the other side of the floor to where the fire had sparked, residing fairly close to where the stairs were.
However, by the time Chris had left his room, smoke had already filled the building.
“It was hard to crawl as [there’s] only that much airspace on the ground. It was straight-up scary.”
Just before 9am authorities confirmed six people had died and 30 were unaccounted for.
“This is our worst nightmare. It doesn’t get worse than this,” said Wellington Fire and Emergency district manager Nick Pyatt.
“We were confronted with a challenging incident, you don’t get more challenging than this.
“(Firefighters) had to put their own lives at risk to get as many people out of there as possible.”
Pyatt said crews were “heroic” and given the volume of people in the building the incident was particularly challenging.
“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,” he said.
The hostel on Adelaide Road can house 92 people and but it was unclear how many were inside when the fire broke out.
FENZ Deputy National Commander Brendon Nally confirmed to NewstalkZB that there were no sprinklers in Loafers Lodge.
The cause of the fatal blaze would be investigated as well as claims that smoke alarms were not activated and whether or not the fire was deliberately lit.
By 9.30am Nally said authorities had a list of people they believe were in the building and have got that down to 20 who they still need to find.
Many of those living in the hostel were from the city’s transient community and one resident said a lot of others worked nights and were not home when the fire started.
A resident who was on the third floor told the Herald that many of those who lived on the top floors of the building were elderly.
A source told the Herald that there are fatalities on all floors of the building.
“For the crews - it would’ve been pretty horrific. Flames coming out of a building with people inside is our worst nightmare,” a firefighter told TVNZ’s Breakfast.
“But when you’re woken from your sleep - with alarms going [and] smoke - people would’ve been pretty emotive trying to escape.
Resident Warren Holdaway said as soon as the smell of the smoke hit his nose, he sprinted out of the building.
“It is a big building and it was right down the end from me when I opened my bedroom door I could smell the smoke,” he said.
“It took me 15-20 seconds to get out of the building from where I was. I was only just down the corridor from a stairwell.”
When he got outside his first thought was: “it really is on fire”.
“Fire and emergency services were still arriving when I came out of the building. There was smoke coming out of the building,” he said.
“Fire brigade got themselves set up and then the flames burst through the roof, the windows.
He said aside from the loss of lives, one of the most heartbreaking things was the looming loss of community.
“Whatever people said about that building, it was our home,” he said.
“And now we’re all going to be split up into different motels and hotels, and that community will never be together again”
A resident who lives on the third floor said he believed there could have been two fires in the building this morning.
The man told Breakfast he opened his door to see thick black smoke and people yelling for help.
The man said he left his room then - grabbing his phone and vape - but leaving with no shoes.
Nally told NewstalkZB he was at a loss of words to describe incident.
“It is horrendous. I heard the Mayor and she put it beautifully this is a tragic and out-of-scale event that we can’t get our minds around,” he said.
“It will affect a lot of people for a long time including firefighters who wanted to save everyone but unfortunately that hasn’t been able to happen.
“I am proud of them and the incredible work they did today.”
Specialist crews were working methodically and slowly through the building which had sustained serious structural damage, Nally said.
“We have a list of people who we believe were in the building that night which we got from the building owners. There are 20 names we are still trying to find,” he said.
“Residents could have gone to the facility in Newtown or at friends and whānau so I don’t want to get into speculation.”
When asked whether there could be someone alive in the building still, Nally said it was not possible.
“We have firefighters who did a fantastic job and have been at every part of the building where someone could be alive,” he explained.
“First responding crews said it was a dense, hot fire.
“Residents started to evacuate, and firefighters helped. They did an outstanding job.”
Firefighters rescued people from directly above the roof, “above the fire, saving lives”, Nally said.
“We got as many out as possible. We are dealing with a building with asbestos and partial collapse.
“We are being diligent and methodical to deal with this building. The fire spread on all floors one specifically was the worst affected.”
Nally said fire crews had struggled to gain access.
“With that many residents (coming out)... no sprinklers. There was heavy smoke, but firefighters did a fantastic job.”
Nally said the building’s structural damage was of concern - including the fear of roof falling in.
" With the amount of heat in the building it has impacted the structure,” he said.
“We have USAR people to assist us.”
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins described today’s deadly fire as “tragic”.
“Our thoughts will be with all of the firefighters involved and all the victims of today’s tragedy,” he told Breakfast.
“It’s a really tragic situation.
“For now I want to particularly acknowledge the firefighters who have put themselves in harm’s way over past hours to get people out of the building and put the fire out.
“The focus right now is supporting our firefighters to get the situation stabilised, get the people out of the building and put the fire out.”
Loafers Lodge Property Manager Murray Murphy told the Herald they were “very sad”.
“I don’t live at the lodge. I was called just after midnight about the fire. Firefighters are still here.
“I just found out from a reliable source that there have been several fatalities.”
Tenants had been moved to Newtown Park stadium so they were all together, Murphy said.
“Wellington District Council is also helping the ones who have no family here to get temporary accommodation.”
Wellington mayor Tory Whanau said on Breakfast the situation was the city’s “worst nightmare.”
“I’m devastated,” she said.
She said the fatal blaze was “a shock to the system” and she was visibly emotional during interviews.
“I’m feeling a lot of pain and emotion at those who have been lost,” she said.
Whanau said people who had “made it out” have been offered accommodation services and will continued to be offered those services.
She acknowledged there were various kinds of people who were staying at the lodge at the time - including “vulnerable” people.
It was later confirmed a relief fund was being prepared for those impacted by the tragic fire.
Traffic delays and diversions
Motorists in the area are being told of delays as emergency services remain at the scene early this morning. Adelaide Rd is closed from John St.
The Wellington City Council said drivers and other commuters are advised to take alternative routes and expect delays this morning as a result of the blaze.
“Buses and other traffic between the central city and southern suburbs is likely to be diverted for several hours, at least, and delays can be expected.
“Bus passengers are advised to check the Metlink website for further details.”
Metlink said all bus services that use Newtown heading toward and away from the city will detour until further notice, affecting most Newtown routes.
Another ZB caller travelled to the hospital from the central city.
“You can’t go up Adelaide Road. You have to go up Hanson [Street] because they’ve blocked off the other end of Riddiford Street as well.”
Power has also been impacted in the area, with the building’s electricity needing to be isolated.
Incident Controller Mike Dombrowski said residents in the area should stay inside with their windows and doors closed due to the smoke plume.