WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – A fire tore through a hostel in New Zealand’s capital overnight, killing at least six people and forcing others to flee the four-story building in their pajamas in what a fire chief on Tuesday called his “worst Nightmares” .”
Fifty-two people at the Loafers Lodge hostel in Wellington had been accounted for, but firefighters were still looking for others, Wellington Fire and Emergency District Manager Nick Pyatt said. He said they were called to the hostel around 12:30 p.m
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told morning news program AM that he understood six people had been confirmed dead and that the death toll was likely to rise. Police said they did not have an exact count of the number of dead, although they believe the total killed was less than 10.
Hipkins said the building is currently not safe for police to enter and it may take some time for authorities to confirm the death toll.
“It is an absolute tragedy. It is a terrible situation,” the Prime Minister told reporters. to handle the situation.”
Responding to comments from emergency officials that the building had no fire sprinklers, Hipkins said it was not currently a requirement in New Zealand’s building code for older buildings to be retrofitted with sprinkler systems.
Loafers Lodge resident Tala Sili told news outlet Stuff that he had been surrounded by thick smoke and could feel the heat from the fire, although he could not see the flames.
“It smelled like poison,” he said.
Sili said he jumped from a window to escape and sprained an ankle.
Other residents told reporters that fire alarms would regularly sound in the building, possibly from people smoking or overly sensitive smoke monitors, so many had initially thought it was another false alarm.
Pyatt, the fire chief, said his thoughts were with the families of those who had died and with the crews who had saved those they could and tried to save those they couldn’t.
“This is our worst nightmare,” Pyatt said. “It doesn’t get any worse than this.”
The police state that the cause of the fire is not immediately known.
Wellington city council spokesman Richard MacLean said city and government officials were helping about 50 people who escaped the fire and were at an emergency center set up by the council at a local running track that had showers and other facilities.
He said a number of elderly people had escaped from the building wearing only their pyjamas.
“Many are clearly shaken and confused by what happened,” he said.
The hostel provided a combination of short-term and long-term rentals, MacLean said. He didn’t have all the details, he said, but he believed it was used by various government agencies to provide clients with needed housing.
Health officials said two people who were in the building were treated at hospitals and both were in stable condition. Three others had been treated and discharged, while a sixth patient had chosen to leave before receiving treatment.
Loafers Lodge advertises itself as an affordable place for people to stay while in the capital, whether they are on business or need to visit the nearby Wellington Hospital. It has 92 rooms and promotes them as being available long term.