Wellington: At least six people are dead and 11 unaccounted for after a fire broke out overnight at a multistory hostel in New Zealand's capital, in what fire officials are describing as their "worst nightmare" and a once-in-a-decade event.
Survivors gathered at a temporary evacuation center at a nearby sports ground on Tuesday morning, some having fled the building dressed only in their pajamas and many without shoes.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told reporters that first responders were pulled in from "across the region" to help fight the blaze. He promised a full investigation into the fire, which he described as "an absolute tragedy."
Firefighters arrived at the scene about 12:25 a.m. Tuesday to find a fire that was rapidly spreading and burning through the roof of the building. The large number of residents in the building complicated the rescue mission. Five people were rescued off the roof, said Nick Pyatt, the Wellington fire commander.
"It doesn't get worse than this," Pyatt told reporters. "This is a once-in-a-decade fire for Wellington. It's the worst nightmare for us."
Loafers Lodge, in the suburb of Newtown in southern Wellington, advertises itself as "a cost-effective accommodation option" for short- and long-term residents.
Officials said the 92-room facility was home to many vulnerable residents who may have struggled to find accommodation elsewhere. New Zealand has relatively high rates of homelessness, partly because it uses a broad definition that includes people living in temporary accommodation.
Hipkins said there were also many shift workers living in the building, so it was unclear how many residents were at work when the fire started. The building is on a busy retail strip, adjacent to the Wellington regional hospital.
Paul Jury, who had been living at the lodge for about 18 months, said that when the smoke alarm first went off, he thought it could have been one of a number of recent false alarms. "There were a lot of false alarms," he told reporters. When he left his room to investigate, he said, he smelled smoke and fled the building, leaving all of his belongings behind.
Filipa Payne, a founder of the advocacy group Route 501, said at least one of the people who escaped the burning building was a New Zealand citizen deported from Australia under a policy in which Canberra that revokes a person's residence visa if that person received a prison sentence of 12 months or more for crimes committed in Australia.
"It was a horrific ordeal that they've been through, and there are some that are unaccounted for," Payne said. "That accommodation housed a lot of vulnerable people - people who were voiceless in society."
Many of these deportees arrived in Australia as children and have little connection to New Zealand. Australia recently announced an overhaul of the controversial policy, which has vexed relations between to the two nations in recent years.
The country's housing minister, Megan Woods, said the building was inspected earlier this year, and met the standards of the country's building code - including a stand-alone fire alarm system - although fire authorities confirmed Tuesday that there were no sprinklers in the building. Some older buildings aren't required by law to have sprinklers installed.
At this stage "the cause of the fire is unexplained, and Police will be working alongside [Fire and Emergency New Zealand] to determine cause," the Wellington District Police said in a statement.
Local news outlet Stuff said the fire was being treated as suspicious, citing a senior emergency services source.
"I'm committed to finding out what went wrong here, who is at fault," Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau told Stuff. When she first arrived on the scene Tuesday morning, Whanau said, she mistakenly believed that all of the hostel's residents had been safely evacuated. "When the time is right, we will be holding the right people to account."