Loafers Lodge fire: Police treating blaze as arson, homicide inquiry underway

Wellington police have confirmed they are treating the Loafers Lodge fire as arson as they enter the charred building to conduct an "extensive and methodical" scene examination.

Six people are confirmed dead following the large blaze at the hostel in Newtown early on Tuesday morning. 

What you need to know: 

  • Six people are confirmed dead 
  • Police take lead on investigation, treating fatal blaze as arson
  • Police confirm a couch fire occurred just hours before the deadly fire 
  • Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau has thrown her support behind a review of the building code
  • Wellington City Missioner Murray Edridge says short-term needs were met for those displaced, but now the same needs to be done long-term.

Police are treating the fire as arson

Acting Wellington District Commander Inspector Dion Bennett confirmed police are treating the Loafers Lodge fire as arson.

He said a reconnaissance team has entered the lodge and is working to develop plans for a more extensive search, which is expected to commence on Thursday.

Insp Bennett said the scene examination will likely take several days given the size of the building.

"However, I can confirm that we are treating the fire as arson," Insp Bennett said.

He later also confirmed "it is a homicide inquiry".

Insp Bennett said the damage inside was "extensive". The roof has collapsed and in places burnt debris was stacked as high as 1m.

Police have accounted for 92 people and the number still to be accounted for will be less than 20, he said.

Alongside the scene examination, officers will also be working to locate and recover those who have lost their lives in the fire.

Police want to speak to residents they have not yet spoken to and to anyone else who can help with their investigation.

A scene guard will remain at the lodge for the duration of the examination.

Loafers Lodge director says building was compliant

Loafers Lodge director Greg Mein has acknowledged the "sad loss of life" following the fire.

"This is just a tragedy… everyone is just gutted by this, it's just done us in completely," Mein said.

He said the rest of the management team was working closely with displaced residents to make sure they could be accommodated, as well as assisting the police with their investigation.

Mein believes fire prevention was up to scratch and said the building was compliant.

"The building has a monthly inspection where they go through and check, making sure that all the services are up to standard and we had an invasive building warrant of fitness done, which is done yearly, and that was completed in March and everything was a-OK."

In response to reports fire alarms didn't sound - or were disabled - Mein said he is not aware of that occurring.

Loafers Lodge director Greg Mein.
Loafers Lodge director Greg Mein. Photo credit: Newshub.

Wellington Mayor throws support behind building code review 

Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau says she and her council will support the Government launching a review of Aotearoa's building code.

Whanau said she's asked the Wellington City Council to begin "a wider piece of work" to understand the issues of the code and how widespread they are.

This is to see if there are any other buildings in a similar condition. It will also look at how these buildings receive their warrant of fitness.

FENZ shift focus 

As police take on the lead role in the Loafers Lodge investigation, FENZ region manager Bruce Stubbs says the "big focus will be on the welfare of our people".

"Particularly our frontline firefighter and Communication Centre staff who were the first responders on Tuesday."

In a statement on Wednesday, Stubbs said FENZ will continue to keep an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team at the scene to assist with any further work. 

Police now treating fire as suspicious

In an update on Wednesday afternoon, Acting Wellington District Commander Inspector Dion Bennett confirmed FENZ has handed the investigation to police.

Insp Bennett said police will continue to work with FENZ and other partners.

"Following a health and safety assessment, officers hope to enter the building this afternoon to begin a scene examination."

Insp Bennett said the scene examination will be an "extensive and methodical process" and said it's expected to take some time, "likely several days".

"Alongside the scene examination, officers will be working to locate and recover those who lost their lives in the fire."

Insp Bennett said many people are waiting for news of family and friends, including residents who escaped the fire, and "are keenly waiting for news of their fellow tenants".

"I again want to provide the reassurance that we have a large number of officers working on this investigation, with the aim of providing them the answers they need as quickly as possible."

In Wednesday afternoon's update, police have confirmed there was a couch fire at around 10:30pm on Monday, just hours before the fatal blaze.

"The couch fire was not reported to emergency services at the time," Insp Bennett said.

"As part of our enquiries, we will be seeking to confirm any link between that couch fire and the subsequent fatal fire.

"A number of officers spent the day at Newtown Park yesterday, speaking to evacuated residents, however we are aware that there may be residents who were evacuated from Loafers Lodge who went to other locations following the fire, and haven't been at Newtown Park."

Police are eager to speak to those residents, along with anyone else who may have information that could assist with their enquiries.

"We ask that people get in touch with us via 105, referencing Operation Rose."

Contact can also be made online at https://www.police.govt.nz/use-105#online-report-options – please select the form 'Something Else'.

Mayoral Relief Fund 

Wellington's Mayoral Relief Fund has raised $143,000 for those affected by the Loafers Lodge tragedy.

Wellington mayor Tory Whanau says she's blown away by the compassion shown.

Pictures from the scene

Adelaide Rd remains closed to traffic between John St and the Basin Reserve as the cordon remains around Loafers Lodge.

Pictures from the scene illustrate why.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) continue to be spread across Adelaide Rd outside of Loafers Lodge, as FENZ staff can be seen in a cherry picker inspecting the inside through windows.

Loafers Lodge fire: Police treating blaze as arson, homicide inquiry underway
Photo credit: Newshub

Pictures captured by Newshub also show FENZ staff inspecting the burnt out building from above.

Loafers Lodge fire: Police treating blaze as arson, homicide inquiry underway
Photo credit: Newshub

Pictures from Tuesday showed a major emergency services operation, on Wednesday the number of emergency services is visibly smaller.

Loafers Lodge fire: Police treating blaze as arson, homicide inquiry underway
Photo credit: Newshub

A woman holding a large bouquet of flowers was escorted behind the cordon by police to pay her respects.

Loafers Lodge fire: Police treating blaze as arson, homicide inquiry underway
Photo credit: Newshub

Survivor Chris lays flowers

Loafers Lodge fire: Police treating blaze as arson, homicide inquiry underway
Photo credit: Newshub

Loafers Lodge survivor Chris laid flowers at the police cordon on Wednesday afternoon.

Speaking to media, Chris who was visibly emotional said it's "going to be a sad and slow journey for police".

"I brought some flowers for my bros who passed away."

Chris said he was "grateful" for the support he and other residents have received since the tragic fire. 

BBC presenter's brother reportedly missing 

Stuff is reporting the brother of BBC presenter Lucy Hockings is among the people missing in the Loafers Lodge fire.

Fifty-year-old Liam Hockings is reportedly missing and Stuff reports he hasn't been in contact with family since the fiery blaze in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

On Wednesday, a member of Hockings' extended family confirmed to Stuff he was still missing after the fire.

It's reported Hockings was living with a difficult neurological condition.

Department of Corrections update

The Department of Corrections says they have accounted for all nine people on a community sentence or order who were living at Loafers Lodge.

Lower North deputy regional commissioner Brittany McNamara said "our thoughts remain with everyone affected by yesterday's tragic event".

Out of the nine, McNamara said two are subject to Extended Supervision Orders with electronic monitory and one is subject to an intensive supervision order.

"The other six people are either subject to community work, release conditions, or supervision."

McNamara said staff have worked with partner agencies to move people to suitable alternative accommodation.

"None of these people are subject to a Returning Offenders Order." 

Adelaide Rd remains closed 

Wellington police are reminding the public that Adelaide Rd remains closed to traffic between John St and the Basin Reserve following the fire at Loafers Lodge on Tuesday. 

"We appreciate that this is causing disruption for motorists and we are working to have to the road at least partially reopened as quickly as possible," a police spokesperson said.

"Alternative routes are available and motorists should plan ahead in case of traffic delays."

Police to take over investigation

In an update on Wednesday morning, police say they anticipate entering the building later today "following extensive health and safety assessment and the mitigation of any identified risks".

"Being able to enter the building is obviously a critical step in our investigation, and I am grateful to our FENZ colleagues for their work to ensure we are able to access the building safely so quickly after this significant fire," said Inspector Dion Bennett, Acting Wellington District Commander.

Insp Bennett said that once given the all-clear to enter the building "the scene examination will be an extensive and methodical process".

"We know this is an incredibly difficult time for those waiting for information regarding family members and friends who may have been staying at Loafers Lodge at the time of the fire," Insp Bennett said.

"I want to reassure everyone impacted by the fire that we will work as quickly as we can to provide the answers you need."

"We have a large number of staff dedicated to this operation, with specialist staff being brought into Wellington from around the country to assist," said Insp Bennett. 

"Yesterday a number of CIB staff spent the day at Newtown Park, speaking to evacuated residents, and we will be continuing those conversations today."

"Staff have also been making a number of other general enquiries, including obtaining and reviewing CCTV footage from the area around Loafers Lodge."

"Work is also ongoing to determine who was in the building at the time of the fire and who remains unaccounted for or uncontactable," Insp Bennett added. 

Adelaide Road remains closed between John Street and the Basin Reserve.

"We appreciate that this road closure is causing disruption to Wellingtonians and I would like to thank them for their ongoing support and cooperation," said Inspector Bennett.

"Reopening the road is a priority and will continue to be assessed as our work at the scene progresses today."

Bruce Stubbs.
Bruce Stubbs. Photo credit: AM

FENZ said the building is now deemed "safe", meaning specialist investigators will be able to enter and gather more information. 

The scene examination is expected to take some time. 

FENZ incident controller Bruce Stubbs said the lodge will be handed over to the police at about midday.

Stubbs told AM risk mitigation has been the main priority for FENZ.

"At this stage, we're comfortable with the safety and security of the building," he said.

"As we move into the next phase with police, as we start doing the investigations, we'll have Urban Search and Rescue here to ensure that, should anything change within the building, our people are safe and secure while they're going through the investigations."

Stubbs said handing over the building to the police will give FENZ crews a much-needed break.

He said those crews involved in efforts in the past 24 hours are receiving the support they need.

"Our people have faced some harrowing things on that evening but we've got people that are really committed to their job [and] to the community."

"Shocked, saddened and angered"

Tenants Action, a renters' rights group say they're "shocked, saddened and angered" by the fatal Loafers Lodge fire on Tuesday.

Claims that the accommodation did not have functioning sprinklers and fire alarms weren't reliable have sparked outrage from the group.

"Everyone deserves the right to safe, secure and affordable housing. Loafers Lodge did not offer this," said Tenants' Action Wellington organiser Anne Campbell.

Campbell claims many of Loafers Lodge's residents were shift workers and some were ex-prisoners, deported from Australia.

Safety systems questioned

Loafers Lodge passed a building warrant of fitness earlier this year, meaning the facility had the tick of approval.

However, there are reports fire alarms didn't sound - or were disabled - and there were no sprinklers in the building. There are now calls for building code to be reviewed.

In Parliament on Tuesday, the Greens made an impassioned appeal for answers - with other parties seemingly shy to do so. 

Co-leader James Shaw questioned what country New Zealand is by allowing some of those hardest off to live and perish in sub-standard accommodation.

Chris Mak, of the Fire Protection Association, said installing sprinklers in the building  would have been pricey.

"In a building like that... it's probably quarter million to half a million dollars and a lot depends on if you had to rip down the ceilings and replace the ceilings," he told AM. 

Officials should be thinking about undertaking a building code review, Mak said.

The National Party, meanwhile, has asked to join the Government in drafting terms of reference for any future investigation into the fire.

Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau said work is underway to try and find a long term housing solution for those displaced by the fire.

Dozens of tenants, including one who had to jump from the fourth floor, were worried they would be without a place to stay overnight because they had no where to go. 

But Whanau has confirmed to AM all of those displaced were put in temporary accomodation.

"I'm really glad that they're getting the support that they need as we work with central Government to work on a longer-term solution," she said. 

Whanau said the mayoral relief fund had raised $70,000 as of Wednesday morning, with the money going to supporting residents of Loafers Lodge.