Loafers Lodge fire: Survivors describe 'shocking' ordeal as many remain unaccounted for

Tenants at the Wellington hostel ravaged by fire early on Tuesday morning have described their harrowing experiences as the blaze engulfed the building, with one resident explaining how he had no choice but to jump from the fourth floor. 

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has confirmed at least six people died in the blaze at Loafers Lodge, a hostel offering short and long-term accommodation in Newtown, while 11 remain unaccounted for. It's understood the fire broke out in the lounge area of the third floor before rapidly spreading. 

Speaking to Newshub, a survivor and tenant named Chris - who has been living on the third floor of Loafers Lodge since November - expressed his fears for the elderly residents living on the fourth floor, noting it would have been particularly difficult for them to escape.

He added many tenants on the top floor would have been forced to jump out of their windows as the hallway filled with thick smoke. 

"As soon as you hit the stairwell, it was sweet as, it was all clear - there was no smoke so you could get out. It was just getting to the stairwell - it was black as, thick as smoke, it was hard to breathe," Chris said.

"I'm worried about all the elderly people in there that ain't strong or fit enough to get out. It would've been hard for them to get out of the building, especially on the top floors.

"It was pretty shocking, pretty scary."

Describing the blaze, Chris said he believed it started in the third-floor lounge, "where the pool table and kitchen [are]".

"So about 12:30am this morning there was a first fire, the security guard there managed to put it out, but then after that another fire," he added. 

After becoming aware of the blaze, Chris went to check on his neighbour, who was still in his room, before figuring out his best escape route. 

"For me, where my room is situated, I'm probably like three or four metres away from the stairwell. I managed to get there quite easy [sic], but it's other people who are further in the building because I couldn't even see - so other people who are deeper in the building will probably find it harder to find their way out," he said. 

'I had to jump out the window or burn inside'

One resident named Tala, who has been living at the lodge for about a year, said he had no choice but to jump out of a window on the fourth floor to escape the blaze.

Speaking to Newshub, Tala - who was on the fourth and highest floor - said he couldn't make it through the smoke-filled hallway to the stairwell, so made the decision to jump from a window onto the roof of the second storey below. 

He was eventually rescued from the roof by emergency services but was rushed to hospital with a sprained ankle.

"The whole hallway was black with smoke. I was on the top floor and couldn't get through the hallway, there was just too much smoke - so I jumped out the window," he told Newshub. 

"Outdoors there was a roof [on the second floor], so I was able to not get seriously injured. I just sprained my ankle on the roof, luckily the ambulance [crew] managed to get me off the roof with a ladder.

"The smoke was really dark and heavy, it smelled like poison… I couldn't see the flame but I could feel the heat.

"It was scary. I knew I had to jump out the window or burn inside the building. I've basically lost everything."

Raymond Sutter, a third-floor tenant, told Newshub he heard screams early in the morning and opened his door to see "a big plume of smoke" in the corridor. He went back to his room and waited by the window to ensure he could breathe clean air, but soon noticed water pooling underneath the door. 

"I thought it was time to leave. So I went out, there was a little bit of smoke, but I went down the stairwell - water was pouring down like mad on each floor."

He noted he and about 150 other tenants were transferred to Newtown's welfare centre as emergency services battled to contain the blaze and evacuated other survivors.

"People asked me if I'd seen them [another resident] and I said, no, I hadn't seen them, so I don't know if he's perished or not [sic]," Sutter said. 

Loafers Lodge tenant and survivor Raymond Sutter.
Loafers Lodge tenant and survivor Raymond Sutter. Photo credit: Newshub

Sutter added that he's feeling "OK" after the ordeal but is glad he escaped when he did. Some of his books and clothes may have been lost to the fire, he said, and he's hoping he can stay with his ex-wife in the meantime. 

'Billowing with yellow flames'

Another tenant Newshub spoke to said he had yet to see several of his friends in the aftermath of the blaze - and feared the worst. 

The man, who has lived at Loafers Lodge for three years, said people were "jumping out of the top floor" at about 1am to escape the fire, adding that the roof was "billowing with yellow flames".

"I believe I've lost about three friends from Loafers… a good friend of mine, I haven't seen him this morning," he said. "I haven't seen a number of people… I've lost my phone, I have no idea what the situation is."

He added that most long-term residents have learned to ignore the fire alarm, noting it's often triggered by people cooking in the early hours of the morning.

"That fire alarm has been going off at 12am, 3am, 5am and we ignore it… this time it was, 'Don't ignore it'," he said.

A tenant named Simon also explained that many residents tend to ignore the fire alarm, noting it's often set off by cooking or people smoking in their rooms. 

"An alarm went off at 12am but a lot of the time the alarm goes off and people don't even leave their rooms... half the bloody alarms aren't hooked up."

He claimed a person had allegedly "set fire to the couch", which was quickly put out - but an hour later smoke had filled the hallways.

"I wasn't going to go outside, [thinking] it was another false alarm - but I went outside to have a cigarette and smelled smoke in the hallway on the first floor. So I ran around and knocked on all the doors, [saying] 'this one's real, get out.'

"We stood outside for 40 minutes watching while the fire services tried to finish [the blaze] from the inside.

"Most of [the tenants] have lost everything on the top floor... the support's been really great. There's a lot of people worse off than me.

"I'm hoping my stuff will just be wet, but still there."

Simon Hanify
Simon has lived on the first floor of Loafers Lodge for five months. Photo credit: Newshub

'Never seen this much smoke before'

Two locals Newshub spoke to, Alexi and Axel, said they saw plumes of smoke rising from the building shortly before going to bed. 

The two, who live on the street behind Loafers Lodge, said they could see the thick clouds of smoke blowing towards the harbour and decided to walk over to investigate.

After arriving at Adelaide Rd, where the hostel is located, Axel said they stood and watched as hordes of emergency services attempted to extinguish the flames.

"There was the most first responder vehicles I've ever seen," he told Newshub. "I'd never seen that much smoke before... it was a super full-on fire."

He said a couple of rooms on the corner of the building were on fire "the whole time" they were there, although most of the smoke was billowing from the roof.

"We saw an old man taken out at probably 1:45am and he looked pretty upset, he didn't look too good. We were pretty shocked to find out people had died - we didn't anticipate that," Axel said.

"It's pretty shocking and really sad, especially being so close to where we live."

Newshub also spoke to Sunnie Chan, who has lived in Hanson St Apartments - situated across the road from Loafers Lodge - for about 40 years.

He said a diverse group lives in the hostel, including many elderly people. The residents are known for throwing rooftop parties, he added.

Chan said he first became aware of the fire when his baby woke up in the night at about 1:30am.

The building was already alight and people were being rescued from the rooftop, he said, adding that getting out of the building would have been difficult.