WELLINGTON (AP): New Zealand police said Wednesday they believe a fire that killed at least six people in a Wellington hostel was arson and launched a homicide investigation.
Police Inspector Dion Bennett said they haven’t yet arrested anybody but they have a list of people they want to speak to and hope to quickly identify any suspects or persons of interest. He declined to say if they had found accelerant or other evidence of criminal behavior at the scene.
Police said there had been a couch fire at the Loafers Lodge hostel about two hours before the large, fatal fire on Tuesday. They said the couch fire was not reported to emergency services at the time, and they were investigating to see if there was any link between the two fires.
Bennett also told reporters there was more reconnaissance and examination to be done in some unstable parts of the four-story hostel building and his “gut feeling” was the death toll could rise.
The homicide investigation represents a change in outlook by police, who on Tuesday said they didn’t believe the fire was deliberately lit.
Bennett said police had accounted for 92 people who were in the hostel and had a list of fewer than 20 others who remained unaccounted for, although were not necessarily missing. Police had earlier said they expected that the final death toll would be fewer than 10 people.
News outlet RNZ identified Liam Hockings, a journalist, as one of the hostel’s residents who was missing. RNZ said Hockings is the brother of the BBC presenter Lucy Hockings.
The fire ripped through the building early Tuesday, forcing some people to flee in their pajamas. Others were rescued by firefighters from the roof or dived from windows.
The Loafers Lodge offered 92 basic, affordable rooms with shared lounges, kitchens and laundry facilities to people of a wide range of ages. Some people were placed there by government agencies and were considered vulnerable because they had little in the way of resources or support networks. Others worked at a nearby hospital.
Emergency officials said the building had no fire sprinklers. Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said that under the nation’s building codes, sprinklers were not required in older buildings that would need to be retrofitted.
“I have asked the minister for housing to look particularly at issues around building regulations to see whether there’s anything more that we should be doing right at this point,” Hipkins told reporters Wednesday.