At least six people were dead and 11 others missing Tuesday after a fire tore through a hostel overnight in Wellington, New Zealand.
Dozens of firefighters rushed to the Loafers Lodge just after midnight. The building has 92 rooms and had been used as an emergency housing center for social welfare agencies. Residents included New Zealanders that had been deported from Australia and people who had recently become homeless.
Officials said they believe the hostel was fully booked when the fire broke out, and have cautioned the death toll could rise as the upper stories of the building are not yet safe to enter.
There were no sprinklers installed in the building and the fire alarm didn’t go off automatically, a spokesman for the local fire department told Radio New Zealand. The Wellington City Council said the building passed an inspection in March, and there were no concerns raised at the time about the life safety systems inside.
New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins described the fire as “an absolute tragedy” while other local officials said it was a “once in a decade” event for Wellington.
“It is a horrific situation,” Hipkins said. “My understanding is there is a number of shift workers in there, my understanding is there are a number of Ministry of Social Development clients in there, although it’s not currently being used as emergency accommodation.”
Police are investigating the cause of the fire and it is being treated as suspicious, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. There is no evidence yet if it was intentionally lit.
Residents of the hostel, which included short- and long-term accommodation, told Radio New Zealand the fire alarms regularly went off during false alarms but didn’t sound this time.
“I heard a voice coming down the passageway saying ‘evacuate, evacuate, the place is on fire’ — and I didn’t think much of of it because the fire alarms would go off two or three times a week and we’d just ignore it,” Chris Fincham told the news outlet.