Police still yet to confirm NZ hostel fire death toll

·3-min read
Masanori Udagawa/AAP PHOTOS

Police are yet to confirm how many people died in the Loafers Lodge hostel fire but say crews have found five bodies, four of which have been retrieved from the building.

Acting Wellington District Commander Inspector Dion Bennett said crews hoped to remove the fifth body as quickly as possible, noting they still couldn't cross parts of the hostel's third floor because of its instability.

Police have so far accounted for 99 people, with fewer than 10 thought to be missing - however, Insp Bennett cautioned authorities could not confirm numbers of dead and unaccounted for until the entirety of the building was examined.

"The examination will be methodical and the rain will be a hindrance. The cold will be uncomfortable," Insp Bennett said.

"Nonetheless, the staff are professional and they will ensure that we collect any pieces of evidence, we take our time and we do it appropriately."

Parts of the hostel's roof were missing and work to prop up flooring was incremental, Insp Bennett said.

There may have also been visitors in the building at the time of the fire, and there was a chance some people had not alerted authorities they were there, he said.

Families waiting to hear from authorities could be assured crews were working as quickly as possible without compromising the investigation, Insp Bennett said.

Disruption near Loafers Lodge on Adelaide Road will be ongoing for the foreseeable future.

Insp Bennett said the investigation team had moved swiftly, and it was not by chance a man was remanded in custody charged with arson.

The 48-year-old man accused of starting the hostel fire appeared in Wellington District Court on Friday charged with two counts of arson.

He was granted name suppression and remanded in custody for a month.

Local media reported the man appeared in a black hooded jumper and made gestures toward the media before declaring his innocence.

"Someone else done it," he said, according to the NZ Herald, before pointing towards his lawyer, Doug Ewen, and telling him he was fired.

The charges carry a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail.

New Zealand Fire and Emergency earlier this week confirmed the death toll was at least six, however Insp Bennett said at this stage just five bodies had been identified.

Police have been interviewing survivors and reviewing CCTV evidence from the time of the blaze.

"The investigation into the fire is ongoing and police have not ruled out further, more serious charges in relation to the deaths at the scene," a police statement read.

Insp Bennett earlier said police were not seeking anyone else in relation to the fire, and previously flagged his "gut feeling" was that the death toll could climb.

Chief coroner Anna Tutton said she would work with police and other specialists to identify the dead.

"This identification process can be lengthy and complex, requiring a careful and methodical approach to ensure there are no mistakes," Judge Tutton said.

"Victims will be treated with dignity and respect as we work through this challenging process."

Police have said the scene investigation will be painstakingly slow, taking several days, as disaster victim identification (DVI) officers attend to the work.

Debris is stacked up to a metre high in places.

More than 100 people were in the 92-bed facility, described on its website as "Wellington's most convenient and affordable accommodation option".

No victims have been named.

The building was recently used to house 501 deportees from Australia.

It was compliant with New Zealand safety regulations - which do not require sprinklers - and recently received its annual building warrant of fitness.

The government said it would review regulations for high-density accommodation following the fire, New Zealand's worst in many years.