(Al Jazeera) New Zealand police say they believe a deadly hostel fire in the capital, Wellington, was likely a result of arson and they are treating it as a homicide investigation.
Smoke and flames engulfed the four-storey Loafers Lodge early on Tuesday, resulting in the deaths of at least six people.
“I can confirm that we are treating the fire as arson,” Police Inspector and acting District Commander Dion Bennett told reporters on Wednesday, declining to provide further details.
“It is being treated as a homicide investigation,” he said.
Police said there had been a couch fire at the 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.
A police reconnaissance team entered the building on Wednesday for the first time since it was declared safe to look for evidence and locate the dead.
“The scene examination will be extensive and methodical, and we expect it to take some time, likely several days given the large size of the building,” Bennett said.
“We know there are many people waiting for news of family and friends, including residents who escaped the fire and who are keenly waiting for news of their fellow tenants,” he said.
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 at the time of the fire and had a list of fewer than 20 others who remained unaccounted for although were not necessarily missing. Police had earlier said they expected the final death toll would be fewer than 10 people.
The fire forced some people to flee in their pajamas while 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.
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 on Wednesday.