New Zealand police lower hostel fire death toll to 5; man held in jail on arson charges

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand police on Friday lowered the confirmed death toll from a Wellington hostel fire from six people to five, although they said they still haven’t finished searching the dangerous four-story building.

And in another development, a man charged with two counts of arson in connection with the fire made his first court appearance. He was not required to enter a plea and was ordered held in jail until his next court appearance on June 19.

If found guilty, the man faces a maximum 14 years in prison on the charges. Police said they’re treating the case as a homicide investigation and could add more serious charges later.

Police Inspector Dion Bennett did not offer an explanation for why authorities had downgraded the death toll after they had put it at six since Tuesday, hours after the fire ripped through Loafers Lodge.

But he did say police have still not been able to search all areas of the building after parts of a roof and a floor collapsed in the fire and created piles of debris.

“The scene examination in itself, and in the third floor in particular, is quite dangerous,” Bennett told reporters. “And there are still parts we can’t cross.”

He said that urban search and rescue teams had been working with police to prop up sections of the floor as police inched forward with their examination. He said police have removed four bodies and hoped to remove the fifth soon.

The 48-year-old man charged with setting fire to a couch and to the lodge wore a black hoodie in court, waved his arms about and tried to fire his lawyer, local media reported.

Lawyer Douglas Ewen later told The Associated Press that the man remained his client. The judge granted the man temporary name suppression, a routine practice in the New Zealand legal system.

Police had earlier said there was a couch fire at the Loafers Lodge hostel about two hours before the large, fatal fire. 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.

The deadly fire ripped through the building at about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, forcing some people to flee in their pajamas. Others were rescued by firefighters from the roof or jumped from windows.

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. Others worked at a nearby hospital.

Emergency officials said the building had no fire sprinklers, which are not required in older buildings that would need to be retrofitted.

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said he’d asked his housing minister to investigate current building regulations to see if they need changing.