The Loafers Lodge hostel in Newtown, in Wellington’s south, caught alight overnight, prompting an evacuation.
The prime minister, Chris Hipkins, said at least six people had died. “I understand six confirmed previously and it looks like there are likely to be more.”
Police said on Tuesday morning: “Our initial assessment is that the number of deceased is fewer than 10, however, we are not in a position to be any more specific until we can access the building.”
Brendan Nally from Fire and Emergency New Zealand told news organisation Stuff 11 people were unaccounted for and that parts of the hostel had collapsed.
The hostel has previously been contracted as an emergency housing provider in New Zealand, and where the housing crisis means a growing number of homeless people are housed long-term by the government in motels and hostels. It was named by the Ministry of Social Development in a list of emergency housing providers released in 2021.
Social service agencies including Wellington City Mission have said they had clients housed in the building, which advertises itself as providing affordable long- and short-term accommodation.
Hipkins said the fire was “an absolute tragedy”.
“It is a horrific situation. And in the fullness of time of course there’ll be a number of investigations about what has happened and why it happened.”
He said the hostel was “not currently being used in emergency accommodation”.
“But my understanding is that there will be a number of Ministry of Social Development clients.”
The city missioner, Murray Edridge, told local media outlet Stuff that many vulnerable people who were under the organisation’s care had registered the lodge as their address.
“A significant proportion of residents of the lodge are under our care. This is an absolute disaster. These are people who are inherently vulnerable anyway. It’s a tragedy for our community.”
Fire and Emergency district manager, Nick Pyatt, said: “This is a tragic event for all involved. My heartfelt condolences go to the loved ones of those who have lost their lives.
“It doesn’t get worse than this. This is a once-in-a-decade fire for Wellington. It’s the worst nightmare for us.”
Fire and Emergency said there were not sprinklers fitted to the building. New Zealand’s building code does not require the retrofitting of sprinkler systems into existing older buildings.
Authorities said 52 people were taken out of the building after being notified of the blaze at 12.25am.
More than 10 fire vehicles responded to the emergency across the morning and the fire was put out after 6am.
One resident of the building told RNZ that fire alarms would go off regularly in the building, but this time none sounded. He said the only reason he knew something was happening was because someone in the hallway shouted a warning.
Another man staying at the hostel described crawling out through a smoke-filled hallway to escape.
“For me, it was hard, just that little distance, it was a struggle. You’ve got people in there like 80, 90, who aren’t able to look after themselves, especially in a fire, they will struggle,” he told RNZ.
Hipkins offered his condolences to those who had died and their families. “New Zealanders have woken up this morning to that tragic news of the events that have been unfolding in the Wellington as a result of the fire.”
More than 3,300 households across New Zealand currently live in emergency housing – typically motels – the ministry for social development said in February, including more than 3,000 children. Another 29,000 people who needed public housing were still on waiting lists.
Photo Wellington City Council