Several dead in 'nightmare' Wellington hostel fire

·3-min read
Masanori Udagawa/AAP PHOTOS

At least six people are dead, about 50 are homeless and others unaccounted for after a "worst nightmare" fire at a 92-room hostel in New Zealand's capital.

The Loafers Lodge caught alight overnight, prompting a frenzied evacuation at the four-storey hostel in the southern Wellington suburb of Newtown.

Aerial trucks winched about five people to safety from the roof of the hostel, which was reportedly at capacity.

Others fled or jumped from windows and roofs as they feared being burned alive.

Officials were privately bracing for dozens of fatalities earlier on Tuesday, when Prime Minister Chris Hipkins put the toll "at least six".

Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ) incident controller Brent Stubbs said it had confirmed six bodies inside.

A full death toll will not be known until FENZ is able to clear the whole building safely, and police are able to reconcile a list of unaccounted residents and visitors.

Property manager Marie Murphy told news outlet Stuff about 92 people were living at the lodge.

Police's initial assessment was that "fewer than 10" had died, but acting district commander Dion Bennett urged caution on the numbers involved.

"We have yet to fully reconcile a list of all of those people who were here last night," he said.

"We know that there are a huge number of questions that people will have. Right now we don't have the answer to all of those questions."

Those questions extend to why the fire alarm didn't sound, as reported by survivors, and if there was a second fire - possibly a false alarm - earlier in the evening, as reported by local media.

Mr Stubbs said FENZ considered the fire to be suspicious, but Mr Bennett said police were yet to reach the same conclusion.

"The cause of the fire won't be known until such time as a thorough scene examination is done," he said.

Police anticipate being able to enter the building late on Wednesday morning.

FENZ was first alerted to the blaze at 12.25am, arriving at the scene five minutes later.

By 4am, there were 20 vehicles attending from across the Wellington region as FENZ elevated the fire to a top-level alert.

Many were treated by paramedics at the scene, with a handful taken to Wellington hospital, 100 metres away.

FENZ district manager Nick Pyatt called it a "a once-in-a-decade fire for Wellington".

"It's the worst nightmare for us," he said.

Mr Hipkins, who left parliament on Tuesday morning to visit the site, said it was "quite confronting".

"We've not seen an event of this scale for quite some time," he said.

"Wellingtonians will feel this. Wellington is a small community. It's a tight-knit community."

There were no vacancies at the hostel, which is also used for transient housing, except for a number of rooms being treated for bedbugs, Radio NZ reported.

Mayor Tory Whanau, who described the blaze as a "truly tragic situation", said the building housed a mix of short- and long-term residents, including welfare recipients.

"A lot of vulnerable folks, which makes this even more devastating," she told AAP.

After visiting a shelter set up for the survivors, Local MP Grant Robertson said many had experienced "extreme trauma".

"Many people there have lost absolutely everything they've had," he said.

"The number one priority is to give those people a warm dry bed to sleep in tonight ... it's about clothes, it's about kai (food) and getting them a bed."

The devastating fire recalls the burning of the Palace Backpackers Hostel in Childers, Queensland, 23 years ago, which killed 15 people.

Most of the dead were overseas travellers who had come to harvest local crops.

It was later discovered itinerant fruit picker Robert Paul Long had set the century-old timber building on fire after being kicked out the week before.