A 48-year-old man has made his first appearance in a New Zealand courtroom charged with two counts of arson after fire swept through a Wellington boarding house on Monday night, killing at least five people.
The man’s name was suppressed until his next appearance in the Wellington district court in June. He did not enter a plea and was remanded in custody on Friday after his lawyer declined to make a bail application.
Court documents showed the man has been accused of setting fire to a couch in the 92-room hostel, Loafers Lodge, on Monday night, before allegedly starting another fire in the early hours of Tuesday. The second charge carries a maximum prison term of 14 years.
The police “have not ruled out further, more serious charges in relation to the deaths at the scene”, said Inspector Dion Bennett in a statement after the man’s arrest on Thursday.
During a brief court appearance on Friday, the man paced and made agitated hand gestures. In an outburst, he said he did not light the fires and wanted to sack his lawyer.
Judge Jan Kelly granted the man interim name suppression to avoid prejudicing his right to a fair trial.
Dozens of boarding house residents fled their beds after the fire erupted on Tuesday, with some jumping from windows and five rescued from the roof. On Friday one person remained in hospital.
The number of people dead or missing remained unclear, with police during the week citing difficulties reconciling lists of those present and contacting those reported missing. Some residents of the lodge – which provided short and long-term accommodation – left their phones behind when they escaped the fire, while others did not want to speak to the authorities, officers said.
Bennett told reporters on Friday that officers had found five bodies in the 92-room hostel so far. Parts of the four-storey building’s third floor were “quite dangerous”, he said, and investigators had been unable to enter those areas.
Bennett was “reluctant to confirm the specific number of deceased and unaccounted for” but the number of those missing was “less than 10”, he said. The fire service had earlier confirmed at least six had been killed. Bennett would not explain why the figures were different.
Loafers Lodge had about 100 people staying there when the fire broke out. It is located in Newtown, near Wellington’s central city. It had a mix of tenants, including nurses at the nearby hospital and other shift workers, clients of Wellington’s social agencies, and several people being supervised by the Department of Corrections.
The deadly fire has prompted government lawmakers to promise an examination of the regulations governing such buildings.
Four of the bodies found in the charred boarding house had been removed from the scene, Bennett said on Friday. A victim identification process was under way. None of those killed or missing had yet been formally named.